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…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

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…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

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 …

What if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.