Murder by Death (1976)

2015 #120
Robert Moore | 91 mins | download | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

A gaggle of famed detectives are summoned to a remote mansion to solve a murder in this detective spoof by playwright Neil Simon. The twist is, all the characters are spoofs of famous literary/film/TV ‘tecs. Also, that the murder hasn’t happened yet. And also, that the person inviting them is Truman Capote. Not “someone playing Truman Capote”, but “Truman Capote playing someone”.

A comedy where a bunch of people are invited to a remote mansion to solve a murder? Yes, it does sound an awful lot like Clue. Indeed, based on my reading, almost all modern assessments of the film seem to boil down to two straightforward alternatives: “it’s not as good as Clue” or “it’s better than Clue”. As it pre-dates Clue by almost a decade, maybe that shouldn’t be our only point of reference? Still, I guess the ’80s-ness and name-y cast of the later film has helped it gain more traction — it certainly seems to be on TV regularly, whereas I only learnt of Murder by Death as a footnote when reading up on the Thin Man series.

For what it’s worth, I think its quality is about level with Clue. Such appreciation may partly depend on one’s familiarity with the characters being spoofed, however: it’s a funny story in and of itself, but a fair dollop of the humour revolves around riffs on the personalities, quirks, and storytelling tropes of Nick & Nora Charles, Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan, whereas Clue requires, at most, that you know the icons from Cluedo.

I said Clue has a namier cast, but Murder by Death is no slouch, including Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, and Alec Guinness as a blind butler, an affliction that’s mined for all its comedic value (and then some). They all give great comic performances, as does James Coco as the film’s version of Poirot. There are some neat send-ups of the genre — the literally-impossible mysteries and all that — as well as some good old-fashioned wordplay and silliness. The only downside is it loses its way a bit by the end. I suppose it doesn’t strictly need a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery, because it’s only a spoof ‘n’ all, but I feel like it would’ve benefitted from a stronger finale nonetheless.

However, it’s a consistently amusing film, and everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time. It’s definitely worth seeking out for fans of detective fiction who don’t mind the genre being gently ribbed.

4 out of 5

Liebster Award

Michele at Timeless Hollywood has kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award (or, as spellcheck insists on rendering it, “Leicester Award”).

For those not in the know, a Liebster Award is bestowed from blogger to blogger as a kind of peer appreciation. There are actually a bunch of variations — this person took it upon themselves to write some official rules. Not entirely sure what makes them qualified to do such a thing, but they did it anyway, and now that post sits right at the top of the Google search results, so I guess it worked for them.

Anyway, The Rules:

  1. Answer my nominator’s 11 questions;
  2. Nominate 11 additional bloggers;
  3. Ask 11 questions to my nominees;
  4. Share 11 additional facts about myself.

I’m not sure why it has so much to do with the number 11. Having seen various other bloggers complete the award, #2 seems to be particularly flexible in this regard. I suspect I shall be too.

But first! 11 questions must be answered, in my usual longwinded style:

1) What onscreen couple has the best chemistry?
A relatively recent discovery for me, but I’m going to go with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.

2) If one lost film could be found, what would it be?
Would it be a cheat to pick some Doctor Who episodes? It would, wouldn’t it? Especially as Who is in a better state than silent cinema, where up 75-90% of films are estimated to be lost. Of course, there’s Hitchcock’s second feature, The Mountain Eagle, and the first British Sherlock Holmes film, an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet (which always seems to be given short shrift when it’s filmed, Catch My Soulso I wouldn’t hold much hope of that being any better), but the film that most intrigued me when looking into this was from the ’70s: #10 on this list, Patrick McGoohan’s first (and only) film as director, Catch My Soul. Turns out it’s since been found, though the chances of anyone else seeing it look shaky. Still, it does exist, so I go back to the first two.

3) If you could choose one silent comedian between Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who is your favorite and why?
I confess, I haven’t seen enough of any for this to be a fair contest. From what I have seen, however, The Great Dictator was my favourite work, so I’ll go for Chaplin. (Also for compatriotism.)

4) Who is your favorite swashbuckler?
Does someone who usually (always?) played the villain in such movies count? Basil Rathbone, arguably best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, was a skilled fencer in real life, shown to great effect in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, The Court Jester (even if that mostly isn’t him), and a few other films that I really must see.

