Lady on a Train (1945): A Pleasing Blend of Screwball and Noir

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The ever effervescent Deanna Durbin is sprawled out on the seat of a train car feverishly reading the pages of her thrilling mystery novel aloud. She happens to glance out the window only to stop and see a man bludgeoned to death with a crowbar! It was through the window shade, and we don’t see any blood, conveniently, but we do have a story.

Although it’s a corny hook, Lady on a Train goes with it full throttle. She’s left her loving daddy behind in San Francisco for the streets of New York City. H.G. has entrusted her to one of his most accomplished underlings, Haskell of the New York office. That’s all well and good, but the best part is the typically befuddled, huffing, stuttering shtick of the every reliable Edward Everett Horton.

Durbin brings her chipper energy into all sorts of scenarios beginning with her leaving her oblivious minder in the dust as she looks to get the word on the murder she witnessed. The police station is manned by an officer (William Frawley) who finds her story pretty thin and how could you blame him? It’s utterly ludicrous.

But always the fix-it girl, Nicki Collins goes sleuthing on her own, with a little qualified help that is. She resolves to track down the mystery writer of her new favorite page-turner, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), accosting him at work and following him and his put-upon fiancee (Patricia Morrison) to the theater, bugging him even more.

All these elements feel like well-trod screwball paces, which they are. Surely, this is the man who will fall for her persistent charms — eventually. Thankfully Lady on The Train is a mash-up, leveraging all of its assets. Because we never forget this is a mystery and yet set during the Christmas holiday as it is, we have dashes of yuletide cheer sprinkled in.  Of course, Durbin has quite the pair of pipes so we have to have a few token tunes thrown in. It always keeps us entertained.

However, it’s at the very same newsreel she crashes, Nicki realizes the man she saw murdered — Josiah Warring — shipping magnate and newsreel star. What else is there to do but go traipsing around the frozen grounds of the deceased in her heels — of course. She somehow wanders in on the reading of the will and finds herself conveniently dawning an alias as Margo Martin who just so happened to be the fiancee and rich new heir to the dearly departed.

His two dear nephews are present (Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy) as well as the scandalized Aunt Charlotte. She cannot stand such a harlot in her presence. Of course, other menacing characters are working behind the scenes. A thick-jawed chauffeur (Allan Jenkins) and a dubious man with glasses (George Colouris) always stroking his cat sinisterly, run things in the creaky old manor. Somehow Nicki gets out of quite the jam and even makes quite a convincing chair as well. Lucille Ball would be proud.

The music mentioned in passing arrives. It brings the story to a standstill with a version of “Silent Night” relayed over the phone to her father, melodious but completely out of left field. When you have Deanna Durbin it’s a must to have her sing. She does it later as well giving a knockout floorshow to keep her cover, conveniently locking her alter ego in a closet and getting everyone else to keep mum.

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The movie is continually piled high with bits of mischief comical and otherwise. Her mystery-writing partner-in-crime gets in a wine cellar fistfight as she looks to evade the men in pursuit of her. She conveniently holds the plot’s MacGuffin in her possession — a pair of bloody slippers — while also turning his girlfriend off for good. The final act keeps up the shenanigans as the murder plot is revealed in a pleasing fashion.

It’s true The Lady on a Train finds itself an agreeable niche between screwball and mystery drama. As such, it just might be about the perfect vehicle for Deanna Durbin’s talents, although she, regrettably, would leave Hollywood for good soon thereafter. The story is not afraid to get a little crazy — leaning into its wonkiness outright — and yet there are interludes of definite intrigue.

It comes down to the actors. Horton and Bellamy come off as screwball mainstays. The likes of Duryea and Coulouris couldn’t be more noir if they tried, with archetypes literally inbred into their character DNA. It’s Deanna Durbin’s charm that allows the picture to carve out its rambunctious path. She spearheads the wild ride with all sorts of plates spinning and bits of thread getting tangled, representing all the people and things she finds herself caught up in.

To its credit, what could have been a jumbled mess endears itself as a mixed-bag of all sorts of fun. It’s one of Durbin’s finest outings. Pleasant surprises, however small, are sometimes the most enjoyable.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Woman in The Window (1944)

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The first time I ever saw The Woman in The Window it always struck me as odd. Here was the fellow who was known as a gangster through and through and yet he was playing a bookish professor buried in his work and obsessed about psychoanalytic theory. His idea for a fine time is conversing with his intellectual friends (Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon) at the Stork Club. He’s the epitome of middle-aged solidity and stodginess as he so aptly puts it.

But in confronting these very things, you realize Robinson might have enjoyed any opportunity to get away from what everybody seemed to peg him as — to exercise a certain amount of elasticity as an actor — to be the antithesis of his image. This is all mere conjecture, mind you, because as the story progresses, you realize the character is a bit mundane.

Regardless, veteran Hollywood screenwriter Nunnally Johnson spins a story of psychological intrigue as his first showcase for his newly founded production firm International Pictures. This Fritz Lang effort along with a handful of others would instigate the stylistic categorization of “film noir” by French critics in the post-war years. There’s little doubt it fits many of the fluid conventions of noir. Though overshadowed by the even more sinister Scarlet Street from the following year, it is a genre classic in its own right.

As alluded to already, it’s also steeped in psychology. In fact, it gets knee deep in it from the opening moments in such a fashion that we know it will remain all but integral for the entire run of the narrative. Professor Wanley is enraptured by an image, a portrait of a woman to be exact, and it elicits the same spell Gene Tierney would have in Preminger’s Laura (1944). But of course, it is the woman being animated for real that brings true life to the movie and it’s no different here.

This brings us to the part that’s actually the most gratifying and probably would have been the most enjoyable to play. That of the eponymous woman staring back through the window. Joan Bennet is positively bewitching and grouped with Scarlet Street (1945), it remains some of the defining work of her career, which is hardly something to be dismissive of.

As best as it can be described, she has a pair of those coaxing, inviting eyes. Bennett, to a degree, seems to play up her Hedy Lamarr appeal with jet black hair but her looks are her own as is the spellbinding performance and it works wonders starting with the man on the screen opposite her.

He foregoes a burlesque show to engage in some “light” after dinner reading of Song of Songs. Though he’s probably looking at it from a purely academic perspective, one can gather that between his psychological theories and the fairly explicit poeticism of his reading, he’s got quite the cocktail brewing in his mind.

He gives the portrait another look as he’s about to head home, as is his normal tendency. In this particular instance, the woman is present in the flesh and they share some complimentary words. That leads to drinks and then a venture to her apartment to wind down the evening perfectly innocently.

However, instantly his life is transformed into a living nightmare as they are interrupted by a scorned boyfriend with a horrid temper going at Richard who has no recourse but to strike his adversary down in a frantic attempt at preserving his own life. It was self-defense but the damage has been done and the results are not-so-conveniently lying on Ms. Reed’s carpet.

Even with these turn of events, the professor takes them in stride, systematically and semi-rationally coming to a decision that while risky just might be the most beneficial plan of action, at least in theory. There is much that needs to be done. He enlists Alice to clean up the crime scene by both getting rid of blood and incriminating fingerprints. Any evidence that would implicate either of them must be done away with methodically.

He puts it upon himself to dispose of the body, which is no small task as the dead man has a massive frame. It takes up a lot of space and causes him some grief. He gets rid of it but not without incurring a cut and a rash of poison ivy while also leaving behind some clues that indubitably will have a bearing on the case.

However, he also has the rare privilege of being so close to the district attorney and the head of the homicide department to see first hand how they’re getting on with the case. If anything it unnerves him more assuming he will soon incriminate himself with a minor slip of the tongue or worse yet be found out in his clandestine activities due to the thorough investigation underway.

Dan Duryea has a small-time role playing what he was best at, a sleazy enforcer looking for blackmail or any other dishonest way to make a buck. Thankfully his part would be expanded upon in Scarlet Street as he came back for a second helping. His career is composed of an interesting trajectory even earning him a few starring spots in his later efforts like Black Angel. He’s an underrated talent who made classic Hollywood and noir in particular that much more engaging. One could wager it’s Bennett and Duryea who really clean up shop as they would do again the following year.

To mollify the production codes, Fritz Lang settled with the ultimate cop-out ending. While it would normally disgruntle me, the sheer lunacy of it all and the fact the picture is so embroiled with themes of the human psyche makes it marginally okay. If anything, the fact there was a superior followup the next year takes the sting out of it. Still, there’s no downplaying that Woman in The Window was crucial in laying the groundwork of what we now consider film noir, complete with murder, femme fatales, fatalistic heroes, and shadowy extremes courtesy of cinematographer Milton Krasner. What’s not to love? It’s certainly worthy of a second dose.

4/5 Stars

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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“Elementary My Dear Watson” owes its indelible stature in the lexicon hall of fame to this second installment in 20th Century Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series. The studio obviously did not gather the phrase to have that much resonance as they gave up on the franchise only to have it be picked up by Universal Pictures for many, many more outings. This would be the last one set in its original historical context and it’s unquestionably the gem of the lot.

Though the analogy breaks down, it was easy to see the first installment of Rathbone’s outing as Holmes like Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther (1963). You get a sense of a formidable character who is subsequently given greater fluidity and is, therefore, able to break into their own. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was far better than its predecessor because it gave Inspector Clouseau his own vehicle.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proves to be a superior film for two such reasons. First, Rathbone and Bruce coming off their success are put front and center in this picture. But also while the first film was an adaptation of a Doyle story, this picture is an original narrative thus taking the characters from the page and extrapolating them onto the screen in new and intriguing ways.

In one sense, I’m glad for that change because whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles was much better as detailed by Doyle’s pen, this story is a creation blessed with an imagination. Taking all that is good about the original work and synthesizing it into something that never quite loses the spirit but on the contrary, builds on it all the better for distillation to the big screen.

The remarkable revelation is that the story does provide a true conundrum for Holmes as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Moriarty in a chess match of wits. While there are several moments that seem uncharacteristically on-the-nose for a man of his intellect, otherwise we relish the game and his astute observations.

It opens in a courtroom as Professor Moriarty is exonerated for a crime that everyone seems to agree that he committed. Only moments after the pronouncement Holmes rushes into the courtroom with the needed evidence. But it’s far too late. His rival has lived to scheme another day and what a scheme it is. He plans to pull off the crime of the century by distracting Holmes with two toys that he won’t be able to put down. He likens Holmes to a fickle little boy easily distracted and he plans to exploit his idle curiosity.

What unravels and what is articulated by the script is a lovely piece of intrigue that provides many distractions not only to Holmes but his audience as well. We know full-well that though they might appear completely unrelated, they’re indubitably tied together. It’s simply a matter of understanding how and for what purpose.

The first involves a young woman named Anne Bramdon (Ida Lupino). She comes to Mr. Holmes on the behalf of her older brother who has received an ominous note. The reason she’s worried is that her dear father received much the same message before he died under strange circumstances years before.

Although it ultimately takes a back seat to this more interesting case, Holmes is also counted on by his friend at the Tower of London to help with security in the transfer of a priceless diamond to be added to the Crown Jewels.

Holmes is caught up in this perplexing case in front of him as Bramdon’s frightened brother is attacked by a mysterious assailant and soon after the lady gets a note of her own telling her to attend a certain social gathering of a longtime friend. Holmes advises her to go as he will be there to protect her but of course, the date and time are the exact same as the jewel transfer. You see the point already.

Rathbone makes another stunning showing in disguise apprehending the killer and dashing off to thwart another crime as Moriarty cleverly infiltrates the Towers security no thanks to Watson. George Zucco seamlessly embodies an intellectual yet sociopathic mind filled with disdain for human life. He asserts in one such scene to his harried valet that killing a plant should be a far greater offense than taking human life. He proves overwhelmingly that a superior villain with brazen intentions elevates any story.

Director Alfred L. Werker shoots the finale with some amount of artistry that heightens the climax to an agreeable apex. It goes down as it must on the top of the Tower of London and what is curious but rather refreshing is that there are no back and forth monologues of doom and heroism. Actions speak for both our hero and villain. While London Fog now seems like free atmosphere and little else, the film is actually at its best in visual terms with well-lit Victorian interiors.

The finest success of this film was in projecting a certain image or reputation that extends far into the present age. Watson became an incorrigible bumbler. Holmes a cinematic detective both partially sanitized and still witty. Moriarty remains one of the standards for villains to this day. And with so many different iterations on these same characters, the influence on Robert Downey Jr. to the modernized Benedict Cumberbatch is equally evident. There are few qualms acknowledging the impact of such a sublime mystery adventure as this.

4/5 Star

Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The_Hound_of_the_Baskervilles_-_1939-_Poster.pngThough there’s not a shred of doubt this picture was filmed on a Hollywood backlot, our story takes place in 1889 on the Moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire. It’s all very British and when you do a quick scan of the most British figures coming out of literature and pop culture, you would probably find few higher on the list than Sherlock Holmes.

For better or for worse, this is one of the films we must thank for countless Sherlock Holmes archetypes as established by Basil Rathbone’s characterization. Joined by his oafish, vacuous-minded friend Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), Holmes looks to investigate the mysterious death of one Sir Hugo Baskerville which supposedly came to pass due to the curse of a demonic curr labeled “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Right at this very moment, his nephew Sir Henry (Richard Greene) is coming to take up residence at the supposedly deadly manor deep in the heart of Devonshire. Holmes asks for Watson to accompany him as he has important business of a different nature to attend to. It unfolds as a stylized gothic murder mystery with typical studio melodramatics that are still somehow invariably delectable.

Some might be especially surprised to find out about Holmes’ absence for much of the film’s middle though Rathbone makes a stunning reemergence just in time to do a bit more sleuthing and confirm his numerous empirical suspicions. Bruce proves just how vital he is because there must be a stooge to make the hero look all the more preeminent.

The picture is hardly a whodunit. Deciphering the guilty party is quite simple to guess, working with the tropes that we have in our toolkit. But in the habit of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s work, the enjoyment is in our hero’s highly-perceptive method of deduction.

While the short stories are probably more rich in this regard, what this film has in an iconic turn by Basil Rathbone — a man who was often made into a villain and yet was just as impeccably cast as a hero. However, to match the aesthetics at the time this picture has a broad menagerie of characters and the foggy atmosphere with the easily conjured shrouds of Gothic Hollywood.

We have shifty house servants, a deranged killer out on the loose, a husband and wife trained in the art of seances, and the crotchety old buffoon who is constantly threatening lawsuits. They are among the casts most colorful additions. Yes, we even get an appearance from the Hound, though, in fact, he’s actually a Great Dane.

It’s hardly an exercise to work your brain too strenuously but it’s a jolly fun piece of entertainment with several true moments of intrigue and menace. The pleasure is in its economy as well because the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Rathbone and Bruce proved so popular they were serialized on both radio and many more films to come.

Of course, when this effort came out, 20th Century Fox wasn’t so sure how their new hero would fare and so they conveniently cushioned his billing and his sidekick between the two love interests. I have nothing against Richard Greene or Wendy Barrie whatsoever but they are hardly the reason we turn out to see this picture.

Still, it seems necessary to at least acknowledge that one would do well to start with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work first and once you get a sense of them, enjoy this film without reservations. You can test the merits of Sherlock Holmes on this picture but you would do better not to. Because this is a Hollywood confection more than anything, proving to be a diverting adventure even as it helped usher in the accepted mythology of everyone’s favorite amateur detective for future generations.

3.5/5 Stars

The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

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Sometimes it’s necessary to go back to the basics. We’ve been introduced to the social elite of New York and San Francisco, invited along to giant family estates, and frequented the race track and wrestling rings. It only makes sense that at some point we would finally be introduced to their roots.

What is the occasion, you ask? Nick has a birthday coming up and what better way to surprise his parents (Harry Davenport and Lucille Watson) then popping in on them in his hometown of Sycamore Springs? It’s not the most comfortable of trips, crammed together with other passengers; before resigning themselves to the luggage car, for Asta’s sake, where he gets accosted by the local livestock. But be it ever so humble, say it with me, there’s no place like home!

The premise is plainly given but this might just be the most enjoyable installment since After the Thin (1936).  That is not to say the other entries were not amusing. They most certainly were. But there’s something gratifying about getting to know Nicky’s community a little better. Due to the passing of W.S. Van Dyke, it is Richard Thorpe who takes up the reins without too many noticeable hiccups or maybe there are just enough.

There’s the inevitable running into a plethora of old acquaintances of all sorts of ticks and demeanors. Most curious among them is the aptly named Crazy Mary (Anne Revere) or the starstruck young debutante Laurabelle Ronson (Gloria DeHaven). Nick takes each reunion in stride while also finding time to fix tables and fiddle with deadly hammocks all to the mild amusement of his better half.

The comedic range of gossip around town is astounding as the whole neighborhood drums up a story about how the town’s most famous citizen has returned to investigate a homegrown murder. It couldn’t be further from the truth, until it becomes true. What happens is the most ludicrous of murders yet, with a young man (Ralph Brooks) showing up on the Charles’ doorstep only to get the axe a minute later.

Mr. Brogan (Edward Brophy), a reformed greeting cards salesman, is always coming out of the bushes to give Nick a tip but of course, he didn’t see or hear the murder. Still, he provides his services to the amateur detective by pulling his wife away for an evening.  Myrna Loy in the humorous tailing sequence showcases her talents, making the scene into her own shining moment away from her husband. Though they are inseparable in one sense, the film benefits from these digressions as wayward as they might seem.

There are so many juicy tidbits to latch onto but one of the most crucial is a fateful painting of a windmill that Nora buys her husband as a birthday present,l due to some childhood significance. But there’s also a couple (Leon Ames and Helen Vinson) anxious about getting their hands on the piece for its perceived value. It’s no small coincidence the painting was attributed to the deceased victim.

At the Charity Bazar, the Charles make their appearance and Asta hops up on the counter to pay a visit to a house check girl in the periphery (I have no idea why this caught my eye). Meanwhile, Loy is forced into a jitterbug with an eager sailor serving as a convenient diversion. Nick doesn’t want her to be with him while he goes snooping around upstairs. And in these moments you see the allure of the Charles marriage.

The husband is the quintessential bachelor-type who nevertheless makes an affectionate husband and his beautiful Nora, a high-brow socialite, is ever the understanding wife. But beyond this archetypal pairing, you have the wryly comic tug-of-war between them as the smirking Nick always looks to throw his wife off the track and she always does her best to stay right there by his side.

In fact, the payoff looks different in the small town as everyone of possible motive is gathered into the drawing room but also it is Nora and not Nick who becomes the master of ceremonies, quelling their objections and keeping the audience under raps while her husband gets ready to make his appearance.

Given the crazy nature of the murder, it would be safe to reason the finale would be a little wild too and that assumption holds. But that cannot take away from what this film has to offer. Because what is The Thin Man without Nick and Nora Charles? It would be nothing and yet in this picture, they both continue to shine as they always did together. Even as the years progress, they don’t change all that much. The only thing that’s different is Nick has made strides with his drinking hobby which has been traded out for a flask of cider. One can only surmise the reason for this change was the wartime ration on liquor.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Shadow of The Thin Man (1941)

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Little Nick Charles Jr. is growing up and his loving daddy, in lieu of fairy tales, reads to his son about the horse races. Some things never change. Despite an unfortunate stereotyped-laden portrayal provided by Louise Beavers, the picture quickly settles into another enjoyable jaunt.

In fact, it’s a perfect day for the races until Nick gets pulled over for speeding. That’s only the beginning. Because the cop proves to be a big fan of Mr. Charles. After all, if we haven’t realized it already, he is a household name. Everybody seems to know him. Policemen, conmen, jockeys, and anyone else you can possibly pull out of a hat. It makes no difference. By now, his wife never shows an ounce of surprise. She only smiles, nods, trades pleasantries and never says another word about it.

The recurring gags keep coming with yet another former acquaintance with a grubby nickname like “Fingers” running into Nick and inquiring if the dame he has in tow is his new girlfriend. It seems like no one ever thought him one to get married.

It’s all good fun and there’s even the return of Nick’s old buddy, old pal, Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene reprising his role). This sense of world building and the introduction of characters was always The Thin Man series at its best, but there’s also business at hand — a jockey named Gomez has been whacked.

However, Nick tries to avoid getting pulled into yet another case by patronizing the arts, namely a wrestling match. It’s one of the film’s most delightful diversions but there’s also a sneaking suspicion it must tie into the case somehow. The forces lurking in the shadows hang over the racetrack murder like a stench and they’ve got there hands in all the places, including the press. Maybe even higher up too.

A youthful Donna Reed makes an early appearance as a naive secretary and while still growing as an actress, there’s no doubting her sincerity that always shined through in all her work. With writers Albert Hacket & Frances Goodrich, then James Stewart and Sheldon Leonard also involved in earlier installments, and Reed being featured here, it does seem The Thin Man was a bit of a training ground for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

But back to the current business at hand. Molly’s beau Paul (Barry Nelson) is a prime suspect when murder strikes again. With the young couple right at the center of the mess, compassionate Nora wants her Nicky to get them out of it and that he does.

Also, tied up in the case are stuttering Rainbow Benny, famed acting instructor Stella Adler in one of her actual roles as Claire Porter, Frank Faylen as a nervous ticket booth operator, and you guessed it, a whole host of others.

Still, Nick finds time to get accosted by kids while taking Nick Jr. around on the carousel. While Asta’s best gag is getting trapped in a revolving door chasing after a fugitive. Myrna Loy doesn’t get as much screentime as she should but as usual she provides a calming and still slyly comic presence. The continuity provided by W.S. Van Dyke is there as well though this is the first script not penned by the screenwriting duo Hackett & Goodrich.

By now it’s all but inevitable. Everyone gets rounded up to the police precinct. Nick Charles takes center stage bringing wifey along and Lt. Abrams is in the middle of it all for good measure. But he’s really only the white noise and perfect stooge as Nick deduces his way to the finale as he always has. It’s true that the formula feels a tad overspent but seeing as Hollywood is used to beating dead horses to a pulp recently, this one doesn’t feel that bad. At least it’s a good time and we still have Powell and Loy as amiable as ever with a continous spritzing of humor.

3.5/5 Stars

Another Thin Man (1939)

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Parenthood hasn’t slackened the good-natured give and take between Mr. and Mrs. Charles or Mr. Charles drinking habit either. The only difference now is that Nick affectionately calls his other half “mommy” and they have a little more work getting their nurse to watch over the baby — Asta’s new younger brother.

For the most part, they have a hands-off parenting approach with the infant Nick Jr. which is a bit of necessity given they need time to solve a mystery. Sure, it starts out innocent enough. They plan to take a trip out to the country to pay a visit to an old friend Colonel McFay (C. Aubrey Smith) who is desperate for Nick’s counsel on an issue of utmost importance.

So they head out to the country to an old family mansion that just so happens to be the perfect space for an “And Then There Were None” scenario. Except this one has Nick and Nora Charles at the center of it all and the cast of characters fits into their world.

After the Colonel is found dead in his study following a piercing gunshot, the police swarm the grounds looking for clues, but Asta winds up tampering evidence again. Meanwhile, their flighty nurse (Ruth Hussey) takes off without leaving a forwarding address. The dead man’s daughter is beside herself with grief compounded by fear when someone kills her prized dog and takes a shot at her. It doesn’t help that she’s caught between two men who love her (Patric Knowles) and her father’s secretary (Tom Neal).

The most obvious suspect is a threatening thug named Church (Sheldon Leonard) who’s been having dreams about the Colonel’s impending death. He’s in cahoots with a deadly dame and the ever faithful Dum-Dum (Abner Biberman). A big man with specs (Don Costello is somehow tied up in this business too. Yet Nick is never one to show his hand too early and he lets things play out.

