Thursday, April 25, 2013

An absurd number of suspects

Read/Watch 'em In Order #33

After the Thin Man (1936) was made two years after the original, but picks up the action just three days after Nick has solved the Thin Man murders in New York.

He and Nora arrive home in San Francisco, where the movie immediately has some fun counterpointing the crooks, newsboys, boxers and assorted riff-raff that Nick knows with Nora's wealthy and somewhat snotty relatives. It's something that sets the tone of this movie and the rest of the series; though Dashiell Hammett provided the story outline for the sequel, any hint of a hard-boiled atmosphere has evaporated completely. The Thin Man movies are going to be silly fun build around a murder mystery and the chemistry of its two stars.

The Charles' are exhausted from their train trip and just wants to relax, but there's no rest of the weary. Aside from a home full of people determined to give them a surprise party, another case pops up.  It seems that Nora's Aunt Katherine, though she doesn't think much of Nick, needs a detective for a problem she prefers to keep in the family to avoid scandal. One of Nora's cousins has a wayward husband who hasn't been home for days. Nick is asked to find him.

That doesn't take long--the drunken jerk is hanging out at a nightclub, making time with the club's singer. But the singer is in a plot with the club's owner to swindle the husband out of money. The singer's brother has issues with the husband as well. Then there's his wife's previous fiance, who is still in love with her. And--don't you know it--nobody involved as an alibi when the husband is gunned down on a foggy Frisco street.

That makes for a large pool of suspects. Neither Nick nor the local homicide cop make any head-way in the case, though the likeliest suspect seems to be Nora's cousin. But soon, more bodies turn up--one strangled and another also shot. Nick keeps digging up possible clues (and, in fact, has a clue literally thrown to him through his kitchen window), but new facts just seem to keep adding to the general confusion.

In the end, Nick gets all the suspects together in one room, where he spots the clue that allows him to finger the killer.

And we all have fun watching Nick get there. The comedy is turned up to High, but it's sincerely funny stuff in the form of screwball comedy and sincerely witty word play. As I stated in our look at the first film, William Powell and Myrna Loy were perfect together--their comedic timing as Nick and Nora is flawless.

But though the movie is sillier than the original, it still works as a murder mystery. The case is interesting in its own right and director W.S. Van Dyke stages the action with his usual expertise. The fog-enshrouded streets of San Francisco are effectively used to generate a sense of danger at the right moments. A scene in which Nick trails a suspect down staircases to a basement--and then stumbles across a corpse (stiff with rigor mortis) locked in a large hamper--is genuinely tense.

That's Sam Levene on the right.
As was typical of films made during the Studio Era, the actors in the supporting roles are great. Most notable is Sam Levene, one of my favorite character actors of the 1930s and 1940s, playing police Lt. Abrams. A very young Jimmy Stewart is there as well, playing one of the many suspects in the sort of role you're really not used to seeing him play.

There's four more films to go and they will continue to get sillier. But every one of them will be worthwhile. I'm probably going to run out of ways of saying that Powell and Loy are always perfect together, so you'll all will just have to get used to it. I'm going to have to say it at least four more times.

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