Skip to main content

Oh, get lost you offbeat rinky-dink. You’re nowhere.

Song of the Thin Man
(1947)

Gangsters on a Boat is not exactly Snakes on a Plane, which is probably for the best. The final bow of Nick and Nora is their weakest outing but, like mother’s flit gun, it is by no means devoid of charm. There is the feeling that the spark and enthusiasm has been slightly dulled, however. In particular, William Powell seems more stolid than before. And then there’s the willingness to indulge the hepcat musical numbers. With such detours anyone would think this was one of the MGM Marx Brothers comedies (appropriately, or perhaps not, Edward Buzzell also directed a couple of their diminishing returns pictures). But it’s nigh on impossible to dent the easy rapport between Powell and Myrna Loy, even if it shouldn’t be right that their formerly anarchic reign over proceedings should give way to their being labelled “The squarest couple of hipsters I’ve ever seen”.


Although a return to the world of crime bosses ought to be right up the Charles’ street, the affair is muffled. As happened with some of those aforementioned Marx Brothers movies, at times there’s a feeling that Nick and Nora are passing time on the fringes of their own show. In the first Thin Man Nick and Nora were the life and soul (well, Nick certainly was). Now he’s an elder statesman; “Mr Charles is a bit of a shmo”. He shouldn’t be, though.


The scene of the crime (well the first crime) has potential; a gambling ship called the S.S. Fortune. The heavily indebted leader of a jazz troupe is shot dead, and there are more than enough suspects who might have a beef against him; the gangster he owed, the ship’s owner whom he was attempting to steal from, the band’s losing-it clarinettist.  As far as the mystery side goes Song isn’t badly constructed, but the unfolding is mostly indifferent. Perhaps it’s that Buzzell is unable to inject any momentum into the proceedings, or perhaps it’s that few of the cast really take hold, but more than ever it’s only Nick and Nora’s antics keeping this going. The difference is, before they were the fuel rather than the just another part of the cake mix. If you don’t guess the murderer it’s probably because you don’t really care. There may be a certain pizzazz to the way Nick stages his customary reveal on the reopened ship, with a gathering of the potentials, but when the murderer reveals his own identity with a “Never mind. I’ll tell them”, and he’s hasn’t been accused let alone sweated under hot lights, it’s all a bit limp.


Nevertheless, there are numerous bright spots. Keenan Wynn becomes Nick’s nominal sidekick, as musician Clarence “Clinker” Krause, while Gloria Grahame is memorable as moll singer Fran. Less certain is Don Taylor as Buddy Hollis, whose has had his “mind shattered by alcohol”. It’s come to something that a series that celebrated over-indulgence feels the need to sign off on a note of caution; this is what the evil liquor can do to you kids. Thank goodness Nick hardly even sniffs it any more. Taylor went on to become a director, most notably with the likes of Escape from Planet of the Apes and Damien: Omen II (as you might guess, most of his output was TV). More alarming is that in order to service the plot Nick and Nora remove the poor sap from his rest home and put him back on stage to lure a killer. It’s a bit laissez-faire to endanger a non-criminal cohort  (Clarence’s reluctance to get up on stage with Buddy is more appropriately amusing).


Mention should be made of the returning Nick Jr after a hiatus when the Charles went home. This time, none other than Dean Stockwell plays the little terror. He has a few good moments with Powell, even if Jr’s presence adds to the patchwork feel of the picture. “Looks like a page out of Esquire” comments Nick. “Not the page I saw,” replies his chip off the old block. Then there’s dad’s refusal to tell him a bedtime tale; “But your stories always put me to sleep” protests his son. Strangest of all is the protracted spanking sequence. It’s difficult to ascertain quite what was intended here, not forgetting we were “treated” to Nick spanking his wife in the previous picture. This time Nora instructs her husband to punish Nick Jr, but every time he raises his hand he sees nostalgic images of their good times overlaid on his son’s behind. It appears to be getting at an anti-corporal punishment angle, until Nick recalls his son laughing at him and then gives him a rigorous beating… Only for us to discover Nick Jr had a glove down his trousers all along. “Did you know about the glove?” demands Nora to a protesting husband.


Asta is as sprightly as ever (in his second Asta Mk II appearance), finding an IOU, letting out a belch and having his fearsomeness warned against “Just one word from me and that dog of mine will tear you to pieces”.


The jazz talk is mostly an opportunity for Loy to show some surprising adeptness with the lingo; “Oh, get lost you offbeat rinkydink. You’re nowhere,” she tells a bouncer. This is a world of jivey hepwarblers and cries of “Lay it on me, man. Lay it on me” during a solo. None of it really takes, and the inclusion of a frowning Beethoven bust at the end of a performance may not be coincidental (it’s certainly as visually creative as the director gets). Elsewhere Nora invokes Sherlock Holmes after telling gangster Al Amboy (William Bishop) it would be silly to have killed Drake; “If a guy owes you money and you kill him, he can’t pay you”. “Very smart” says Drake. “Elementary” corrects Nora.


There’s a wee bit of metatextuality about Nick’s technique, although not as much as Nora reciting the script of the big reveal in the earlier Shadow of the Thin Man; “Oh, I see. All you have to do to prove your innocence is confess your guilt” she levels at her husband when he rejects a likely suspect. Elsewhere a cabbie asks, “Follow that car?” and Nora comments “Movie fan”. The most inspired comic interlude might be the highly amusing scene in which a hotel clerk is quizzed about the comings and goings of a suspect. He insists that discretion is his watchword before unleashing a torrent of carefully eavesdropped insights; “That’s all I know about her because I don’t go snooping on our guests”.


Nick is pretty much off the sauce during this one, and even two years on from Goes Home there just isn’t the same energy in Powell’s performance. He’s good natured and affable, but definitely not rising to the occasion. There’s also less sauce between him and Nora (he even takes her along on some investigative work without giving her the slip, a sure sign things aren’t what they were). He notes that 4am “is my brandy hour” but Nora gets the best sozzled line when hubby warns her to get down on the ground if things get rough; “I’m practically under the table now, but not the way I like to be” she retorts. His best line might be to the undercover officer whose gun is peeking from beneath his jacket; “Sergeant, your slip is showing”.


Actually, there is a better exchange. I think it’s safe to say Song was one Thin Man too many, but that’s a pretty good batting average out of the six pictures. And it’s not like it sullies the series’ memory. It just feels unnecessary, the only time that Nick and Nora are back purely to milk the cash cow. I know there’s a collective groan at anything Johnny Depp does these days, but I think he’d make a good fist of Nick Charles. He’s honed the drunk/intoxicated act (Captain Jack, Raoul Duke), so this would most definitely be early inebriated Nick. The question will be, can he find a co-star to match him in repartee and chemistry? There haven’t been many during his career, and without that elusive match-up it would be best not to bother. Oh, and that best exchange? Not the last lines in the move, but they ought to have been:


Nick: And now, Nick Charles is going to retire.
Nora: You’re through with crime?
Nick: No, I’m going to bed.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

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…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…

The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums... and you.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous, and I’m not forgetting Weird Science. Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, 30-passing-for-15 types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard…