Sunday, March 8, 2009
Another Thin Man
The third film in the William Powell/Myrna Loy "Thin Man" series, Another Thin Man adds a new member of the Charles family, but otherwise sticks close to the series' roots. Nick Charles (Powell) and his wife Nora (Loy) get tied up in yet another twisty murder mystery despite the retired Nick's insistence that he's no longer in the detective game. The couple have a baby this time around, joining their playful dog Asta as the fourth member of the family, but otherwise the story's mechanics aren't drastically changed. The mystery this time around is rather silly and half-hearted, more so than in the series' first two installments, in which there was at least some attempt to pretend that the mystery elements were actually driving the film, rather than the cheerful sparring and barbed wit of Powell and Loy. This time, it's all about the Powell/Loy chemistry, and the mystery story is left to meander aimlessly until the obligatory final scene when Nick pulls it all together, seemingly pulling the solution out of thin air — it's all so confused, he couldn't have pulled it from anywhere else.
It all starts when Nick and Nora are summoned by Nora's old uncle Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), who's scared for his life following threats made by a disgruntled former employee, Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard). Church tells MacFay that he's dreamed of the old man's death, and that his dreams usually come true — a thinly disguised threat intended to squeeze money from the colonel. But when the old man turns up dead, and Church disappears, things start to get complicated, and frankly it's hardly worth untangling the mess of false leads, double crosses, attacks and twists thrown into this mess. Nick's continually getting shot at or having knives tossed at him, but the real fun is the way he and Nora prowl around, tracking down potential leads while playing games with each other.
A prime example is the scene where the couple visits a boarding house, trying to get the scoop on a mysterious girl called Linda Mills who seems to be tied up in this case somehow. Nick hangs back, letting Nora take the lead and pretending he doesn't know her, and while the landlady (veteran character actress Marjorie Main in a hilarious bit turn) shows Nora a room, Nick actually gets to snoop around Linda's apartment. Main's chatty, strong-willed landlady is a great comic foil for Powell and Loy, even plotting to bring the two supposed strangers together. And when, by the end of the scene, Nick simply grabs Nora and plants a kiss on her before leading her out, the landlady's stunned reaction is hilarious.
Indeed, Nick and Nora get plenty of great bit players to knock up against here, and even if the film doesn't add up to a satisfying whole, there are individual scenes that surely rank among the funniest in the "Thin Man" franchise. One of the best involves the running gag of Nora hearing about some of Nick's old girlfriends and using their names as aliases whenever possible, prompting Nick's sly nod, an acknowledgment that she's scored a point on him. Then there's the suave Latin seducer (Alexander D'Arcy), who Nora mistakes for an informant and winds up trapped dancing with the man as Nick watches, simultaneously annoyed and grinning. One of the hallmarks of the couple's relationship is their outward nonchalance, coupled with deeper reserves of feeling underneath; at one point, the lights go out, and when they come on again, Nick's suddenly the one dancing with Nora, and her would-be Latin lover has been mysteriously punched in the jaw. Nick's also funny opposite the old colonel's seemingly unflappable housekeeper, Mrs. Bellam (Phyllis Gordon), who reacts to everything with such a disarming lack of concern that she even manages to nonplus the usually stoic detective. At one point, she calmly walks in to announce: "Colonel, the swimming pool is on fire," with the disinterested air of someone calling everyone in for dinner.
Another of the film's best gags involves the Charles' new baby, who is mostly used as a fun prop for a few setups and otherwise shuffled into the background while Nick and Nora engage in their usual hijinks. But the baby is unarguably at center stage when one of Nick's lowlife friends (Harry Bellaver) decides to throw the kid a birthday party, inviting all the hoods he knows with babies of their own — and some who were able to "rent" one for the day. The best moment comes from the thug who checks to make sure that no one kidnapped a baby to get into the party: "we don't need no hot tot." Of course, if this is starting to sound like simply a catalog of the film's gags and punchlines, that's because it's hard to write about Another Thin Man without resorting to recounting its best moments. The film is frequently funny, and the witty chemistry between Powell and Loy is as strong as ever, but by this third entry, the "Thin Man" series is starting to feel like it's yielding diminishing returns. The formula is set by now, even to the point that Nora gets the same exact line early on in each film: "Oh Nick, you have such lovely friends." The formula isn't exactly tired — with two actors this fine at the center, the film is still charming and lightly entertaining — but nor is it as fresh or wildly exciting as it was the first time around.