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Written by Timothy Sexton
This film that overflows with memorable imagery begins the deluge right from the opening scene. As the credits appear and disappear, the image presented is an overhead view of a square white table lit ominously by a single lamp placed off-center. Shadowy figures barely moving underneath the letters of the credits give the figures the appearance of possibly being merely drawn representations of human beings as actual physical movement is brief and discreet. The camera moves inexorably downward into the stark whiteness of the tabletop upon which is reflected the illumination of the single bulb from the lamp before the camera pulls back to reveal these are, indeed, flesh and blood characters, one of which has a bandage wrapped around his eyes. Three figures in fedoras, cloaked in the semi-darkness, are interrogating a man named Marlowe and with this opening, a film that is all about the darkness existing in the netherworld populated by police and thieves gets off to a rousing start.
Introduction of Moose
The introduction of the character of Moose Malloy is one of the richest bits of visual imagery in any film noir ever made. It occurs literally just a few minutes after that opening credit sequence when P.I. Philip Marlowe is sitting alone in his office having just confessed to the feeling of otherworldliness that an empty office building downtown is capable of instilling. Marlowe, sensing the presence of being watched, turns to look directly out a window separated by a single horizontal. In the bottom half is the reflection of Marlowe sitting in his desk chair. The top half of the window contains the image Moose from the upper half of his chest; he does not appear to have a bottom half. The image is clear and unshrouded as opposed to the soapy quality of the reflection of Marlowe. And then a strange thing happens: Moose literally disappears in an instant…only to reappear again a few seconds later. The vanishing act is explained by a neon sign outside blinking on and off. The neon light also reveals that the image of Moose actually is a reflection. Marlowe is not seeing him outside; Moose is actually behind him. The mysterious quality of this imagery will be reflected throughout the film as the viewer is confronted with concepts about reality and truth that are constantly in flux and with revelations that provide only half the answer at a time.
Jessie's Little Nip
Jessie Florian is very good at presenting the image of herself as a drunken old women only half connected to reality. In an instant, she reveals herself to be far from the blowsy drunk she wants Marlowe to think she is. But Marlowe is pretty good at putting on an act himself. At one point during their conversation when Jessie makes an acting performance of pouring a drink and taking a sip, Marlowe—who appears to be wise to her whole act or at the very least suspicious—seems to be vanish in a silent poof! In fact, Marlowe has taken advantage of Jessie’s “drunk act” to silently move into a room where he illicitly saw her hiding a valuable piece of evidence. The imagery of the drunken old woman who is not as drunk as she seems and the vanishing act which is only possible as a result of taking advantage of that act occurs early enough to set the stage for a variety of scenes in which people are not exactly what they seem and are ultimately revealed to be staging personalities for the benefit of taking advantage of those who form their audience.
The most famous and memorable imagery from Murder, My Sweet occurs as a result of the hallucinatory nightmares resulting from Marlowe’s being drugged. A combination of animation and various optical effects serve to create for Marlowe a strange and unsettling world in which defining what is actual and what is illusion is utterly impossible and fear-inducing. Effects include the edges of the frame wobbling in and out without apparently constructive justification and images range from a body falling through the murky darkness from an open door high above and disappearing into nothingness thanks to perspective to recognizable figures stripped of their familiarity as result of being oversized or invested with emotional intensity previously lacking. The entire nightmarish sequence create a feeling of disorientation which differs from many of the other scenes in the film by virtue of being amplified for effect. To put things in perspective: the infamous hallucination scene in Murder, My Sweet is imagery that exists elsewhere in the film squared or cubed to underline the message that remains locked and loaded throughout the rest of the film: trust nothing and accept no one at face value.
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