Saturday, July 2, 2016

Nick & Nora Watch: After the Thin Man (1936)

It's been years since I watched After the Thin Man (1936), which is kind of funny, because I have the poster for the movie hanging on the wall of my house.  I'd also gotten some of the details of the movie criss-crossed with other Thin Man films as I'd watched most of them in a blitz several years ago, and hadn't watched any of them but the first one again in a while.

I'm currently reading Return of the Thin Man, which is a fairly recent release as far as Hammett writings go.  It's not a book or short story, but the film treatment he worked on for the second and third Thin Man films, along with historical material for context.  While I remembered parts of the movie, most of what was in the treatment jived with what I could recall from the movie, so I was curious to see what was different.
The answer is: not much changed.

I'd argue that Nora's family is less irritating than as written by Hammett, but a lot was conveyed in the film and carried by the acting, directing and pacing that isn't immediately obvious from the book's text.

The story follows immediately on the heels of The Thin Man, which took place over Christmas.  After the Thin Man occurs on that subsequent New Years as Nick and Nora return to San Francisco to find a party roaring in their house - a sort of surprise party that's gotten well out of hand before they've even arrived, and then off to dinner with Nora's stuffy family.

Here we learn that Nora's cousin's philandering husband has been missing three days and battle-axe Aunt Catherine wants Nick to track him down.   As Nick and Nora break free and head out for the evening to have New Years together, they find the husband at a dinner club where he's been holed up with his girlfriend, the place's headlining singer.

No sooner do they locate him, though, then he leaves the place and winds up shot outside his home, leaving everyone but Nick and Nora a potential suspect.

It's a windy Hammett-esque tale of half-exposed truths, winding paths of logic and simple clues and bits planted all along that pull the story together.  Of course, most of the charm is in the characterization, and this film keeps Nick and Nora safely intact from the first film, perhaps due to Hammett's participation, or because no one was yet tired of the character or too familiar with the characters quite yet.

Like The Thin Man, it includes some great gags, razor sharp dialog and, honestly, terrific characterization of Nick and Nora.  If the first movie gave us a daffy pair of folks who were clearly great pals as well as a married couple, this one turns it up all the more as a good partnership.  All of its a bit different in tone from the original novel, where Nora is no hindrance, but she's almost more of a gal Friday interested in Nick's work than a peer.  But its no wonder that couples can see a bit of themselves in the domestic sequences, nor that we're still looking at these particular mystery movies 80 years on.

You're also likely to recognize a few other players in the film, including Jimmy Stewart in an early role that maybe presagea bit of what he'd be asked to do in films in later years (it's terribly different than his role in The Shop Around the Corner, also done in those early years).  Our cop working with Nick, Sam Levene, would pop up in noir 10-12 years on.  As would actor Joseph Calleia, playing one of the major suspects.

Of course, I highly recommend the early Thin Man films.    Powell and Loy are two of my favorite actors, and of course I like a good Hammett mystery.  Pretty much ideal date-night movie watching.


picky said...

I watched this with the hubby this weekend while I was sick - I wasn't sure if he'd like it since he's never been one for classic films - but we both enjoyed it! Of course, I'd seen it before and remembered who the killer was, but it was still fun getting there.

The League said...

yeah, The Thin Man series - though 80 years old - still feels surprisingly fresh when you're watching it. The movies don't have the pacing issues or acting differences that can really slow down a modern viewer. I remember someone complaining about the acting in "The African Queen" which was an Academy Awards bonanza for acting and directing, trying to make a point about "well, we do things differently now, so-" and it was taken as "yeah, people sure used to be stupid". With the ever changing nature of film, film language and film acting, it's kind of funny how people are about movies that arrived before they did, but The Thin Man is this kind of amazing bridge. I attribute some of that to Hammett's contributions in dialog and character, which have informed generations of imitators.