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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
(SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bonds in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball, but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again, despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…