Sunday, October 2, 2016

Nick and Nora

Film: After the Thin Man
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

The Thin Man is my favorite movie of 1934 and one of my favorite movies of the 1930s in general. It’s also got one of my favorite screenplays ever written, containing lines that I’m still a little shocked made it past the censors. A big part of the success of the film comes from the pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who were just about perfect on screen together. The two made 14 movies together, six of which featured them as Nick and Nora Charles. The first Thin Man sequel was After the Thin Man, the only one aside from the original to be nominated for an Oscar, at least in the categories I care about.

After the Thin Man picks up a few days after the original movie. Nick (William Powell) and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) have returned home by train to San Francisco just in time for New Year’s Eve. Their intentions for a quiet night at home are first spoiled by a raucous surprise party for them, then by the insistence of Nora’s Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) for them to come to dinner. Nora’s family has never approved of Nick, but in this case, they are prepared to make an exception. Robert Landis (Alan Marshal), the husband of Nora’s cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) has disappeared, and the family would like to make use of Nick’s talents as a former detective to find him.

It turns out that finding him isn’t that hard. Robert has been hanging around a Chinese restaurant/nightclub with a girl named Polly (Penny Singleton), who works as an entertainer for the club’s owners Dancer (Joseph Calleia) and Lum Kee (William Law). To further mix things up, Selma’s former fiance David (James Stewart) has been hanging around, and he confesses that Robert has asked for a large sum of money to disappear, leaving Selma to him. David agrees to pay him off, but when Robert turns up shot and Selma is found standing over the body with a pistol, things start to get hairy. Naturally, everyone turns to the great detective Nick Charles to solve the case, despite his frequent claims that he is retired.

So, it’s not really hard to see where this is going. We’re going to get things happening to bring Nick and Nora further and further into the case. A few more bodies are going to show up here and there. Just about everyone involved will have a motive and just about everyone will have the opportunity for at least one of the murders. And, like the first film and many a detective potboiler afterward, the film culminates with all of the suspects piled into a room while Nick sorts out the case and taps the murderer.

There’s a lot good here, and most of what is good comes from William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two are such a great couple to watch on the screen. They are so natural with each other, it’s not surprising that their many fans of the day desperately wanted the two of them to be together in real life despite Loy already being married and Powell being engaged at the time to Jean Harlow. They play naturally off each other in every scene and work beautifully as a married couple, each not merely reacting to the other, but really benefiting each other in every scene.

Beyond our two leading talents, the real success of any film like this one is the caper itself, and this is a busy little crime story with a lot going on. If you’re the type of person who likes to figure out the whodunit before the credits roll, After the Thin Man isn’t really the film for you, though. While there is a clue that pops up to reveal the murderer at the end, it’s a clue that we don’t see until after the murderer’s identity is revealed. That feels a bit like a cheat. While Nick lays out the case completely in the film’s third act, there really isn’t any way for someone in the audience to follow the same train of thought. Too much of it happens in Nick’s head before he spills the beans.

After the Thin Man desperately wants to capitalize on the success of the first Thin Man, and it’s partially successful. It’s not nearly the first film, though. While the dialogue is good, it’s not as good, and while Nick and Nora are lovely together, there’s something lacking here from their interactions no matter how hard our two stars try. It’s a little disappointing because the first film shows how good Powell and Loy could be together when they had a whip-cracking script to work with. Here, the script is good but not scintillating, and so we just don’t get the same feeling.

Why to watch After the Thin Man: Powell and Loy are a near-perfect screen couple.
Why not to watch: It’s not nearly as good as the first film.


  1. I'm reminded of Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes—Troi and Riker from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Sirtis and Frakes had plenty of couples moments as a function of the TV series and the ensuing movies, but they also acted like a couple during interviews, finishing each other's thoughts and acting proprietary. It was all rather cute and adorable. You'd be forgiven for thinking the two had taken their relationship off-camera, but in fact, they're each happily married to different people. Watch Sirtis and Frakes play off each other here. Old video, but still heartwarming.

    1. That is very much like the Powell/Loy relationship. The seem like an old married couple and it makes the whole thing work. Without that chemistry, there'd be nothing here.

  2. I wonder if the Hays Code may have taken some of the scintillating energy out of the script: the first film came out a few weeks before its heavy enforcement. I have noticed there are less risque lines in the sequel than the first film. It is still a heap of fun, and any time spent with Nick and Nora, or even Loy and Powell, is a good time.

    1. Likely. I didn't realize the first film squeaked past the Code. That actually explains a great deal, because it's the double entendres that make the first one as much fun as it is.

  3. Sequels as a rule are never quite the match of the original and even with a gold plated star couple that happens here. But a slightly off Thin Man is far better than an awful lot of other pictures from any year.

    As with so many of the Golden Era films this one is loaded with an amazing supporting cast even if most perform their patented role. It's very entertaining to see Jimmy Stewart a veritable babe in arms, I think it was only his second year in film, and still somewhat callow. And I LOVE Jessie Ralph, Joseph Calleia and Penny Singleton so to have all three in one film is terrific. But it is unquestionably Powell & Loy that turn these from ordinary into something more.

    1. Yeah, it really does come down to Powell and Loy. I think I might do a Thin Man marathon at the end of the year. They're fun to spend time with, and the movies go down pretty easily.