Murder, My Sweet

D: Edward Dmytryk (1944)
with Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki.

Director Edward Dmytryk died Thursday, July 1, at his home in Encino, Calif. He was 90. Which means he was in his early 70s when we met him after he came to teach in the RTF department at UT.

Dmytryk was a controversial director. Most of this was political. He was one of the Hollywood Ten, those film industry talents who were jailed in the late Forties for refusing to talk to a congressional committee investigating Communists in the film industry. He was the only one to later recant and name names. Much of the industry's liberal community never forgave him (witness the reaction to Elia Kazan's being honored at this year's Academy Awards).

His work is interesting, but his most outstanding films are those made before he was blacklisted. After his career got back on track with the success of The Caine Mutiny in 1954, his work was consistently mainstream studio fare that offered few surprises. Despite their quality, there was something too structured about even the best of them: Broken Lance (1954), Raintree County (1957), Walk on the Wild Side (1962). The Young Lions (1958) is a contemplative war film with a great cast, and The Carpetbaggers (1964) is a hard-core Hollywood-as-subject classic. Still, for the star power Dmytryk worked with -- including Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Deborah Kerr, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin, Marlon Brando, and Clark Gable -- the latter filmography isn't very impressive.

The tragedy is the extraordinary promise of his early work. His film career started at Paramount Pictures, where he was a messenger. He graduated to projectionist and then film editor by the time he was 21. In 1935, at the age of 27, he became a film director with a very low-budget effort, The Hawk. His directorial career really didn't get started until four years later with Television Spy in 1940, followed by Emergency Squad, Golden Gloves, Mystery Sea Raider, and Her First Romance in 1940. He had directed 18 films by 1944, including such standard generic fare as Secrets of the Lone Wolf (1941), Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941), and The Falcon Strikes Back (1943). There were also such interesting films as Hitler's Children (1942) and Captive Wild Woman (1943). In 1944 he began an extraordinary run: Murder, My Sweet (1944), Back To Bataan (1945), Cornered (1945), Till the End of Time (1946), and Crossfire (1947).

In 1947, one of his best films -- Crossfire, a thriller with anti-Semitism as its theme -- was released. In 1947, the hearings were also held, and he became one of the Hollywood Ten.

After refusing to testify, he was jailed for four-and-a-half months. His marriage fell apart, and after he was released, he couldn't find work in Hollywood. He moved to England, where he directed a few films, including the truly eccentric Christ in Concrete (1950).

In 1951, he appeared before the committee and admitted to being a member of the party in 1944 and '45. Then he named names, including directors Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City) and John Berry (Casbah, From This Day Forward and, after the blacklist, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan).

Dmytryk got his chance to re-enter the industry from Stanley Kramer, noted socially conscious director whose credits include The Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and, my particular favorite, Bless the Beasts and Children (1971). In his role as producer, Kramer hired Dmytryk to direct some relatively low-budget films. The films are very good, especially the eerily prescient Sniper, about a deranged killer who goes around randomly shooting women, and The Juggler, starring Kirk Douglas. In 1954, Dmytryk's old friend Humphrey Bogart helped him get the job of directing Herman Wouk's terrific bestseller The Caine Mutiny. After the critical and commercial success of that movie, Dmytryk was hot again.

Over the next two decades, he worked mostly on "A" productions with some of the hottest stars in the business, including Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner in The Broken Lance, Deborah Kerr in an adaptation of Graham Greene'sThe End of the Affair (1955), Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney in The Left Hand of God (1955), Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in Raintree County, and Marlon Brando and Dean Martin in The Young Lions.

These films lack the intensity of his early work, but Dmytryk is a skilled director who gets the best out of his material. My favorite from this period is the over-the-top The Carpet-baggers. Adapted from Harold Robbins bestseller about a Howard Hughes-type character, the film is the most basic of melodramas. What makes it so charming is its very Hollywood artificiality.

The Industry being the Industry, Dmytryk's star faded. After Alvarez Kelly, a lame 1966 Civil War film starring William Holden and Richard Widmark, the director essentially stopped working in Hollywood. Over the next decade, Dmytryk directed five or six films, mostly in Europe (Italy, Spain, Hungary, and Great Britain).

In the late Seventies, when UT hired him, he hadn't directed a film in three or four years. At first, Dmytryk was a tough Hollywood journeyman. He was willing to talk about his Hollywood Ten past no matter how tough the questions. He treated his films with respect, but the sense was that he was just doing his job. He had contempt for the auteur theory. Academia changed him; he took himself and his body of work more seriously. He eventually left UT for the University of Southern California. Along the way, he wrote several books on filmmaking as well as mentoring many, many film students, including, notably, Kevin Reynolds. In the end, there is the body of work.

Murder, My Sweet Crossfire

Okay, so name a Dmytryk film to see. Any of those between 1944 and 1947 -- and, my critical rantings aside, the latter ones are always interesting as quality studio works. If you want one to start with, try Murder, My Sweet. The second time Chandler's 1940 novel Farewell My Lovely was filmed, Murder is considered by some to be the best of all the Chandler adaptations. The first time the book was filmed was in the Falcon detective series. The Falcon Takes Over (1942), set in NYC, used the plot but had none of the atmosphere of Chandler's book. Dmytryk's surprisingly faithful adaptation matches the book's characters with a dense, dark atmosphere. A real cinematic tour de force with clearly focused storytelling, Murder tells of detective Philip Marlowe being hired by psychopath Moose Malloy, recently out of jail, to find his old girlfriend. The plot gets as thick as the atmosphere, including a stunning hallucinatory scene in which Marlowe gets doped up. A musical and comedy star, Powell lobbied for this movie to be made and to get the lead, figuring it would revive his career. He was right; it also kicked off a cycle of private eye films. All the history aside, the film is a noirish invocation of Chandler's Los Angeles, and Powell is ideal as Marlowe. --Louis Black

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