Synopsis: A jockey who threw a race is murdered in the locker room. “My, they’re strict at this track!” Nora Charles exclaims. With that, she (Myrna Loy) and hubby Nick (William Powell) are off to the races on another case of murder, mirth and perfect martinis. Highlights of this fourth Thin Man include a visit to the arena for the evening’s wrasslin’ and dinner at Mario’s Grotto where, no matter what anyone wants, the waiter insists upon the sea bass. As in all films in the series, the supporting cast is extraordinary, with Sam Levene, Barry Nelson, Donna Reed, Henry O’Neill and Stella Adler among Shadow’s heroes and possible villains. Red herrings abound. But we still recommend the sea bass.
Lieutenant Abrams: “You know that jockey Golez, the one who was caught throwing the fourth race yesterday? He was shot.”
Nora Charles: “My, they’re strict at this track!”
‘Shadow of the Thin Man’ is the third sequel in the ‘Thin Man’ series. By then, no doubt due to the newly implemented Hayes code, the franchise had dulled out the edges that were prominent in the original film and substituted it with a more family-friendly vibe, the accent being put on the humour and the blossoming family dynamics in the Charles’ household.
Whereas the first sequel ‘After the Thin Man‘ hinted at Nora’s pregnancy, the second, ‘Another Thin Man‘, used the Charles’ newborn son as a gag and part-time plot device. By ‘Shadow’, Nick, jr. is now old enough to read and write and is used as a foil for his parents’ adult shenanigans, such as drinking; Nick, jr. forces them to be more… um… “respectable”.
Interestingly enough, even though the series was white-washed and became less focused on the Charles’ flirtations and its whodunnits, ‘Shadow of the Thin Man’ actually provides its audience with a fairly intriguing murder mystery. As well, it more frequently suggests that danger is lurking just around the corner, injecting an ominous tone not found in the two previous films.
Not only do these two elements bring ‘Shadow of the Thin Man’ closer to its roots (although it is, admittedly, nowhere near the original ), but it provides the perfect cushion for the sometimes sappy aspects of the series, making it all the more appealing. Without this contrast, the picture would have devolved into fairly light-hearted fare; it would have been amusing, but unsatisfying.
The cast is all pretty good, but one gets the sense that, by this point, Powell and Loy aren’t as invested in their parts as they once were. It might only be due to the somewhat milquetoast script, but it feels like they’re slightly going through the motions – especially Loy, who is given far less interesting material now that her character is a parent; given the era, while Nick wanders about, Nora is less likely to.
This would be remedied in the next installment in the series, ‘The Thin Man Goes Home’, as Nora takes a more central place, but the reality is that, in cleaning up the Thin Man movies, the filmmakers squandered much of the spicy dynamic that originally made Nick and Nora such a delicious duo. They still remain a lot of fun, but they’re not as sensational as they once were.
Some might say that ‘Shadow of the Thin Man’ is a shadow of the original picture, that it is but a pale reflection of ‘The Thin Man‘. I would have to say that is entirely correct: there is continuity between them, but the focus has changed dramatically, going from film noir to saturday matinée fodder.
Still, it doesn’t prevent the picture from being enjoyable in its own right. In fact, it’s probably one of the better -if not the best- of the sequels. For fans of the series, ‘Shadow’ is a treat, having built itself up from the best of the previous installments. And the joy of it is that it’s also constructed so that even the uninitiated can enjoy it too.
In and of itself, ‘Shadow of the Thin Man’ gives momentum to a series that was in dire need of refueling. If not for it, I probably would have lost interest in Nick and Nora’s adventures, having been disappointed by the change in tone and the gradually less-inspired writing in the series since ‘The Thin Man’ first startled me with its wit and freshness.