At least once a year, I watch all six Thin Man movies. It is my own little festival. I have a comfortable chair and a relatively large flat screen TV in my small apartment in San Francisco. I am the only festival attendee, so it’s just me, an orange and a bowl of popcorn.
I don’t come to this subject with any particular expertise, no deep knowledge of Dashiell Hammett. It’s as much nostalgic as anything else. When I was young these films were on the late-night movies that followed the local news. A shamelessly self-promoting Indianapolis used car salesman who called himself “The King” hosted the program. He stood in front of a blackboard (as high-tech as it got in those days) slashing prices on various automobiles as he yelled, “The King don’t care.” Then we would go back to a grainy but charming Nick and Nora Charles and that wonderful blend of suspense and comedy, bright wit and dark shadows, the high life and the low life. If that wasn’t the birth of my love for private eye stories, it certainly enhanced it. Such was the life of the young me in a hide-a-bed, with the black and white television flashing noirish shadows on the wall.
If you want to have your own holiday festival, here are the Nick and Nora Charles films in the order they were made, noting that Hammett had decreasing influence on the final cut and virtually none for the last couple of movies.
|Nora, Asta, Nick|
The Thin Man — This is the one that started them all, the one based on an actual Dashiell Hammett novel and made William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles one of America’s favorite film couples. The film has a Christmas-New Year’s holiday theme, though I’m happy to say, it’s nothing sappy. Maureen O’Sullivan plays the only sane member of a crazy family and a young and debonair Cesar Romero plays a gigolo. What else? The film is a fantastic reflection of the times. We get a glimpse of post-depression, post-prohibition 1934.
After The Thin Man — This is one of my favorites. One of the reasons is that the lovely couple return to San Francisco and also because it takes place on New Years Eve. Jimmy Stewart co-stars. Look for the usual brawls, a few red herrings, a great nightclub in Chinatown, and glimpse of the city’s bustling Market Street of 1936.
Another Thin Man — Baby makes three. Sheldon Leonard plays the heavy in this film set in Manhattan and Long Island. A creaky old mansion and creaky old people, says the creaky blogger, as well an elaborately designed murder and a slew of petty ante gangsters inhabit the whodunit. Watch for the big production number.
Shadow Of The Thin Man — We’re back in San Francisco and off to the races. Donna Reed, Stella Adler and Barry Nelson are in the cast of this mystery featuring such characters as Spider Web and Rainbow Benny (they may be the same person, I’m not sure). Pay attention to the wrestling match scene. Nice twist at the end. This time the big brawl is at an Italian restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Thin Man Goes Home — Maybe because it’s the small town backdrop. Maybe it’s because Nick has given up his martinis for apple cider and it seems to have turned him into Ozzie Nelson. Whatever the cause, this is my least favorite. While all the films offer some wonderful silliness, this one just seems contrived without redemption of a knowing wink. If you had to cut one from this list, this would be it. Otherwise, it’s worthwhile just to know you saw them all.
Song Of The Thin Man — It’s nice the series didn’t end on a sour note. This one bounces back. New producers, directors and writers. Though the last couple of films were only based on “characters created by Dashiell Hammett,” this one finds the formula. The film also benefits from a great supporting cast that includes one of my favorites from the “B” picture cast of characters, Gloria Grahame, plus Keenan Wynn, Jane Meadows, and a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick and Nora’s son. We are treated with ‘40s jazz, a floating casino and nightclub (Shades of Mr. Lucky), wet, foggy nights, and a telltale necklace. One of the pleasures is to see the stylish couple thirteen years after the first film, still elegant, still funny.
If you are so inclined, think about a Thin Man Holiday Festival. Light-hearted, celebratory and certainly auld lang syne. Because it is a festival and especially because it is The Thin Man, martinis and champagne are nearly mandatory accompaniments. Chances are Nick and Nora will be drinking with you. Not to insult my hard drinking friends, but if you want something non-alcoholic, follow Nick’s lead, maybe Martinelli’s sparkling cider. A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street step aside.
Note: This is a repost, revised to be more timely.