It’s New Year’s Eve, Nick and Nora Charles have returned to the West Coast, and the philandering hubby of Nora’s cousin has gone missing. Round up the unusual suspects.
The stars (plus the four-footed one!), writers and director of The Thin Man reunite for a giddy second comedy whodunit. Myrna Loy is Nora, who by all accounts doesn’t scold, doesn’t nag and looks far too pretty in the morning. William Powell is Nick, retired from sleuthing but hardly retiring when it comes to a case more scrambled than the 3 A.M. eggs he whips up. And rising star James Stewart leads a tip-top supporting cast. “This is a fine way to start the New Year,” Nick says as he springs Nora from lockup. Indeed, it is.
I have no idea if ‘The Thin Man‘ was always intended as the first part of a series of films, but it certainly looks as though the thought crossed the filmmakers’ minds by the second installment in the eventual franchise. By ‘After the Thin Man’, intention is put into exploring and expanding Nick and Nora Charles’ personal lives further and further, giving us a not only a more in-depth sense of who they are, but also of the direction where their lives will go in the long-term.
Unfortunately, most of it is done in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, for laughs, turning what could be excellent character development into cartoon fodder. For instance, after arriving back home in San Francisco, their dog Asta is shown coming home to ‘the wife and kids’ only to find out that he’s been cuckolded. It’s already bad enough that someone decided that audiences would appreciate getting to know the dog more, but to turn it into a farce had my head shaking.
The tone of this first sequel is so vastly different from the original picture that I wonder if the series would have been a success if this had been the tone all along. I mean, what made ‘The Thin Man’ so popular was its particular mix of murder mystery and rapid-fire banter – the dark and the light, so to speak. I don’t know if having skewed the balance in favour of the comedic elements would have been a good way to start – there were plenty of such movies around already, so I wonder if ‘The Thin Man’ would have stood out from the pack.
Proving just how different the pictures are from one another, the aptly-titled ‘After the Thin Man’ starts with the Charles coming back from New York; we end up spending the first quarter of an hour watching them deal with all of the characters in their midst. This serves to cement the portrayal of Nick as a good-natured character with objectionable connections and Nora as the respectable one, the one with the money and friends in the right circles. But it takes a good 20 minutes before the plot is even hinted at, whereas the reverse was true in ‘The Thin Man’: first they set-up the plot, then we were introduced to the Charles.
At least it’s a direct follow-up to the original, in that it takes place immediately in the days following the “Thin Man” case. In that sense, I think that it’s a well-conceived sequel, because it isn’t just another story with the same characters – it actually attempts to connect the two and build on the previous storyline. It’s certainly not a Hollywood tradition, likely because of a concern that people wouldn’t go see a connected story without seeing the previous installment, but I think this often provides the best results. And, anyway, they spent plenty of time setting up the characters for the uninitiated.
Everyone key player returned for this sequel, including the stars, director, producer, and writers (amongst others). But where there was magic the first time around, we get the sense that the filmmakers tried too hard to repeat the formula – even though their focus was off. For instance, they focused even more on the repartee this time around, clearly building on what audiences liked the most in the first ‘Thin Man’. But the dialogue is weaker, less substantial, and certainly not nearly as clever. Instead we get much more corniness and fewer actual zingers. And a whole lot of misfires.
As for the murder mystery, it’s constructed decently enough. This time, it’s woven into a whole lot of family business on Nora’s side of the equation – which means that Nick is dragged into trying to shedding light on the many secrets that are preventing the truth from coming out. It’s a tough job, however, because he’s hardly a favourite of Nora’s imposing Aunt Katherine – and she has a lot of influence over the rest, hovering over them constantly. This means that, not only is Nick less likely to be privy to the facts, they all have their secret lives as well.
One thing that bothered me the most about this sequel is its resolution. Since the original wrapped things up around a dinner table, with Nick probing every possible suspect in an effort to bait the guilty party, and it was a success with audiences, they did the same here. The problem with this formula is that it contradicts Nick’s reputation as an incredibly perceptive and intelligent gumshoe and paints him instead as an unfathomably scattershot person with tremendous amounts of good fortune on his side. Personally, I think that using the same method twice in a row was overkill; they should have shown him use his famed powers of deduction more.
Still, ‘After the Thin Man’ makes for an intriguing mystery story in the end, even if it dilutes the formula of the original along the way. The writing and acting is less sharp (I can’t at all fathom why the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. It must have been a weak year! ), but William Powell and Myrna Loy’s charisma manages to overcome these limitations. It’s also pretty awesome to see James Stewart in one of his first roles, before he went one to silver screen greatness. All in all, ‘After the Thin Man’ is a pleasant enough concoction to warrant a viewing or two. It ain’t the ‘The Thin Man’, but it follows in its footsteps well enough to be worth it.