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Shadow of the Thin Man (Review)

Shadow of the Thin Man

Shadow of the Thin Man
1941
Story by Harry Kurnitz
Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke

Shadow of the Thin Man
Shadow of the Thin Man is the last of the classic four Thin Man films before the large drop in quality of the final two flicks. Dashiell Hammett doesn’t help provide the story, and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have also moved on, leaving the writing in the hands of Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher (Kurnitz also developing the story) Director W. S. Van Dyke returns for his last Thin Man entry.

Shadow of the Thin Man was released November 21, 1941, on the eve of the US’s entrance into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. None of the ongoing worldwide conflict is reflected in the film, which involves murder and horse gambling conspiracies. The only real acknowledgement of real world events seems to be the rolling back of displays of Nora’s wealth, though it is still obvious they are flushed with money.

The Thin Man flicks zigzag back and forth between New York and San Francisco, so we return to the Bay Area for good time Bay Area fun. Also returning is Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) from After the Thin Man, because we’re back on his beat. Once again he needs Nick Charles’ help, because of mystery murders with lots of complications.
Shadow of the Thin Man
Murder victim “Whitey” Barrow (Alan Baxter) is one of those obvious murder victims. Baxter’s also ridiculously overacting when he’s playing the tough mobster guy, yet sounds like a normal person when he’s hiding his gangster persona. It’s a weird choice (and frankly a bit distracting), luckily he gets knocked off early enough it doesn’t become a big problem.

Nora keeps up with Nick’s investigations the most in this sequel, following him on his searches, showing him up when it comes to dealing with his son, and even luring him home with the siren song of a shaking martini mixer. There are bonus points added for Nora heroically leaping onto a gun during the climactic scene where the real murderer reveals themselves by grabbing the gun they always have.

Aside from Nora Charles, most of the female roles are pretty thankless, despite being filled with quality actresses. Stella Adler manages to turn the limited role of Claire Porter into something amazing. Porter is drenched in the casings of the upper class, appearing to be well-to-do despite her gangster boyfriend. But her money comes from a job not so well-to-do, a job they can only hint at (due to the Hays Code) by her switching up accents when flustered by Nick Charles. Donna Reed has the truly thankless role as the secretary girlfriend to the accused murderer Paul. Despite a hint that she might be more than she looks due to who she works for, her character is given little to do except worry about her man.

Louise Beavers’ character of Stella, the Charles’ maid, is the largest part for a black actor in the Thin Man series. Sadly it’s what I call a Mammy Whammy, in that it’s over the top servant character. Beavers is associated with that type of role, partially because those roles were the only roles available to black performers. She gained fame with a non-stereotypical black maid role, Delilah in 1934’s Imitation of Life.
Shadow of the Thin Man
This is the Thin Man entry with some of the funniest bits in the series – the wrestling scene, the merry-go-round, the brawl at the restaurant, Nick getting a speeding ticket, and Nick’s encounter with an old landlady obsessed with radio crime shows and police gazettes, who talks Nick’s lingo and then some.

One of the major criticisms is the film focuses on too much that isn’t the murder mystery, and the sequence of events that the mystery follows are practically spelled out. It is true that things seem almost designed to happen no matter what Nick and Nora do, they are practically swept up into the original murder and are present at every important event following it, complete with the police actively encouraging them. The killer is the most obvious of the whole series, but my view on the films are that it is about the journey, not the destination. After being raised on two decades of carbon-copy police procedurals where the real differences are the show’s characters and gimmicks, which quickly become the defining reason to watch. The old detective movies that are memorable have their own cool characters and gimmicks, of which the Thin Man flicks excels. I don’t think Shadow of the Thin Man is a shadow of the prior films (BOOOOO!!! to that pun!), instead standing tall with the original four despite a few flaws.
Shadow of the Thin Man

Nick Charles (William Powell) – The oft-retired Nick Charles drives right into another murder mystery, turning his day at the races into a day of investigating.
Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) – Nora follows along with Nick’s plans and manages to come along to a variety of locations. Is very into the wrestling event. Sneaks her way into the investigation as well.
Asta (Asta) – Asta is back causing lots and lots of chaos and fighting, when he isn’t hiding from kittens!
Nick Charles, Jr. (Richard Hall as Dickie Hall) – Old enough to actually talk, Nick Jr. becomes a character who helps push Nick to be more responsible, and to do things to impress his son.
Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson) – A good reporter who gets framed for Whitey Barrow’s murder. He’s trying to take down the mob interests that are running the track and several other operations.
Molly (Donna Reed) – Paul’s girlfriend, she works as mob boss Link Stephens’ secretary in a bid to pass information along to Paul.
Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) – Lieutenant Abrams returns to the series, though the San Francisco detective is investigating murders in Oakland, not that the Thin Man movies have worried about jurisdiction before! Is practically begging Nick Charles to help with the case.
“Whitey” Barrow (Alan Baxter) – A shady reporter who extorts money from mob guys he helped cover up/fix stories for. Becomes a murder victim thanks to everyone wanting him dead, and someone granting that wish.
Claire Porter aka Clara Peters (Stella Adler) – Rich lady who is a former girl involved in all the mob business and some adult business we can’t discuss openly because of codes. Yes, this is THAT Stella Adler, the famed acting teacher, in one of her rare film roles.

Shadow of the Thin Man
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - January 3, 2015 at 9:41 am

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After the Thin Man (Review)

After the Thin Man

After the Thin Man
1936
Story by Dashiell Hammett
Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke

After the Thin Man
Nick and Nora Charles return to San Francisco as heroes, their solving of a murder exploits big news as San Francisco has never had any crime, ever. Okay, maybe there were a few crimes in San Francisco, but the Charles are famous thanks to the power of media making heroes. Of course, the fun can’t last, and soon Nick and Nora are drawn into a brand new murder mystery. Never fret, there are plenty of wacky characters and real dangers along the way, with Nick and Nora quipping all the while.

It’s almost literally right after The Thin Man, which took place over Christmas, and it’s now New Year’s Eve. That keeps the festive atmosphere without retreading the Christmas theme. There is a surprise welcome home party happening at Nick and Nora’s house, which means the house is packed full of people who have no idea who Nick and Nora Charles even are, nor who recognize them when they come in. A guy hilariously welcomes them inside and explains he doesn’t know who the Charles are, and advises them to just fake it like he’s doing. They go along with it, dancing together to the kitchen, where the house staff actually does recognize the pair.

More than any of the other films, After the Thin Man is aware of the class differences between Nick and Nora. Nora was born into wealth, while Nick married into it. Despite their differences, the pair are equally willing to hang out with anyone from any class strata. Nick has a constant stream of lower class reformed criminals that he runs into that are all wanting to be buddy-buddy, while Nora’s rich relatives treat Nick like a pariah, especially ironic considering the guy Aunt Katherine’s daughter Selma ended up married to.
After the Thin Man
One of the biggest draws to After the Thin Man is Jimmy Stewart, who knocks it out of the park and whose performance will be one of the main things you remember from this sequel. When I first watched the Thin Man flicks, it was because I was getting into older movies and became a big Jimmy Stewart fan. I also needed to watch the films in order, because that’s just how I roll. Luckily, they had just released all of the Thin Man flicks on VHS tape (remember those? Of course you do!) and so they were easy to find at the rental stores. Except for After the Thin Man. For some reason, none of the video stores in the St. Louis area seemed to have a copy. I finally found one at an independent video store on the way home from work, and that place became a regular stop due to a classics section that outdid much of the competitors (though the cheapo DTV action films I still rented from Schnucks!). Oddly enough, their copy of After the Thin Man was ancient, in a giant clamshell package, despite the other five films all being the new VHS versions. Whatever, I finally got to see Jimmy Stewart be awesome, and then could continue the series. I do remember the commercial in front of each movie for the whole Thin Man set, which is a nice dumb thing to remember when I can’t recall where I put my keys.

Asta has an expanded role, not only does he partially destroy a clue while attempting to play with the Charles, but there is a running gag with Mrs. Asta, who thanks to Asta’s long absences has take to accepting visits from a local black dog, including producing at least one puppy. Despite Asta chasing off the interloper, by the end of the film Asta is continuing to hang out with the Charles family, leaving his “wife” to her own devices. As she and his children are never seen again, we can deduce what her decision was. While the new dog being black might constitute a racial component, I’m thinking it’s more of a way to make the visual gag of a puppy that’s decidedly not Asta’s work the best in black and white. Still, this is the type of humor that has begun to dry up with enforcement of the Hays Code, and subsequent Thin Man features would have to resort to even more abstract metaphors to discuss infidelity and other issues.
After the Thin Man

Nick Charles (William Powell) – Former detective turned socialite who keeps detectiving because it keeps life exciting, he gets involved in the cases anyway, and because he’s darn good at it.
Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) – Socialite who continues to encourage her husband to take tough cases, especially when they involve their friends. And gets involved in the cases as well.
Asta (Skippy) – We find out here that Asta is an absentee father, so I expect one of his kids wrote a tell-all book about their life. Asta also enjoys mangling clues, like the note he thinks is a play thing. Oh, that Asta!
David Graham (James Stewart) – Friend of Nora and Selma’s for years, he’s always been in love with Selma, but then she goes and marries some jerk and he’s forever friend-zoned. But when she’s accused of Robert’s murder, he’s there to try to help her.
Selma Landis (Elissa Landi) – Nora’s cousin and daughter of the notorious Aunt Katherine Forrest (Jessie Ralph), whose hobbies include looking down on the poor and being shocked by everything. Selma married the no good Robert Landis despite David Graham holding a flame for her for decades, and now suffers before Robert’s indignity as well. Then she gets accused of his murder, and is so out of it she begins to doubt her own innocence.
Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) – Lead detective on the case out in San Francisco, also enjoys Nick helping out. Is less of an outward tough guy than Lieutenant John Guild, but can be tough on the criminals if need be.
Polly Byrnes (Penny Singleton as Dorothy McNulty) – Lounge singer who is Robert’s new girl, except she’s really running a con on him along with her club owner boss, Dancer (Joseph Calleia). Her brother Phil Byrnes (Paul Fix) is a bottom dweller who sometimes almost spoils her plans.
Robert Landis (Alan Marshal) – Selma’s husband who spends his time and her money out at clubs hitting on other women. Is all set to leave her when he is gunned down, Selma found holding the gun.

After the Thin Man
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - January 1, 2015 at 9:17 am

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