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

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

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.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism