Thin Man x 6


You’re not wrong to think that a lot of movie studio heads are so myopic that they offer one sequel after another. If it worked once, why not twice, thrice, or more? There have been 10 X-Men movies, for instance. It’s not a new phenomenon. As a case in point, consider six classic films that featured Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) that took its name from the first film, The Thin Man. The movies were famed for their snarky humor and the witty repartee between Powell and Loy, the latter of whom never enjoyed as much success in other roles as she did as Nora.


Five of the six productions were adapted from stories penned by the great detective writer Dashiell Hammett, though most follow the same format. Nick is a “retired” private detective who has given up the flatfoot trade and has taken up professional drinking, courtesy of his marriage to Nora, a wealthy heiress. Of course, Nick can’t really retire. His reputation is such that he always manages to get sucked into another case. There is an endless parade of scruffy characters from Nick’s past that pop in and out and he’s such a rascal himself that even those he’s sent to jail consider him a friend. The feisty Nora finagles herself into a pickle from which she must be extricated. (These presage plot setups for I Love Lucy.)


The other major character is the Charles’ wire-haired fox terrier Asta, who accompanies them everywhere. Asta’s real name was Skippy and he was probably the highest paid pooch in media history. He’s a dog, but what a ham! Each film allows Asta to do his shtick. Another constant is that the films end Agatha Christie-style with all the accused in one place. Nick is pretty sure who is guilty, but feigns ignorance until the perp makes a mistake and Nick spools out the logic that condemns the guilty party. Because he’s trying to quit being a detective, Nick usually gives crime-solving credit to bumbling police investigators who couldn’t solve a three-piece puzzle.


Brilliant plotting is not a Thin Man staple. We are treated to don’t-tax-your-brain romps with amusing central characters. We are drawn in because the principals are charming in a plastered sort of way. Even by the heavy drinking standards of the 1930s/40s it’s hard to imagine any human could consume as much booze as Nick and Nora without lapsing into a coma, but our enjoyment is enhanced by ignoring all of that.


Here’s your thumbnail of the six films.


The Thin Man (1934) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 93 minutes


Start with this one, as it’s your intro to Nick, Nora, and Asta. Many people assume the namesake “Thin Man” is Nick Charles, but it’s actually Clyde Wynant, who has gone missing on a business trip. His daughter wants Nick to find him, but the murder victim is his former secretary Julia Wolf. It’s one of the weaker Thin Man plots, but the goal of launching the franchise succeeded brilliantly. ★★★


After the Thin Man (1936) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 112 minutes


This one got the ball rolling. Nick and Nora return to their home in San Francisco, where several of Nora’s snooty family members look down upon Nick because of his immigrant roots, his scruffy friends, his former unsavory profession, perceptions he’s dull-witted, and his heavy drinking. They’re only right about the last of these. Nora’s cousin Selma is married to Robert Landis, a n’er do-well playboy who has disappeared. Nick and Nora take us into a shady nightclub and inside a Chinese gambling ring. Jimmy Stewart plays a vital role and we meet police Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene), who redefines the term clueless. Nick has to unravel a higher body count in this one, which ends with Nick and Nora on a train back to New York and the revelation that Nick will soon be a father. ★★★★


Another Thin Man (1939), Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 103minutes


Welcome to domesticity, if not domestic bliss. Nicky Junior is three when Nick is prevailed upon to investigate threats against Colonel MacFay, a former business partner of Nora’s father. When MacFay nonetheless meets his demise, Nick is unsatisfied with whom the police finger as the murderer. The attempt to turn Nick into a sober and conventional father has no chance of happening and we chuckle over the absurd attempt, especially when some of Nick’s ex-con friends lend their skills to babysitting. (One is Shemp Howard, a sometime member of The Three Stooges.) Virginia Grey, a well-known actress in her day appears as Lois MacFay. ★★★


Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 93 minutes


A dead jockey, wrestling, more of Nick’s low-life chums, and who knew that fearless Nick had vertigo. Little Nicky is now a chatterbox and Lt. Abrams is still about as sharp as an anvil. Donna Reed guests, as does the underrated African American actress Louise Beavers. Intriguingly, Stella Adler of the famed acting school also appears, though her role wasn’t exactly a promo for her studio. The rotund Tor Johnson, who plays grappler Jack the Ripper really was a pro wrestler when he wasn’t acting. ★★★ 


The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) Directed by Richard Thorpe, 100 minutes


Film five had an original screenplay and story rather than adapting a Dashiell Hammett story. This appears to have liberated Powell and Loy and reinvigorated a sagging concept. It also helps that Nicky Junior is away at private school and we can dispense with Nick’s attempts to be a doting dad. Nick and Nora travel to Nick’s New England hometown to visit his parents. We learn that Bertram, his physician father, had hoped Nick would follow in his footsteps. Though Papa Charles loves his son, he is disappointed by his dissolute ways and refuses to believe Nick is on the wagon. Because Nick’s investigative reputation precedes him, locals are sure he is on a case and when a local factory worker is found with a bullet in him, they are correct. Toss in a crazy hermit, an ugly painting, a military secret, and still another corpse and it makes for the best-plotted of the series. Will Nick make his parents proud? ★★★★ ½.  


