Another Thin Man
It would be perfectly reasonable to assume the introduction of a sprog to a husband and wife detective duo would be the death knell for a series. A sign that sentimentality and generally goo-iness have taken over. Nothing could be further from the truth in this third outing for The Thin Man series, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Farewell Murder. Nicky Jr. is absolutely not central to the story, and our couple are as refreshingly flippant in their discussion of him as they are towards their own relationship (i.e. they don’t need to keep saying they love him). This is also the most densely plotted mystery, so far. I didn’t figure out the perpetrator, but the fun of a Thin Man movie is more the antics of Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) getting to the reveal than the reveal itself, and this one is hugely satisfying in that regard.
As in After the Thin Man, Nick and Nora are called to investigate goings on at a house with an entourage of possible mis-doers. This time, the murder doesn’t take place until after they arrive. Colonel McFay (C. Aubrey Smith) summons Nick convinced that his ex-employee Mr Church, who has been sending him threats, means to do him in. When McFay is murdered, Church seems like the obvious suspect so we, and Nick, know it must be someone else.
A really good murder mystery ought probably to be constructed in such a manner that an intelligent viewer can deduce the perpetrator through the trail of breadcrumbs while dodging the red herrings littered across the narrative. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, returning on screenplay duties, fail in that regard. There’s a terribly clumsy scene in which one character reveals their relationship to another, as if it’s going to hold some importance. It never does, but it works as a simple distracting tactic. Likewise, there is the occasional element of oblique strangeness. We assume Mr Church’s premonitory dreams are simply a means for him to justify his foul deeds, but it becomes clear he actually believes he has this ability.
The police are several steps behind Nick as usual, and we see the return of Lieutenant Guild (Nat Pendleton) who rather surprisingly reveals he has always had a thing for Nora. It’s Otto Slack’s DA Van Slack who presides over the investigation, however. Nick’s withering response to police stopping his car at night and shining a torch searchingly (“Those are my feet”) about sums it up.
The couple’s general dispositions are alive and well. Nick is still on the sauce, but less prominently. There are a few references (“Oh, we had a lovely trip. Nick was sober in Kansas City”) and a nice moment where Nora pickpockets the key to the drinks cabinet, supplying it to her grateful husband (he has been refused alcohol as McFay wants him to have a clear mind). At one point she explains how she got rid of a clutch of reporters by telling them they were out of scotch (“What a gruesome idea” responds Nick). Nick’s as laidback as ever, only roused to fisticuffs when Church threatens Nicky Jr (the rotter!) We also get more of Nora’s wry delight in Nick’s underworld acquaintances (“Your father has such lovely friends”). In this case dimwit Creeps (Harry Bellaver) holds Nick no ill will for incarcerating him (“Why should I? It took a genius to outsmart me”).
Nora: How did you know I was here?
Nick: I saw a group of men standing around a table. I knew there was one woman in the world who could attract men like that. A woman with a lot of money.
There’s also the usual playful jealously on display. Nora learns of Nick’s playboy style (“Was he really like that? I always thought he was bragging”) and, on being left high-and-dry by Nick who gives her the slips to do some lone investigating for the third film in a row, we find her at the club he is visiting, surrounded by a throng of would-be suitors. They make themselves scarce when Nora exclaims, “I won’t stay in quarantine. I don’t care who catches it”. There are also allusions to very un-Hayes Code slack morals when Nick refuses an offer from Virginia Gray’s moll by saying he is married (“That don’t mean a thing and you know it”).
Gatekeeper: What’s the idea with the kid?
Nick: Well, we have a dog, and he was lonesome. That was the idea, wasn’t it mummy?
Against the odds, the presence of Nicky Jr doesn’t become an irritation, and the casual language of Nick and Nora concerning their offspring belies their devotion (“We sort of like him. We might as well, we’re stuck with him”). The indulgence, once again, is reserved for adorable Asta who not only looks after Nicky Jr and is fascinated by a skunk (“It’s another kind of cat!” Nick warns him) but also makes off with a murder weapon (“What do you think he is? A moth?” asks Nick, observing the police aren’t going to catch Asta by waving strange lights about in the dark).
Halfway through the series and The Thin Man shows no signs of a deterioration in quality. Indeed, I think Another Thin Man just edges After the Thin Man. It isn’t as smoothly plotted, but it benefits from being less obvious. Goodrich and Hackett are firing on all cylinders with the repartee, and Powell and Loy are perfection. Then series was already five years old at this point, and it’s a rarity not to see annual cash grab sequels of variable quality (Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes for example) in properties around this time. The next picture would be released two years later, just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour.