Friday, April 20, 2012

After the Thin Man

Actually, Mr. Movie Poster, it's "Mr. and Mrs. Charles are back."  The "thin man" from the first film referred to a missing person, not William Powell's character.  What's that, 1930s moviegoers?  You've decided to make William Powell the "thin man?"  Um.  Okay.  I guess it's too late to do anything about that now.

After the Thin Man takes place, appropriately enough, immediately following The Thin Man.  Does that mean you should be familiar with the first film to enjoy this one?  Not at all; if you haven't seen the first movie, though, you really ought to give it a try --- it's a treat.  Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles have arrived via train to their home in San Francisco, just in time for New Year's Eve.  Unfortunately for Nick, the pair are expected to join Nora's family for a fancy formal dinner party.  No one in Nora's family seems to like Nick, either because he married into his money or because he's a lush or because he's a bit of a smart-ass. 
Tuxes for a dinner with the family?  That doesn't sound stuffy at all
For better or worse, the evening takes an interesting turn when it appears that the nogoodnick husband, Robert (Alan Marshal), of Nora's cousin, Selma, is missing.  The family has never liked Robert, but if they didn't resolve his disappearance soon, it was worried that Selma would get dramatically crazy and bring shame to the family name.  The disappearance is easy enough for Nick and Nora to solve, but it is almost immediately followed by a murder in which Selma is the prime suspect.  What's a moderately bored and perennially drunk amateur gumshoe to do, but solve the mystery and put a neat bow on it?

After the Thin Man is an interesting bit of early Hollywood.  The first film was a big hit and this was only the first of five (!) sequels.  The original film was based on Dashiell Hammett's final novel, but this was completely original.  Hammett was hired to write the story for After the Thin Man, with the talented team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett returning to turn his story into an acceptable screenplay.  I don't know any specifics (because I'm too lazy to do any actual research), but I know that Hammett's post-novelist years were filled with sickness and booze, so it should not be surprising that the story here is not as intricate as in the original film.  Nevertheless, it manages to overcome some Scooby-Doo-esque plot twists and typical 1930s film tropes and it remains an entertaining bit of lighthearted comedy, even by today's standards.
Ha ha ha!  Get it?  She's being arrested for murder!

The key to this film working once again rests on the shoulders of William Powell and Myrna Loy.  Powell's charm and excellent line delivery are essential to this film, but it is the banter between him and Loy that really makes the movie succeed.  Loy's role is a little less entertaining this time around (she has to be nice to her family, after all), but she is still more than a capable foil for Powell's wit.  As much as I enjoyed watching the duo feign drunkenness in the first film, I enjoyed their interactions more in this one.  They were a pleasant blend of mean and tender that is surprisingly believable in a couple.
As a married man, I am all too familiar with that look
The supporting cast is a little more noteworthy in this sequel.  I was surprised to see a young James Stewart in his first substantial film role; this is the first time I have seen him in a non-leading role, so it was interesting to see his typical aw-shucks charm being applied to someone who wasn't the main hero.
Maybe he's the titular thin man?
The rest of the supporting cast is less spectacular, but a number of recognizable people played small roles.  Penny Singleton (the voice for Jane Jetson) plays a scheming nightclub singer.  Noir actor Sam Levene plays the hapless policeman forced to look like a fool next to Nick Charles.  Hard-working character actor Paul Fix also has a small part.  My favorite of the less famous supporting actors was Joseph Calleia, though; the man was such a great movie villain that it doesn't really matter that his character here was relatively tame.
Joseph "Born Evil" Calleia

Like the original film, After the Thin Man was directed by W.S. Van Dyke.  His direction is adequate from a technical standpoint --- don't expect to see any subtext or clever uses of frame or lighting here --- but he once again handled the cast quite well.  With the bulk of this movie relying on the charm and chemistry between its stars, Van Dyke's touch with the actors was critical.  On the other hand, with a considerably less dense script than the first film, Van Dyke's limitations are a bit more obvious.  The supporting actors are portrayed in broad strokes with very little complexity and Van Dyke panders to the audience a little too much when it comes to the dog.
Actual subplot: Asta is depressed, thanks to an unfaithful wife

After the Thin Man fares best when it is not directly compared to its predecessor.  Nick and Nora are still a lot of fun to watch and their dialogue is more than worth the price of admission.  This movie is a bit more cute than actually funny, but it is still a fun watch.  It certainly could have used a more compelling mystery, but the charm of the main characters helps balance that.  Perhaps the film's biggest miss was its inability to actually make anything look seedy. 
This is their idea of a dive bar
It is fun to watch Nick interact with criminals (to Nora's amusement), but I would have liked them to appear out of their element at either (or both) ends of the social spectrum; here is a film with snooty rich folk looking down their nose, as well as nightclub patrons planning on theft and murder --- and the Charles' never miss a beat.  As good as Nick and Nora are, I would have liked to see them unsettled at least once.  While I doubt anyone will argue that After the Thin Man is a masterpiece, it is still a fun, disposable bit of film fluff.  Many great films have had truly unfortunate sequels, but this isn't one of them.


  1. Nice review, I need to catch up with the Thin Man series

    1. I haven't seen the other sequels yet, but Powell is always entertaining, so I can't imagine they're anything less than solid.