Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Movies: Shadows of The Thin Man

Quick – who kills who in The Thin Man?

Yeah, I never remember either. That’s not Dashiell Hammett’s fault. As two recent Mystery*File pieces observe, the plot is certainly solid enough. But it’s the barrage of booze-fueled badinage between Nick and Nora Charles, played in the 1934 film and its five sequels by William Powell and Myrna Loy, that gives the story its kick.

The blend of comedy, mystery and romance developed by Hammett proved so successful that plenty of similar movies were made. Without planning to – I don’t really plan anything – I recently watched three of them.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) tries to recapture the Thin Man magic in the most obvious way by casting Powell as a society doctor who has split from mystery writer spouse Jean Arthur. There’s still clearly a spark between them, and it’s fanned when Powell is implicated in a race track murder.

Bradford, alas, is a dud; in the interests of full disclosure, I confess to liberal use of the fast-forward button, mainly to get to a wrap-up that makes up in ingenuity what it lacks in plausibility. Part of my problem is that I’m not really a Jean Arthur fan. When I see her I think she’s Gracie Allen, and when I realize my mistake I am invariably disappointed. The movie does feature Eric Blore in one of his 77 performances as a butler. Only 49 more to go.

1938’s The Mad Miss Manton teamed up Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda three years before their legendary pairing in The Lady Eve. Stanwyck plays the proto-Paris Hilton, a socialite and leader of the “Park Avenue Pranksters” regularly derided as frivolous in the press. When she claims to have discovered a dead body that then disappears, newspaper editor Fonda makes it his mission to discredit her. The plot barely hangs together, but at least amateur sleuth Stanwyck makes her share of mistakes. The sight of seven women in furs blundering around crime scenes has its own rewards. For a frothy movie it has a dark palette, no surprise considering that it was filmed by future noir master Nicholas Musuraca. His photography adds some genuine menace to a subway-set climax.

The Princess Comes Across (1936) strikes the perfect balance of elements. Carole Lombard plays the title role, a member of Swedish royalty bound on a cruise ship for her Hollywood debut. Also on board is womanizing bandleader Fred MacMurray (he sings!), a blackmailer, an escaped murderer, and a quintet of internationally renowned detectives (including Sig Ruman and Mischa Auer). Lombard sends up Greta Garbo beautifully, particularly once it’s revealed early on that Princess Olga is actually Brooklyn’s own Wanda Nash, desperate for a break.

I’m kicking myself for missing another example of the form, 1938’s There’s Always A Woman, with Melvyn Douglas and Chez K favorite Joan Blondell from a story by Manton’s Wilson Collison. Ed Gorman and Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear recommend it, which means I’ll scour the TCM listings for the next airing.