Skip to main content

Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.

After the Thin Man
(1937)

(SPOILERS) Nick and Nora are back. There might not be quite as much investigative anarchy as there was first time out, and the booze is definitely not flowing quite so freely, but the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy is as fresh as ever. This is the longest of The Thin Man series, and at times it does get a little too caught up in respectful plotting, but there’s more than enough wisecracking from Powell (and Loy) to see us along.


W.S. Van Dyke returns to call the shots, while Goodrich and Hackett are back on scripting duties. This well-oiled approach extends to the action, which begins only three days after the original with Nick and Nora still on their post-Christmas train journey. They’re called to the home of Nora’s Aunt Katherine, who thoroughly disapproves of Nick, in order to track down cousin Selma’s husband Robert. They find him without much problem, but he soon turns up dead and assortment of suspects present themselves. More bodies pile up, and before long it’s time for Nick to host another of his Poirot-esque unmaskings.


The plot is quite involved, including a raft of characters with unclear and conflicting motives. There are also some neat red herrings, the most obvious being that Selma (Elissa Landi) looks to have committed the deed up-front. We meet local hoods, blackmailers and floozies.  There’s a very young James Stewart (only three years before Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but he seems very much pre-discovered here) who has the dubious distinction of being he wot dunnit. Dubious, because his motives are a bit of a bodge-up as these things go. Still, you can’t have everything. Stewart’s solid enough, but this isn’t his finest hour.


The fun comes elsewhere, including Sam Levene as excitable Lieutenant Abrams (“Where’s this brother of yours who didn’t kill anyone?”), forever interrupting Nick’s lines of inquiry, Jessie Ralph as Aunt Katherine, coming on like she’s just been ejected from a PG Wodehouse novel and beating photographers with her walking stick, and George Zucco (Moriarty in Rathbone’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) in milk bottle glasses as Dr Kammer (who gets the astounded line “Good heavens. I was right. That man is crazy!”). Penny Singleton’s shrill and not-so-bright moll Polly is served some of the best lines (“Waddaya mean illiterate? My father and mother were married right here in the City Hall”; asked how many men she gave keys to her apartment to she replies “Say, what do you think I do? GO round stuffing them under doors?”)


If the drinking is down a notch, it’s still present. As is the innuendo:

Nick: With these earphones, Anderson could hear everything that went on down in your place.
Polly: Everything?
Nick: Everything.
Polly: Ho-ly smoke!
Nick: (appropriate pause)


But it’s the interplay between Powell and Loy that makes this. We kick off with the pair canoodling and telling an inquisitive guard “It’s all right, we’re married”. When pickpocket Fingers lifts Nora’s purse but then returns it, on learning she is Nick’s wife, Nora exclaims “Dear, you do know the nicest people”. He is occasionally a bit of a rotter, again locking her away so she can’t follow him into danger and instructing the police to “throw her into the fish tank”. There’s a running gag about how she is having an affair (“Perhaps I better leave” offers Nick when Abrams asks Nora what she was doing at Stewart’s apartment).


When the New Year lights go on and Nick is discovered kissing the wrong woman, she doesn’t react to the lipstick on Nick with outrage, but a knowing response to his suggestion that he is bleeding (“a little accident”); “I know, this New York traffic is terrible”. Powell gets the lion’s share of the action, but they are equals whenever they share the screen. The early sequence at Nora’s family’s house finds Nick sharing after-dinner cards with her aging relatives. Every one of them is snoring loudly while Nick is left to amuse himself. The more obvious gags are no less funny when delivered by Powell (“Walk this way, sir” invites an elderly butler whose movements are all over the place. “Well, I’ll try,” replies Nick, mimicking him). Nick, attempting to get off to sleep, is wheedled by Nora until he arises and makes scrambled eggs. There’s also a lovely little moment that looks almost improvised, where he instructs her in the art of forgery over lamplight and snatches a kiss.


Asta appears of course. At first not entirely successfully; an attempt to give him a subplot in which Mrs Asta is cheating on him seems to be kowtowing to his huge fan base. It’s a peculiar state of affairs (particularly given the movie ends on Nora’s revealing her pregnancy and many of the jokes are about each other’s mock infidelities) but Asta gets his own scene-stealing set piece moment as Nick and Nora attempt to prize him away from a note thrown through their window. Asta ends up pawing away at a goldfish bowl (“What’s the matter with you on this case? You’re losing your grip”).


After the Thin Man could have done with being streamlined a little, and more mindful of the disrespect Nick shows detective work (while being very good at it), since he’s at his best being wholly offhand about everything. But the scenario is actually a strong one, and there’s an array of entertaining supporting characters. Some have suggested this is actually superior to the original. I’d say not, and its clear Van Dyke was never going to get anywhere near the first tier of directors. It forsakes genuinely inebriated exuberance for something a little more standardised, and it’s a peculiar decision to bring in little knitted booties at the end (bring Nick and Nora back into line?). But, with such a winning double act, as long as Powell and Loy continue dealing out lively banter the series surely couldn’t fail.


***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

I can't explain now, but I've just been murdered.

The Avengers
5.21: You Have Just Been Murdered
Slender in concept – if you're holding out for a second act twist, you'll be sorely disappointed – You Have Just Been Murdered nevertheless sustains itself far past the point one might expect thanks to shock value that doesn't wear out through repetition, a suitably sinister performance from Simon Oates (Steed in the 1971 stage adaptation of the show) and a cartoonish one from George Murcell (1.3: Square Root of Evil) as Needle, of the sort you might expect Matt Berry to spoof.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …