Dick Powell was born November 14, 1904 in Mountain View, Arkansas. A former singer and bandleader, and a popular theater m.c., Powell won a Warner Brothers contract in 1932, making his film debut (playing a bandleading singer) in that year's Blessed Event. He made a lasting impression as the wide-eyed juvenile lead opposite hoofer Ruby Keeler in a string of backstage musicals including 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, and Dames (1934). From time to time the studio let him appear in non-musical films such as College Coach (1933) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), but he was most valuable to Warners as a singing star, and studio brass never let him forget it. Powell left Warners after completing Naughty But Nice (1939), but still found himself in demand for his vocal prowess.
By the mid-forties he was eager to change his image, and he sensed that the current noir phase offered an appropriate opportunity to do so. He played Philip Marlowe (before Humphrey Bogart did, in fact) in the 1944 film version of Raymond Chander's Farewell, My Lovely (the title was changed to Murder, My Sweet because the producers thought the original title, especially with Powell starring, might lead audiences ot expect a musical). Chandler later said that Powell came closest to his own idea of Marlowe. If anything, Powell is even drying in the part than Bogart, erasing entirely the croomer's geniality that had made him a popular fixture in Warner musicals. The only echo of the earlier Powell is the actor's physical grace--he has a dancer's flowing ease. Powell's voice is flat, his face taut and frozen in the masklike noir vein, and he plays Marlowe as a blunt, no-nonsense professional. His work is wonderfully tight and economical; he is guarded and sardonic, but he falls short of projecting Bogart's aura of absolute integrity. Beneath the straighforward he-man manner are flashes of stiftiness: this Marlowe might use any methods to crack the case.
Like Bogart, Powell fits so snugly into Marlowe's character that the audience is unaware that he is acting: his is the kind of style that conceals style. As Chandler's private eye, he is noir's perfect tough guy, yet the toughness is never insisted on, it is simply there as a natural part of the character. Powell as Marlowe has a rough time of it: he is hit over the head, duped by a devious woman trying to hide from her notorious past, drugged, locked up, suspected of murder by the police. Through it all, Powell remains a model of the Ernest Hemingway code of grace under pressure, his irony a shield against constant mischance.
Murder, My Sweet was among the most favorably received of all films noirs, and Powell decided to stay within the noir mode for the rest of the decade. From the hired professional detective of the Chandler film, he switched to playing a more impassioned investigator in Cornered (1945), where he is cast as an ex-soldier tracking down the gang responsible for killing his wife. Here, his search is not that of the disinterested sleuth but the personal quest of a man bent on vengeance; his performance is therefore more high-strung than in Murder, My Sweet. In Pitfall (1948), Powell becomes a noir victim, playing a straigh-laced insurance man (recalling Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity 1944) who makes a fatal choice to double-cross the company for which he has worked loyally.
Like Bogart, then, Powell covers the noir keyboard from detached investigator to weak-minded bourgeois who slips into crime. His work is spare and subtly stylized, regardless of the kind of character he is playing, though like Bogart, Powell is at the top of his form as the ironic observer, maintaining askeptical distance even from hs own misfortunesa as he trades cracks with his adversaries the police, and with the low-down, two-timing dames that he is wise to.
In the forties Powell starred in such other hard-hitting films noirs as Johnny O'Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth, Stations West, Rogue's Regiment (all 1948), Right Cross (1950), Cry Danger, and The Tall Target (1951), and was excellent as a screenwriter in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Powell turned his attentions behind the camera during the 1950s, directing Split Second (1953), The Conqueror, and You Can't Run Away From It (1956), The Enemy Below (1957), and The Hunters (1958)
Directing The Conqueror on location in Utah, near an atomic testing site, may have hastened his death; like a startling number of others involved with that film, he succumbed to cancer, January 2, 1963. He was married to actresses Joan Blondell and June Allyson; his son by Allyson, Richard Jr., played him in the 1930s-set Hollywood drama The Day of the Locust (1975).
--FOSTER HIRSCH, from Film Noir:
The Dark Side of the Screen.
A selection of Dick Powell films.
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A selection of Dick Powell in books.
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