“You see, when it comes to words like that, an illiterate person...” ~ Nick Charles
“Whaddya mean, illiterate? My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!” ~ Polly Byrnes
“Once a gumheel, always a gumheel, huh? Well I don’t like gumheels, but I thought you’d quit it when you married a pot of money.” ~ Dancer
“Did he just call me a pot?” ~ Nora Charles
“Are you packing?” ~ Nora
“Yes, dear, I’m putting away this liquor.” ~ Nick
“Aunt Katherine wants to speak to you.” ~ Nora
“What have I done now?” ~ Nick
Director W. S. Van Dyke reunited with series stars William Powell and Myrna Loy for After The Thin Man, the second in the series, which hit movie theatres in 1936. Following the characters created by Dashiell Hammett, the film carries on with the breezy mix of comedy and mystery of the original and puts the happily married couple in the midst of yet another case of murder, blackmail, accusations, and topping up of cocktails.
The film opens up with Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy) on their way home to San Francisco for New Year’s Eve in the wake of solving the Thin Man case. They’ve got their dog Asta (Skippy, reprising his role once more) along, and are anxious to get home and get some proper rest. Of course there are problems waiting for them when they get there- partygoers they don’t recognize in the house, and Asta having to deal with Mrs. Asta’s new paramour, who’s been getting some action.
The couple receive a summons from Nora’s aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph), the battleaxe who runs her extended family like her own personal firm. She despises Nick, what with him having a past as a private eye, and what with him being irreverent in her presence. And yet she has need of his help. Nora’s cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) has problems with her husband Robert (Alan Marshall), who’s disappeared, and Katherine wants him tracked down. The road leads to a nightclub, where Robert’s having an affair with the singer, and where he’s trying to get Selma’s former boyfriend David (James Stewart) to give him money so he can walk away from the marriage and David can have Selma back. It doesn’t take long before a body turns up and things get complicated.
It was inevitable after the success of The Thin Man that there would be a sequel (and in fact four more after this) featuring Dashiell Hammett’s characters Nick and Nora. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich returned with more of the smart dialogue, the rich sense of humour, and the brisk pace. I particularly like the way they craft the motive of the killer this time out, a motive borne out of pure malevolence. That malevolence is more than balanced out though by the light tone between the lead characters, since Nick and Nora seem to go through life amused by it all. Van Dyke returned as well, applying a good touch to the film, giving the audience another fresh and funny movie that adds onto the franchise and doesn’t disappoint.
As before, the cast is outstanding, with only Powell and Loy (and Skippy) returning from the original. Jessie Ralph does well as the tyrannical family matriarch- one can like the performance and dislike the character, and that’s the case with Katherine, who seems to want to control every aspect of her family and hates the very hint of scandal. While Nora doesn’t put up with it, Selma wilts under that domination (actually Katherine reminds me of a couple of battleaxes I don’t much care for). Sam Levene debuts this time out as the local police lieutenant, Abrams, who quickly learns the value of working with Nick, and comes across as gruff but professional. Joseph Calleia lurks around the film as a nightclub owner and grifter nicknamed Dancer, a particularly nasty bit of work. Alan Marshall is highly unlikable as the sleazy husband Robert, who’s only interested in fleecing his wife for money.
Elissa Landi has an interesting role as Selma. Having had been far too long under the domination of the family matriarch, she’s become withdrawn and fragile in personality- her mental state is called into question. Landi plays to that in her performance, giving us a character who seems perpetually on edge. This is an early role for James Stewart, for whom major stardom was just around the corner. Stewart spent much of his career playing inherently decent characters (even in a case like his character in Vertigo, where the role was a deeply flawed man). His character David is presented here as the love unrequited guy who’s always held onto the torch and is supportive. There’s another aspect to the character though that’s just a marvel to watch.
Myrna Loy has a ball once again as Nora. I like the strength and conviction of the character, not willing to put up with the domination of her aunt. And I like how Loy continues to play to just how smart Nora is, as well as her sense of humour and fondness for her husband- one could argue that one of the many reasons she married him was that she knew it would drive her aunt up the wall. She’s got a secret of her own this time out; her tease at the end “and you call yourself a detective” is hilarious. There’s a warmth and sassiness to the character that’s irresistible, and it’s certainly on display throughout this film.
Roger Ebert once said that William Powell was to dialogue what Astaire was to dance. Powell’s take on Nick reflects that- a character who seems amused by life, as if walking about in a daze, and yet perfectly aware of what’s going on around him, putting clues together and then revealing it all in the end, a nice touch for a detective. Nick is smart- though Aunt Katherine wouldn’t think so- and has a sarcastic streak that really appeals to me. He might not take life seriously (most of the time), but he’s capable of being serious when occasion calls for it. Powell and Loy bring such a strong chemistry to their performances that their work together is a delight to watch unfold.
After The Thin Man was a worthy follow-up to the first film, a splendidly fun film in and of itself. The playful banter between the leads, the mix of comedy and mystery, and the sense of a cast enjoying themselves and of characters having a ball (well, unless those characters were getting arrested) are all ingredients that make the film come alive. It’s a pleasure to watch, and the gathering of the suspects is even more of a showstopper than was the case in the original film. This is a film you should see for yourself.