Sunday, May 10, 2009
Song of the Thin Man
The sixth and final of the William Powell/Myrna Loy Thin Man movies unfortunately sends the often entertaining, delightfully light series out on a bit of stale note. Song of the Thin Man, directed by Edward Buzzell, attempts to update the sleuthing, sparring couple of detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora by placing them in a Jazz Age mystery. Unlike in previous installments of the series, the humor here arises not so much from the arch, witty interplay of Nick and Nora, but from the couple's cluelessness in a hip, modern jazz milieu. It's an acknowledgment that the suave, sophisticated Nick and Nora, always unflappable and poised with a cocktail in hand, dressed beautifully for society functions and dive bars alike, are archetypes of another era, increasingly out of date in the late 40s. But it's not a welcome change. Nick and Nora are timeless icons, or they should be anyway, and their cool transcends the particularities of time and place. The appeal of the first five Thin Man films is how ageless they are, how they evoke a certain era's glamorized conception of itself without being tied too tightly to that era. Nick and Nora's cocktail-swilling charm and fast-paced banter are inexhaustible, and though the series' charms tended to deflate a little in some of the middle installments, each of these films succeeded to the extent that they revisited a perfectly honed formula.
The sixth film in which Powell and Loy play these familiar characters toys with the formula, and it does so at the risk of eliminating what made these films so special in the first place. This film suggests Nick and Nora in a new time, a new age, one where they don't fit in as comfortably and seamlessly as they once did. The joke is on them here, to some extent: they don't get the jazzy banter of the musicians they meet, who talk in a fast-paced slangy argot. The mannered banter of Nick and Nora themselves is almost rendered inert, outdated, like the then-declining whiz-bang wordplay of screwball comedy, a sister genre to Nick and Nora's signature comedic mysteries. It's no fun to see these two screen icons, still as spry and comfortable with one another as ever, mocked and shown up in their own movie.
Moreover, the jazz milieu they find themselves thrust into here isn't even a terribly convincing one, and itself must have been outdated even when the film first came out. Investigating the murder of a jazz bandleader on a floating nightclub, Nick and Nora sneaky into the shadowy, mysterious world of late-night jazz. They're "squares," outsiders, and they have to be led through the smoky, hard-to-find clubs by the piccolo player "Clinker" Krause (Keenan Wynn), who takes them to all the places that can usually only be penetrated by those in the know. Of course, once inside these "dangerous" and incognito jazz joints, they find jazz sessions consisting only of white musicians playing staid big band tunes, with nary a trace of a black face or more modern music. For a movie trying to update Nick and Nora's image, its setting is curiously out of touch.
That said, the film isn't without its charms. It actually sports one of the better mysteries in the series, a convoluted whodunnit in which the solution is genuinely a surprise and the pieces fall into place only slowly, with many false detours and side mysteries along the way. The murdered bandleader from the beginning of the film is surrounded by a web of intrigue, and as usual the cast is packed with great character actors investing life into the many suspects prowling around the fringes of the plot. As a torchy nightclub singer, Gloria Grahame is especially noteworthy, lending a sneering coolness to her smoldering, tormented femme fatale, who was in love with the clarinetist Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor) but betrayed him with the bandleader Tommy Drake (Phillip Reed) before Drake's murder. Drake also owed money to the slick gangster Al Amboy (William Bishop), and the small part of Amboy's striking wife provides an early bit turn for future noir queen Marie Windsor. Meanwhile, circling peripherally around the murder mystery is the love of Jessica Thayer (Bess Flowers) for Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), who is arrested for the murder, while Jessica's disapproving father (Ralph Morgan) gets tangled up as a suspect as well.
Strangely, this is a Thin Man film where the mystery is actually at the center of the action; usually, the crime and investigation are just an excuse for Nick and Nora to bounce off one another, and some of the series' best installments barely functioned as mysteries at all. In this film, however, with Nick and Nora's banter somewhat toned down, the mystery edges back into the spotlight. This film is about an older, softer Nick and Nora, somewhat sweeter and warmer than the prickly pair of previous films. Here's a Nick who aches to leave a party early and go home to be alone with his wife, and a Nora who displays a stern, matronly affection for the couple's son (a young Dean Stockwell), whose presence is not quite as irksome as in earlier films. As the final appearance of Powell and Loy in their most iconic roles, Song of the Thin Man can't help but be a disappointment. But there are still enough sparks to make this an enjoyable if minor last hurrah for Nick and Nora.