5) What is your favorite biography or autobiography?
The Writer's Tale - The Final ChapterIt’s not an autobiography per se, but Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook kind of is, as it chronicles Davies’ experience running Doctor Who (and its spin-offs) in 2008 to 2010. You may think “I’m not a Doctor Who fan, this has no relevance to me,” but you’d be wrong. Anyone who’s had a desire to write in a professional capacity, especially for the screen, must read this book — it’s the experience of writing for TV and running a TV show, just with Doctor Who as a case study. And it’s immensely readable, making its surprising length (particularly in the extended The Final Chapter paperback version — length-wise, it’s literally a whole extra book bundled in) fly by.

6) Have you ever participated in a blogathon and if so what did you enjoy most about it?
I’ve participated in a few now (three, to be precise). Each time, I found the knowledge that I was likely exposing my writing to a much wider readership than normal led me to up my game in terms of the research and thought I put into my posts (and consequently their length, too). Which is not to say I don’t just do that anyway (sometimes), but there was a kind of pressure to do well. Good pressure.

7) If you could buy any memorabilia, what would it be?
Let’s be properly extravagant and say a James Bond Aston Martin DB5. I’m not even a ‘car person’, but c’mon, the DB5!

The car's Martin. Aston Martin.

8) In your opinion, who is the biggest pioneer in the film industry (past or present)?
I mean, where do you begin? But here’s a slightly more obscure one: Garrett Brown. Who? The inventor of the Steadicam, that’s who. It looks like the Steadicam might be about to be replaced by the even greater flexibility afford by drones, but still, it was (is) awesome while it lasted.

9) What decade had the best films?
I’m quite fond of all eras of film, so I decided to be empirical about this: I looked at my list of favourite movies and totted up the decades. Turns out the 2000s have it, just pipping the 1990s. Probably says more about when I grew up than anything else, mind.

10) Is there any actor/actress you feel hasn’t gotten the recognition they deserve?
Maybe it’s just because I’m more immersed in modern film, but no one ever seems to talk about Ray Milland. I discovered him for myself through films like Ministry of Fear, The Thief and The Lost Weekend, and I really ought to seek out more of his work because he’s great in all of those.

11) What actor/actress should receive an Oscar that hasn’t?
Michael “The Queen / Frost/Nixon / The Damned United / etc” Sheen.

The many faces of Michael Sheen

Next! 11 5 bloggers shall be nominated. (I’m not stingy, I’d do more, but a bunch of blogs I thought of just had one.) Anyway, in alphabetical order:

(You’ll notice a fair degree of crossover with blogs I highlighted in my June update. Not a coincidence.)

Next! The 11 questions they must answer:

1) Have you ever walked out of a cinema part way through a film?
2) Favourite current TV series?
3) Favourite silent film?
4) Favourite David Fincher film?
5) Favourite film soundtrack?
6) Who’s the best James Bond?
7) Which is the longest-running film series that you’ve seen every movie in?
8) Which film have you watched the most?
9) Which film do you love that everybody else hates?
10) Is there a line from a film that you use a lot in everyday life?
11) How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if woodchuck would chuck wood?

A woodchuck, yesterday

And finally! 11 random facts about my good self:

1) I am currently mostly listening to Muse’s Drones and Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

2) I have two dogs, Rory and Poppy, both rescues.

3) Part of the reason for adopting Poppy was to help with the transition when Rory… you know… because he’d been on his last legs for years. 18 months later, he’s still going, bless ‘im.

4) I kind of work on the principle that my personal life has little to do with my film-related blogging (which, in many ways, is an invalid stance, but that’s a whole other debate), so this is proving tricky…

5) I get kind of ‘attached’ to sayings — not deliberately, but I think I use certain phrases a lot, even if just for a while. Maybe we all do? I’m sure there are plenty of examples in my reviewing (there are certainly words I revert to often); in real life, “there’s a first time for everything” is regularly applicable and “better safe than sorry” is virtually my motto. Whether I listen to it or not is another matter.

