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.

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. ^