Sunday, February 22, 2009

After the Thin Man

The second film in the series of Nick and Nora Charles mysteries, After the Thin Man, closely follows the template established by the original film that started it all, The Thin Man. And why not? The formula was obviously a success: the couple's easygoing charm and humor, their comedic banter and good-natured sparring, provide a solid bedrock for the twisty murder mysteries they inevitably stumble across. Nick (William Powell) is a famous private detective, now retired after marrying the wealthy socialite Nora (Myrna Loy). But somehow cases continue to find the former gumshoe, who somewhat unwillingly embarks on the trail of some new mystery, all the while insisting that he just wants some sleep, a good tall drink and some time alone with his lovely wife. As in the first film, this sophomore effort takes its time setting up the mystery, leaving space for all the characters to get into place before the first murder happens, triggering the investigation (and leading eventually to several more corpses before it's all through). The pacing is even and patient, introducing the huge cast one by one and establishing the various motives, opportunities and potential alibis for all these players for what is obviously coming: the murder of the no-good Robert Landis (Alan Marshal), who has so many sharks circling the water around him that he can't help but turn up dead before too long.

Once he does, Nick and Nora are on the case, primarily because Robert was married to Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi). Robert was planning to run off with nightclub singer Polly (Penny Singleton), even though Polly's "brother" Phil (Paul Fix) is lingering sinisterly in the shadows, along with nightclub owner Dancer (Joseph Calleia), his shifty-eyed Chinese partner Lum Kee (William Law, playing a possible inspiration for James Bond enemy Odd Job, complete with deadly hat-tossing skills), and even the society figure David Graham (an early role for James Stewart), who loved Selma and was paying Robert to finally get lost. There's no shortage of suspects, obviously, including even Selma herself, and it's up to Nick and Nora to sift through this increasingly complex mess.

They do so, of course, with characteristic style and finesse. The film isn't quite as funny or sparkling as The Thin Man, possibly because Nick and Nora don't consume nearly the brain-melting quantities of liquor they did the first time around: slowing down already? But the unmatchable chemistry of Powell and Loy goes a long way, and there's plenty of great one-liners and witty exchanges, including Nick's attempt to figure out how many places he's been kicked out of (Nora's response: "Well, how many places were you in, Mr. Charles?"). The two of them have an enviable repartee, a back-and-forth battle of wits that only seems to deepen their love and respect for each other. Whenever the two of them are onscreen together, exchanging barbed lines and raised-eyebrow glances, it's hard for anything else in the film to compete. Best of all is a scene where Nick, trying to get some sleep, is gently taunted awake by Nora, who has a sudden craving for scrambled eggs. It's a quietly funny scene, subtly written, particularly Nora's coup de grace: after asking Nick if he can reach the water on the dresser, when he tries to give her some she shoots back, "Oh no, I didn't want any, I just wanted to make sure you could reach it."

The mystery in this film is less convoluted than the one in The Thin Man, and much easier to figure out, following as it does conventional murder mystery rules: it must be the person who the narrative conspicuously pays the least attention to and who everyone seems to dismiss instantly as a suspect. Thus, long before Nick's final parlor scene — gathering together all the suspects and letting the plot unravel as he alternates between narrating events and questioning people — it's obvious whodunnit. The fun is in watching Nick pull the pieces together and bounce off of the film's troupe of great character actors. There's plenty of funny business going on with the supporting players, particularly Jessie Ralph as Nora's snooty Aunt Katherine, who has a habit of beating newspaper photographers with her cane. In fact, Nora's whole family provides some memorable comic relief during an early scene where Nick gets dragged along to a family gathering. He ends the night sitting at a table with Nora's ancient uncles, attempting to moderate a "conversation" between the snoring old gentlemen. Even the couple's dog, Asta, has as much charm and personality as any of the human bit players. Asta has his own troubles in this installment, returning home from a long trip to find that Mrs. Asta has been running around with a black dog and has a little black puppy to prove it. It's a hilariously naughty subplot narrated entirely through the dogs' expressive pantomime performances.

If After the Thin Man doesn't quite recapture the magic of the first Powell/Loy pairing as Nick and Nora, it's still a worthy sequel with plenty of the same wit and vibrancy as the first installment in the series. Indeed, just putting Powell and Loy onscreen together is more than enough. This is another fun, funny entertainment from the duo and director W.S. Van Dyke, who returned for this second film and brings to it the same brisk, no-nonsense style that made the first a success.

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