List of lists of lists

6) I make lots of lists, about all sorts — mainly films, DVDs and Blu-rays, especially ones to be watched. Each time I watch a film for this blog, it has to be added to, removed from, or rated on up to 21 separate lists and websites.

7) To make sure I don’t miss any, I have a list of those lists.

8) I am inordinately chuffed with the top menu on this blog, which I rebuilt t’other week to include most of my categories and streamline the review lists. Check out Film Noir (under Categories > Genres) in particular. Sub-submenus!

9) I love pizza. I don’t know if this is attributable to a childhood love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or just because it’s awesome. Anyway, I’ve been trying to eat more healthily and haven’t had a pizza for five months. Five months. You’re driving me back towards pizza, Liebster Facts.

Pizza is totally more addictive

10) Most people my age and nationality call it Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because that’s how they rebranded it over here (I really don’t know what the British / the BBFC had against ninjas and their weaponry). It’s always been Ninja to me because, at the time I was into Turtles, I spent nearly two years living in Saudi Arabia. (Who knew that fact was going somewhere broadly interesting, right?) (Obviously, they used the correct title in Saudi.)

11) I have no idea what a woodchuck is.*

So there you go. Thanks again to Michele of Timeless Hollywood, and I look forward to reading my nominees’ answers.

* I wrote that before I looked up the picture above, so this fact is now a lie.

Song of the Thin Man (1947)

2015 #19
Edward Buzzell | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

Song of the Thin ManThe final film in the Thin Man series sees married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles (the ever-excellent William Powell and Myrna Loy) getting embroiled in the world of jazz musicians, after a friend’s fiancé is accused of murdering a band leader.

After the small-town detour of the previous film, Song sees the Charleses back in the more glamorous environs we associate with the series, all swanky apartments and floating casinos. That’s a big plus point for me, at least. The mystery is a particularly solid one, with a nice denouement that plays out slightly differently to the series’ regular formula. I was less keen on all the jazz hipster dialogue from the supporting cast. It’s played for laughs, leaving Nick and Nora as lost as the viewer, but gets tiresome. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I had no time for it.

An early-career Gloria Grahame is mostly wasted in a slight role, while trivia-spotters will enjoy a 10-year-old Dean “Quantum Leap” Stockwell as Nick Jr. Thankfully the kid isn’t allowed to dominate proceedings too much, though does lead to a bizarre sequence where Nick has flashbacks while about to smack his bottom. I’d say it sounds weirder written down than it plays in the film, but I’m not sure that’s true. More sadly, there’s too little of Asta for my taste.

Family of the Thin ManApparently Loy made it clear before filming began that this was to be the last Thin Man film. Somewhat odd, then, that it’s one of the few to end with an allusion to Nick continuing his detective work in the future, whereas normally he’s being dragged out of retirement each time and happy to return to it by the end (which we don’t believe, of course). Either way, it was probably a wise decision on the part of Mrs Charles, as the law of diminishing returns had kicked in by this point.

That said, after six instalments, it’s pleasurable to be able to say there’s no such thing as a bad Thin Man film. The earlier entries may be the very best, but every one has something fun to offer. This may be where the Thin Man’s song ended, but his melody lingers on even now.

3 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

2015 #11
Richard Thorpe | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Thin Man Goes HomeAfter four glamorous adventures, high-living sleuths Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) head to small-town America to visit his parents (Harry Davenport and Lucile Watson), and naturally find themselves embroiled in a murder plot.

For my money, The Thin Man Goes Home is unquestionably the series’ weakest entry so far, though others disagree — some even reckon it their favourite. The charm and banter between Powell and Loy is present and correct, though Nora seems a little dippier than usual, perhaps. Thankfully they’ve ditched the kid (he’s been left at school) and there are some good Asta bits. Plus, after four whole films, there’s finally a gag about there being a hotel homophonic with said dog.

But moving the action to a small town, rather than the series’ usual ritzy milieu, feels… wrong. It’s constrained, low-key, and not in-keeping with the series’ style. Throw in a convoluted plot about a painting, and a supporting cast that includes a significant role for Edward Brophy, co-star of three Falcon films, and it almost feels more like an entry from RKO’s comedy sleuthing series. It’s not bad, just not right.

