After the Thin Man
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: 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 it’s 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.