Monday, April 27, 2009

Shadow of the Thin Man/The Thin Man Goes Home

Hollywood films have always thrived on formula, and this is especially true of ongoing serials like the Thin Man series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The duo made six films together as the debonair, martini-swilling private detective Nick Charles and his feisty, wealthy wife Nora. Throughout all six films, the duo cracked wise and mugged for the camera, Loy casting her sly sideways glances at Powell and pursing her lips in that special prim way she had and arching her eyebrows so high they threatened to disappear beneath her hat brims. Her face seemed to have been molded especially for this part, slipping easily into Nora's incredibly complicated facial contortions, her sly sarcasm and pert, unflappable charm. Nora's the kind of woman who will go to a wrestling match and then politely wish a headlocked brawler luck, with a tip of the hat and a slight curtsy, when she has to leave early. This particular bit of business is just one of her class act moments from Shadow of the Thin Man, the fourth installment in the series and the last one to be helmed by director W.S. Van Dyke before his death.

As usual, Nora often steals the show here even though her husband's the detective and ostensible lead in these stories. The appeal of these films is always the interplay of this charismatic couple as much as, if not more than, the actual mystery plot. The narrative usually twists itself into ever more outrageous knots in the background while Nick and Nora banter and attempt to outwit one another, playing coy games of verbal tag while the bodies pile up. So Nora gets a lot of great moments, including a fun variation on the "follow that car" gag that I'm sure I've seen in other Hollywood films but is still a kick because of Loy's nonplussed facial expression. But Nick is no slouch either. He shares a lot of his screen time in this one with the couple's trick-performing dog Asta, who is memorably introduced as being willing to "chase tigers" but then gets spooked by a little black kitten — and who, incidentally, rears up on his hind legs and displays "little Asta" a disturbing number of times, something I don't really remember from previous Thin Man films.

It's also worth noting that the couple has a kid around for this one, a baby in the previous film but now grown into a little boy who provides a few lame and unfunny gags during the opening half-hour. Fortunately, Nick and Nora, maybe realizing the little brat is dragging them down, pawn him off on the black maid (Louise Beavers, as a broadly mugging caricature who seems to have wandered in off the vaudeville stage) and proceed to forget about him entirely for the rest of the film. They're bad parents, maybe, heading off to throw down cocktails and start bar fights and race turtles (yes, really!), but it's all so much fun that who really cares where the kid winds up while all this is going on? And of course, these films being utterly dependent on formula, the whole mystery — something involving race track betting and blackmail and you know the deal — is wound up in one of Nick's famous parlor scenes, dragging together the whole rogues' gallery of hoods and molls and gangsters so he can explain to them which of them did the deed. As usual, Nick and Nora get some admirable support: most notably, Stella Adler as a con woman whose high society accent slips into gutter slang when she's angry, and Sam Levene reprising his role as the perpetually confused Lt. Abrams (who first appeared in After the Thin Man).

But four films into the series, one senses the familiar conventions beginning to get threadbare. All the expected scenes play out, all the character bits are there, all the right notes are hit, but one wonders if there's really anything left to do with the characters of Nick and Nora, who had basically been repeating their schtick since the first film.

Then again, the fifth Nick and Nora film, The Thin Man Goes Home, suggests that maybe all that was needed was a change of scenery to reignite some of the series' energy and freshness. One would think that making Nick into a teetotaller this time around would suck all the remaining life out of the party — and it remains a bizarre and uncharacteristic touch, even if it is explained by Nick's desire to please his constantly disapproving father — but for the most part this fifth film rediscovers that special Nick and Nora magic. With this one, the directorial reins were handed over to Richard Thorpe, who was a fine replacement for Van Dyke in that both were Hollywood career men with little discernible visual style, solid mid-level craftsmen churning out dozens of pictures of mostly undistinguished quality. Thorpe's mundane visual sense is most apparent in the lackluster opening, in which Nick and Nora take a train ride to go visit Nick's parents in the country (leaving their son back home once again; model parents, these two). The awkwardly staged and paced slapstick of these opening minutes threatens an utterly dull Thin Man picture.

Fortunately, once the couple arrives in the country, the fun begins. Nick is obviously there on the case, and has a lowlife buddy named Brogan (the great character actor Edward Brophy) on the scene, though the guy keeps getting caught hiding in the bushes and generally acting very suspicious. Meanwhile, Nick's parents (Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport) think their son's a goofy slacker and quite possibly a drunk, and nobody believes that Nick can really find any mysteries to solve in this sleepy little town — at least until a young painter turns up on their doorstep and is promptly shot dead. The plot is one of the looniest and most convoluted in the series, and Nick's parlor revelations at the end don't really answer the big questions like what he was really investigating here or how he knew about it or what the hell was actually going on. Somehow it hardly matters. Who cares about murders when there's the tongue-twisting lunacy of Nick sparring with a nebbishy art dealer (Donald Meek, another great character actor — this film is packed with 'em)? Then there's the brilliantly staged three-way tail sequence with Nora following Brogan while a shadowy third party trails them both: the long shots of the three of them spread out in a straight line along the diagonal of a shop-lined street suggest that maybe Thorpe had more panache than expected.

Best of all, though, is Nora's hilarious, breathless recital of the infamous story of "Stinky Davis" and how her husband caught this dastardly killer. It's one of Loy's best moments in the whole series, a verbal tour de force that has her spitting out long streams of outlandish gangster names that sound like rejected Dick Tracy villains, weaving the whole thing together into a wild story of Nick's detective prowess. It's an amazing monologue, supported admirably by Davenport's flustered sputtering throughout. Loy and Davenport play off of one another again in the film's final scene, which delivers the expected parlor scene where Nick reveals all, but subtly tweaks it. The thing is, Nora knows what's going to happen as well as the audience does; she's seen this all before just like we have. So she provides a running metafictional commentary throughout the scene, laying out ahead of time exactly how the action will be structured and then interjecting her thoughts at key moments. Thorpe cuts to her for reaction shots whenever the scene hits one of its narrative beats, so that Nora's meta-commentary is used to punctuate the action. It's hard to believe, but within this silly, whimsical 40s murder mystery, the final scene is simultaneously delivering the conventional resolution and deconstructing the ways in which these types of scenes usually work.

Despite its shaky opening, the fifth Thin Man is a real delight, a rejuvenation of the series' formula. What's striking is that in reinvigorating the form of these films, it doesn't really do all that much to change that form. The usual elements are all in place, the verbal humor, the low-key sleuthing through shadowy dark rooms and back streets, the convoluted mysteries with the killer identified only at the last moment as the last person you'd suspect. The Thin Man Goes Home breathes new life into the series not by bucking the formula but by reinforcing it, developing it in a new context, spinning out clever variations on the same old thing. This was the genius of the classic Hollywood era in general, and certainly the genius of the Thin Man movies: who wants change when the same old thing is Loy and Powell at their sparkling, quick-witted best?


Joshua said...

Oh boy do I love these movies as predictable and hearty as they are.

Chuck W said...

Interesting write-up. I've honestly never really been able to properly assess these films, since their adherence to formula and threadbare differences makes them all bleed together in my mind. Like you said--they do grow a bit tiresome after a while; unfortunately, all these things conspired against me and made me sort of turn on the Thin Man films.

But like you said--Loy and Powell really are a delight to watch. I just wish the films were more distinct and worthwhile.

Ed Howard said...

They basically just kept remaking the films over and over again, with varying results, depending mainly on how sharp the comedic writing was for any particular installment. These films are hardly the peak of cinematic achievement, but I get such a kick out of them anyway -- especially when the Loy/Powell chemistry is at its best, as it was in the first 2 films and again in The Thin Man Goes Home (despite its particularly confused plot).