Other unusual quirks include it taking a full half-hour for the murder plot to arrive. I’ve acknowledged before that the mysteries aren’t the real point of these films, but it still feels tardy. I honestly began to wonder if there was even going to be a mystery, or if new-to-the-series director Richard Thorpe was attempting to deliver an hour-and-a-half hanging out with Nick and Nora in their downtime. Also, almost the entire story is their fault! Okay, there’s a criminal scheme going on anyway, but if the Charleses hadn’t turned up and Nora hadn’t started meddling, Eeny meeny miny mothen no one would’ve been murdered. (Probably.)

As I said, The Thin Man Goes Home is by no means a bad film, with plenty of Nick, Nora and Asta moments to enjoy and buoy up the less-than-stellar mystery. Nonetheless, I think it’s the least Thin Man-like instalment of the series. This change from the norm obviously works for some of the series’ fans, but not for me.

3 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

2015 #4
Maj. W.S. Van Dyke II | 93 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

Shadow of the Thin ManThis time it’s not personal for Nick and Nora Charles (the joyous William Powell and Myrna Loy), as they stumble upon the murder of a race-fixing jockey and the subsequent killing of a corrupt journalist… and then one of their friends (Barry Nelson, aka the first screen James Bond) is accused. Oh, OK, maybe it’s a bit personal.

As ever, the true delights of a Thin Man film lie in its characters, the teasing interactions between Nick and Nora, and between Nick & Nora and anyone else they share a scene with. As incidental as the case may be, it’s a pretty good one — the solution to the jockey’s murder is a particularly neat change of pace, and while the culprit is deducible using the series’ regular “the least-likely person did it for a reason we’ll cook up at the end” formula, if you play by the rules it’s a trickier spot.

The previous film’s baby is now a toddler, thankfully sidelined but for a couple of sequences. One of those sees Nick, Nick Jr and dog Asta on a merry-go-round in a complete aside that nonetheless stands as one of the film’s more memorable moments… though that’s once again thanks to Asta.

Asta at the tableAs murder mysteries go, the Thin Man series tends to offer plots that are somewhere between perfunctory and over-complicated to the point of being unsolvable, and Shadow is a typical example. But that doesn’t matter a jot, because the story’s abundance of incident keeps things moving, and the real entertainment value lies in the comedy chops of the three leads: Powell, Loy, and, of course, Asta the dog.

4 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

Another Thin Man (1939)

2014 #129
W.S. Van Dyke II | 98 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

Another Thin ManHusband-and-wife detective duo Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) — now with a baby in tow — are once again coerced into investigating a crime when the manager of Nora’s estate fears a dismissed employee is plotting murder.

As per usual, a complex web of lies and deception unfurls, enlivened by the comic teasing between our leads. The baby prompts an unlikeable subplot about a bunch of ex-cons throwing a party for the detective who put them away (as you do), but it does aid a somewhat farcical climax. The rest of the movie offers the series’ trademark delights.

4 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

After the Thin Man (1936)

2014 #124
W.S. Van Dyke | 108 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

After the Thin ManImmediately after their New York Christmastime adventure in The Thin Man (the sequel’s title is very literal!), married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are back home in San Francisco for New Year. Summoned to dinner by Nora’s stuffy aunt, it turns out Nora’s cousin’s rascally husband has gone missing and they want Nick to investigate. They find him easily, but he’s shortly murdered and our heroes are drawn into a web of conspiracies and deceptions.

For my money, After the Thin Man is a more successful venture than the first film, however good that was. From the start it has its focus in the right place: rather than a lengthy preamble with the supporting cast (as in the first film), here we begin with Nick and Nora arriving in San Francisco and teasing the horde of journalists that greet them. It takes a little while to actually get to the case they need to investigate, but that’s fine because it isn’t really the point — it’s the interactions, the humour and good-natured teasing, particularly between our wedded heroes, that are the films’ primary joy.

Nonetheless, I still found the case to be a more puzzling and intriguing one than the first film’s, though the subsequent fame of a supporting player — namely James Stewart, in just the second year of his career, looking young but sounding like he always would — might help some along in their deductions.

He won't stay thin if he's always in the fridge...There’s also an increased role for the couple’s dog, Asta, granted his own subplot as he has to fend off a philandering Scottie with intentions toward Mrs Asta. I make no apologies for preferring this over the previous film in part because there’s more amusing doggy action.

The original Thin Man may have attracted Oscar nominations and all that, but this first sequel clarifies, sharpens, and perfects the formula, placing more emphasis on the elements that worked so well and still presenting a mystery that’s at least as good as its predecessor.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

‘Thin Man’ Thursday

William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in 14 films together between 1934 and 1947, and the most famous of these are a series of detective films that started life as a B-movie adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, before earning multiple Oscar nominations and enough popularity to inspire multiple sequels, a spin-off TV series, and more. That film, of course, is The Thin Man.

Powell and Loy play Nick and Nora Charles, a retired detective and his well-to-do wife, who are trying to enjoy the high life but are regularly dragged in to investigating murders, mainly thanks to her curiosity and his crime-solving genius. Special mention must also be made for the couple’s dog, Asta, a wire fox terrier who was so popular he was paid many times more than your average movie dog, and whose role only increases as the series continues — he even has a romantic subplot in the second film.

The films on the whole are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads than they are with the mysteries, which are so speedily intricate as to barely be worth following — just accepting what Nick tells you and going along with it may be the order of the day. They all have the air of Agatha Christie-esque parlour games more than genuine criminal undertakings, which of course means they make for splendid entertainment.

Six films were produced in all, over the course of 13 years — rather the opposite to most of these ’30s/’40s detective series, which were more likely to churn out 13 movies in six years. Anyway, it’s the perfect number to allow every Thursday between now and the end of February to be Thin Man Thursday here at 100 Films. Below you’ll find links to all the reviews as and when they’re available, starting today with (naturally) the first:


The Thin Man

After the Thin Man

Another Thin Man

Shadow of the Thin Man

The Thin Man Goes Home

Song of the Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934)

2014 #120
W.S. Van Dyke | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

The Thin ManProduced as a B-movie, but eventually nominated for four of the biggest Oscars (Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay*), comedic detective mystery The Thin Man went on to spawn five sequels and a TV series (not to mention a radio series, a stage play, and a musical), as well as inspiring a host of similar comic-mystery B-movie series like the Saint and the Falcon.

Playing like a cross between an Agatha Christie mystery and a screwball comedy, it’s in fact based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and other hard-boiled tales. This is definitely not one of those. The murder mystery is standard enough — a businessman has disappeared, but when his former secretary and lover is found dead, he’s the prime suspect — albeit with enough genuine suspects and twists to keep the viewer guessing. The real joy comes from the investigators: retired detective and alcohol fan Nick Charles (William Powell) and his rich, interested wife Nora (Myrna Loy). Plus their dog, Asta, who gets up to all kinds of mischief. Regular readers will know I’m half-sold on the film at that point.

The film luxuriates in the interactions between Powell and Loy, and between them and any other character. The plot regularly takes a back seat to the cast’s playfulness, which only the most mystery-focused viewer will find objectionable, because it’s so delightful. Acting drunk for the sake of comedy might seem like a cheap fallback, but Powell is on just the right side of the line to make it work flawlessly, especially in scenes that border on farce, Screwing aroundlike a Christmas party which is regularly interrupted by victims and suspects. Even the final scene, a rambling and none-more-Christie-like “gather all the suspects and reveal the answers” dinner party, seems natural because of the characterisation throughout the rest of the film. Loy’s part may not be quite as showy — as demonstrated by its failure to gain an Oscar nomination — but she’s an invaluable half of the double act.

Across the decades the detective story has transitioned to be a staple of television, with dozens of US dramas each churning out 22+ mysteries per year, not to mention all the British ones and, more recently here in the UK, European imports — you can’t move for a fleet of complex murder mysteries being solved on the gogglebox every day. It can make older movies that do the same thing feel less significant; less deserving of their big-screen status. Not so with ones like The Thin Man, which has so much more to offer besides the narrative and its revelations. Here a solid mystery, with potential to keep the viewer guessing, gives a structure on which to hang the real joys, which are provided by the central screwball-ish relationship. And the dog, of course.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

* It lost to the father of screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, in every category. ^