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From the Vaults: 'After the Thin Man' (1936)

January 20, 2011 |  1:12 am

After Are there detectives anywhere in pop culture more fun than Nick and Nora Charles? Oh, Inspector Clouseau may be amusing, but you'd never want to have dinner at his house: at best, he'd spill the soup in your lap. At the Charles house, Nora would serve you cocktails while wearing a lulu of a dress, while Nick would entertain you while unmasking a killer. There might be gunshots, but you'd probably never be in danger. What better way to spend an evening?

"The Thin Man" was the last novel written by Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote "The Maltese Falcon." It came out in January 1934; with remarkable efficiency, a movie starring William Powell and the divine Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora was also out in 1934.

Here, in the first of five "Thin Man" sequels, Nick and Nora Charles are on their way back to the West Coast after solving a murder in New York with the help of many martinis and their wire-haired terrier Asta (who was a schnauzer in the books). Nick is a retired detective who'd come back into the game to help solve the disappearance of the titular thin man, and Nora is his witty, very game, socialite wife. (In the first movie he knocks her out to protect her from gunfire, and she revives irate, yelling, "I knew you'd take him, but I wanted to see you do it!")

Afterscene In the sequel, they come rolling into California and immediately into conflict with Nora's high-society relatives. Hysterical cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) is looking for her missing husband, while tyrannical Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) tries to hush up any scandal. Meanwhile, a guy named David (James Stewart!) is hanging around making puppy-dog eyes at Selma. The search for Selma's husband draws Nick and Nora into a byzantine criminal underworld centered around a seedy Chinese-themed nightclub.

It shouldn't really have a different feel from the first movie. Dashiell Hammett never wrote a sequel to "The Thin Man" but he still gets a story credit here, and the script is written by the same people (husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich). Director W.S. Van Dyke is back. But this just feels less fun to me than the first movie did.

Maybe it's just that in the first movie the Charleses on vacation and here they're not.Or maybe it's that way too much screen time is devoted to the crowd-pleasing Asta -- he's cute, but I'm here for the repartee, dammit. (Nora: "Are you packing?" Nick: "Yes, dear, I'm putting away this liquor.")

Or maybe it's the shadow cast by this movie's central mystery and its theme of infidelity -- underscored by the Asta scenes, in which the dog keeps catching a black Scottie terrier hanging around the pen that houses Asta's mate and puppies. Nick and Nora never get involved with that, which seems weird; Asta has to deal with the problem on his own by finding and blocking a hole in the fence. I guess his "detective" skills are meant to be adorable, but c'mon -- don't his people care? They love this dog!

Much like Asta's ditzy mate, who just sits wagging her tail in the pen, Selma doesn't have any idea what she wants. She loves her rotten husband, she loves nice guy Jimmy Stewart; she wants to please her family, she wants to be alone; she wants to go out, she wants to stay home. She's exasperating. Nick and Nora's impossibly perfect marriage is a relief by comparison, but I just didn't much enjoy watching them sort this mystery out. The plot's a distraction from their witty banter; I'd rather just skip the movie and go to their place for dinner.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Image: William Powell's Nick tries to figure out why Myrna Loy's Nora is having strange food cravings in the middle of the night, in a scene that sets up the movie's brilliant final zinger: "And you call yourself a detective."