Quint on SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN (1941) I haven’t killed a jockey in weeks. Really!
Published at: April 23, 2009, 3:08 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the fourth of six Thin Man flicks. If you’re just now tuning in, I’m running through the Thin Man Box Set, one film a day, leading up until next Monday’s kick-off of my all new column: A Movie A Week, which will be HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, starring Marilyn Monroe and THIN MAN’s William Powell.
I was rather fond of yesterday’s installment, ANOTHER THIN MAN, feeling that it found that sweet spot in the series, that just right mixture of Nick and Nora playfully bantering with each other, murder mystery and laughs.
SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN brings Nick and Nora back to San Francisco and caught up in a gambling investigation that, of course, produces a couple dead bodies.
Their child is now walking and talking. In fact, the opening of the movie has Nick walking around a park with a leash. You expect him to be walking Asta, but instead he’s walking his son, dressed up smartly like a military officer for some reason. His son is the one walking Asta and we get a funny gag with little Nicky repeating his father’s words to him to the dog as they walk.
I like the personality of the kid, who seems to have inherited his mother’s ball-busting and his father’s sarcastic charm. Nicky doesn’t have much to do in the story other than open it, but I like where this addition to the Charles family is leading. I expect we’ll see more of Nicky in the final two films, especially since none other than Dean Stockwell plays the lad in the final film of the series: SONG OF THE THIN MAN.
While I don’t think this is the best directed of the four films so far, I like the crime side of the story more than the rest. I don’t know why, really, but it seemed like we follow Nick Charles through all the stages of detective work this time around and for the first time really see all the pieces being put together.
First there’s a dead jockey (always a good way to start off a movie) that was shot through the eye in a shower, then there’s an investigation into a gambling ring, crooked reports, blackmail, frame-ups and suicides oh my!
But the complexities of the mystery didn’t feel overwhelming to me, which is a benefit of having someone as fun to watch as William Powell picking them apart onscreen.
To my surprise Nora isn’t as prominently featured as she was in yesterday’s ANOTHER THIN MAN. She’s definitely a big part of the movie, but Nick goes off alone a bit more here and that may be one of the reasons this one doesn’t match up to the first of third film.
There’s no doubt these movies live and die by the chemistry of Powell and Loy. Their loving barbs are the backbone of these films and without it they’d be forgettable crime stories. I dig this crime in particular, but by itself it’s not all that much more interesting than your average episode of Dragnet. What’s interesting are the characters involved and Powell as the gumshoe trying to solve it.
The more screen time they give to Powell and Loy together, the better these films are, which is why I love the first and third film so much. There’s one fantastic scene in this film at the dinner table where little Nicky demands his father drink milk instead of his cocktail.
Nora can’t pass up this opportunity to put daddy under pressure and agrees wholeheartedly. Why, he has to drink the milk or else their son won’t drink his. Their servant (a hilariously un-PC Aunt Jemima of a woman) brings Nick a glass of milk and takes away his shaker and the annoyed fear on Nick’s face is priceless. Here’s a guy who faces thieves, murderers, blackmailers and politicians on a regular basis and the idea of drinking a glass of milk has him sweating.
Powell is magic in this scene as he theatrically takes the first gulp… then starts chugging, the idea is that his body has gone for so long without ingesting any liquid with actual nutritional value that he’s forgotten that he needed it.
What I particularly love about this scene is that Loy is an inch away from breaking character and cracking up the whole time. And she eventually does, but in keeping with Nora’s personality. You can tell it’s a genuine laugh and she was doing her damndest to keep it from busting out.
I mentioned above that this isn’t the best directed of the Thin Man films and it isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times WS Van Dyke (who seems to be taking a more ridiculous credit every passing film… on the last one he was WS Van Dyke II and on this one he was Maj. WS Van Dyke II) sped up the camera to make Asta run faster and he even slowed it down once for the dog to look like it was creeping along, but instead it looked like a nature documentary where we were about to see a crocodile eat a caribou.
That said, he handles the performers as well as ever. Powell and Loy by this time could be witty and charming in their sleep, but we also get Sam Levene back as Lt. Abrams, the high-strung cop working with Powell and newcomers Barry Nelson (as an aw, shucks good reporter trying to get to the bottom of this gambling ring), Donna Reed (yes, that Donna Reed) as the crime boss’ secretary and sweetheart of Nelson’s and the world famous Stella Adler as the crime boss’ moll.
Adler became a famous acting teacher and only appeared in three films herself (she was much more prolific in theater). This is one of those three films and she’s great in it. If you’re not familiar with her, look her up. She mentored Marlon Brando, De Niro and Beatty. She was a fascinating woman.
I also want to take a moment to highlight that this is the first Thin Man movie to not feature Francis Goodrich and Albert Hacket as screenwriters. Harry Kurnitz (who would later script WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and the AMADs A SHOT IN THE DARK and the really fun heist flick HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn) and Irving Brecher (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) take over and did a fine job. I thought some of the spark might leave the characters with Goodrich and Hacket away from the typewriter, but the biggest compliment I can give to Kurnitz and Brecher is that I didn’t miss the original screenwriters on this outing.
Final Thoughts: SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN is an entertaining addition to the run of THIN MAN films, but doesn’t set the world on fire. But this film does have the distinction of being the only Thin Man flick to feature the great Tor Johnson who would later rise to notoriety for his appearances in Ed Wood’s films.
Friday, April 24th: THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1944)