Today’s guest post from Priscilla presents a look at the 1939 film classic Another Thin Man:
Another Thin Man was made as part of the enormously successful Thin Man Series, which spanned 13 years with six movies. It capitalized on the delectable pairing of William Powell with Myrna Loy, an on-screen couple who had set American movie-going hearts on fire.
The combination was truly perfect. Powell’s debonairness, distinguished good looks, incomparable voice, and jolly personality with Loy’s sophisticated beauty, gut-instinct comedic timing, and quick wit gave audiences a pair who appeared to be the most genuinely in love, sincerely married, and perfectly matched couple in the history of the world. Under the direction of W.S. Van Dyke (mostly) with a fantastic screenplay based on top-rate literature, the Thin Man Series was a masterpiece waiting to happen.
This particular entry, the third in the series, is one of the best, though it would be hard to say which entry isn’t one of the best. Another Thin Man is essentially an exercise in misdirection, expertly done. The film opens with retired-from-detecting Nick and Nora (we know how long that will last) taking an apartment in New York with new baby, Nicky Jr. As usual, it isn’t long before Nick has run into both some ex-con buddies of his and another murder. In this case the murder occurs on the remote country estate to which Nora has taken Nick for a quiet weekend of business. The murdered man is Colonel MacFay, the old business partner of Nora’s deceased father, and manager of her millions.
A really delightfully solid supporting cast, including Marjorie Main and Shemp Howard, makes up a cloud of suspects and misdirectors: blackmailers, thugs, thieves, Cuban gangsters, dangerous women, double-timers, disgruntled employees, and opportunistic family members. Just try to guess who-dunnit in this tangled mess where evidence, testimonies, and even the camera are trying to point you in the wrong direction.
I’m not going to give the solution away. That’s just no fun. But I do want to discuss some noteworthy elements of the film’s composition. One of those is the lighting. This is an element of filmmaking that we don’t often pay much attention to because we’re looking at the actors, sets, and wardrobes. There is something about the way this film looks, however, that belies its excellence in set lighting. When Nick, Nora, Asta, and the baby are en route to the Colonel’s country estate, the dampness and coldness of the setting is palpable, even though it’s not raining on set. This is the result of clever lighting and film editing which, when combined with the suggestive dialogue of the characters, produces a convincing effect. Lighting is everything in black and white, much more important than it is for Technicolor. In Another Thin Man it is done noticeably well.
Thematically, the film is somewhat sordid. At least three people die unnatural deaths, and even the family pet meets a gruesome end. More than one throat is slit. Yet the film retains its charm because we are spared the blood and gore and graphic conversations that “entertain” us in modern television and cinema.
The constant reference to Nick’s drinking habit is continued from the previous films, but less of his drinking is shown on-camera or made an issue of, in spite of Nora’s pick-pocket theft of the liquor cabinet keys from the Colonel. Picking up the slack from the lack of alcohol content in the film, however, is casual conversation about adultery. Nick is the kind of ingratiating character who wins your trust immediately, so even though he is unfailingly popular with the ladies we have no doubt that he remains faithful to Nora – not for lack of opportunity but out of preference. The other characters, however, (Nora not included) not only expect but encourage Nick to pursue adulterous relationships, laughingly. This is expressed on more than one occasion and, as it adds nothing to the film, becomes tedious. It is probably the movie’s sole weak point. The emphasis on marital infidelity is contrasted by Nora’s unwavering support of and loyalty to her husband, particularly when police investigators attempt to turn her against her husband by trumping up stories of his previous girlfriends. Nora is steadfast, as is Nick. The films leave you in doubt that it could ever not be that way.
Loy and Powell made such a perfect couple on-screen, in fact, that it never occurred to the public that they might not be married in real life. On one notable occasion, the booking agent at a hotel reserved a single room for the stars to share, assuming that they were indeed a happily married couple. Needless to say, other arrangements had to be made when the two stars, never married, arrived for their stay.
I wish they had been married. It would have been truly a triumph of wit and laughter and legend. Hollywood made a number of teams famous: Hudson and Day, Olivier and Leigh, Burton and Taylor, Bogie and Baby, Hepburn and Tracy. But none were as believable, natural, and right a combination as Powell and Loy.
Priscilla is a lover of all things “old film” and a fanatic of anything to do with Doris Day. She writes her blog, Reel Revival, in the hope of reviving widespread interest in old movies.