Song of the Thin Man (1947) Directed by Edward Buzzell, 86 minutes


It’s back to Hammett for this adaptation, though the major realization is that all good things must come to an end. Loy, though officially just 42, has aged before our eyes and has lost a lot of her glamour. Most of the action takes place on a gambling ship so naturally, allegations of an unpaid debt factor into one murder and then another. Nick’s failure to make sense of jazz lingo provides some pretty dated humor, but Nick tackles a case that hinges on gangsters, musical earrings, a matchbox, hanky-panky, and antique guns. Dean Stockwell, who died a few weeks ago, portrays Nick Junior. It’s not a bad film, but the energy flags and the Thin Man franchise was laid to rest. ★★★ ½


Rob Weir


French Dispatch Doesn't Translate Well





Directed by Wes Anderson

Searchlight Pictures, 103 minutes, R (nudity, language, sexual references)

★★ ½


Wes Anderson drives me crazy. He made a nearly perfect film in Rushmore back in 1998, but he has been akin to a sloppy sophomore ever since. Nearly all of his films have absolutely brilliant ideas and sequences. The problem is that he stuffs his holiday birds with unappetizing innards.


After 30 minutes of The French Dispatch, I dared think, “At last! Wes Anderson has fulfilled his promise.” I should have left the theater a happy man instead of suffering through the following 73.  With this film, Anderson has officially replaced Quentin Tarantino as cinema’s reigning enfant terrible.


The setup is inspired. Bill Murray is Arthur Howitzer, Junior, the editor of a Kansas newspaper with an overseas office based in Ennui, France. (Pay attention to small details in the film, as many of them will induce guffaws.) The only lump in the pulp is that upon his death, the paper is to be closed and its assets sold. Murray is perfect in the role of a droll, world-weary publisher/editor who can be talked into just about any harebrained assignment as long as the writers stay within his word limit and endure his sharp editor’s pen.


The French Dispatch is not really a single movie; it’s a series of vignettes that use newspaper sections as a loose way of force fitting five sketches cohere. I’m not an Owen Wilson fan, but he’s a proper mix of insouciance and conman as Herbsaint Sazerac in “The Cycling Reporter.” His putative assignment is to contribute to the paper’s Travel section, but it’s just an excuse for him to ride his bike around the French countryside and go native. It was like an understated version of Michael Palin’s Monty Python cycling gag.


Anderson’s pièce de résistance is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which takes place inside a prison for dangerous inmates. It falls under the Art section, where reporter J. K. L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton) recounts the rise of art world sensation Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro in an Oscar-nomination-worthy role). His abstract nudes have caught the art world’s attention, though there are a few flies on the easel. First, Moses is a murderous psychotic; second his model Simone (Léa Seydoux) is both a prison guard and the only person who Moses fears and obeys. Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, and Henry Winkler also appear in this devastating takedown of art “professionals,” public taste, and gallery-owner greed.


Perhaps you already detect a potential problem. We’ve already met eight leading actors and numerous second bananas. Politics gets a workout in “Revisions and Manifesto,” covered by reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). I am one of McDormand’s biggest fans, but I’m not sure what in the name of spilt ink she is doing in this piece–perhaps attempting a Dorothy Parker/Martha Gellhorn/Joan Didion mashup. It appears as if Anderson intended a satire of France’s May '68 debacle, though the entire sequence is a mess and a dull one at that. Timothée Chalfont is Zeffirelli, a libidinous revolutionary who can definitely be bought and Lyné Khoudri is Juliette, who seems to be little more than a fiery waif with a head full of slogans and not much else.


This is followed by “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” narrated and starring Jeffrey Wright as a food reporter. If you thought “Revisions and Manifesto” was boring, this vignette will have you staring at the calendar. More big names float in and out of an unappetizing look at Keystone Kops-like police whose gustatory talents outstrip their detective skills: Willem DaFoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Liev Schreiber….


By the time we get back to Kansas for Howitizer’s demise and with it the folding of the paper, add appearances from others you might know–Griffin Dunne, Bruno Delbonnel, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman–and toss in Anjelica Huston’s narration, we have run through 47 actors in billed roles and dozens more add-ins. Do the math and you’ll quickly surmise that almost everyone in the film should have been listed as having a cameo part. It’s too much and can only be accomplished via the cinematic equivalent of shoehorning. Anderson co-produced the film, but one wonders why the other two–Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales–didn’t make Anderson flesh out the screenplay that he wrote, and give editor Andrew Weisblum marching orders to whip the film into an even consistency. But I suppose Anderson is now the poster boy for hipsters and the self-absorbed. It's all a pity, as this could have been a screaming triumph. Instead, two-thirds of it is a dull thud.


Rob Weir