Having enough of the country life, our heroes get back to the big city to do some sleuthing at the West Indies Night Club while still finding time for made-up meet-cutes and the usual playfulness. One particularly visually uproarious sequence involves Nick Jr.’s first birthday party complete with a playpen for of babies and kindly ex-cons just out of the real pen.

There’s the tell-all finale and it’s as befuddling as any mystery drama. That hardly stops Nick Charles though. It must be admitted that the final stretch outside of the haunted mansion loses a little bit of its traction because the story is stacking moment after moment on top of each other. By the sheer number of characters, it pulls the wool over the eyes once more. And yet again the Charles’ quiet weekend away became the biggest newspaper headline.

While not quite on snuff with its two predecessors, this picture is still carried by the insouciant charm of its impeccable leads and yet another host of quality character players. You’ll notice among them Tom Neal (Detour), C. Aubrey Smith, Ruth Hussey, Sheldon Leonard (It’s a Wonderful Life), Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Abner Biberman (His Girl Friday), Virginia Grey, and many, many more. Those were the days of great supporting stars and phenomenal studio stars for that matter. This would be William Powell and Myrna Loy’s 8th film together out of a mindboggling 14. That in itself is a remarkable feat.

3.5/5 Stars

After The Thin Man (1936)

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The reason to watch The Thin Man series was never murder. Sure, like its predecessor, this follow-up has the pretense of a mystery plot but that’s merely a trifle in comparison to the return of Nick and Nora Charles.

The novelty of this picture is no longer that it once more brings crime and comedy together because that’s what the original film did. We already have the formula, the groundwork set before us, and certain expectations. But what it does even in its opening vignettes is further develop its leads by transplanting the New York socialites to the world of San Francisco which brings with it different colorations and really an extension to this fanciful world that they live in.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are just delightful with teasing ever whip-smart interplay but we also see the class dimensions being played up too. All of a sudden, their marriage of such stark opposites comes into clearer focus and we love them even more.

Nick seems to know someone on every street corner most of them being hoods and shifty conmen begging the question just what he did in his previous life (I can’t ever remember being told)? Meanwhile, Nora comes from money and runs in a certain society that’s slightly averse to the constant verbal barbs and nose-thumbing of her husband. You see, he seems to have no respect for respectable folks. Her family can’t stand Nikolai as he’s called. But he loves his wife and she loves him.

The fact that the action is set over The New Year blesses the film with jovial gaiety and champagne bubbles that add a little pizzazz to your run-of-the-mill murder of passion. Meanwhile, the dubious Lychee Club takes its place front and center because a couple implicated persons are tied up with the establishment. One of them, named Dancer, runs the joint while his star performer Polly and her brother Phil also seem caught up in something shady. If you had to put a name to it you might call it extortion.

Then a slimy playboy (and unfaithful husband) is found murdered after a night carousing at the club with the chorus girl. That effectively gets his devastated wife accused of murder with her longtime beau (James Stewart) going to great lengths to defend her.

We could keep running off the list of suspects but to no avail, and it has the typically gung-ho cop Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene) understandably suspicious as he tries to make head or tails of the whole mess. Of course, he has Nick Charles on his side and a good thing too.

Asta is up to his old tricks running off with a vital clue and Nick’s up to his old tricks having his wife locked up in prison so that he can bail her out. Despite her longsuffering lot in life, she gets in some comic retribution of her own while maintaining a dazzling marriage full of mutual understanding.

Because, in one sense, Nick Charles is a complete imbecile, a habitual jokester, and yet he’s just serious enough to warrant some respect in the crime-solving trade and just sincere enough to hold onto his wife for posterity. Again, that’s all part of his charm. If he wasn’t so good at solving crimes, it’s doubtful people would give him the time of day. Though his wife does continuously and that’s what really counts. That’s the heartbeat of this entire franchise.

The Charles also realize humanity’s aspirations of sleeping the day away and it’s true they can get away with settling down for breakfast just as everyone else is finishing up dinner. That’s their lifestyle. I’m sure most of us hold a deep-seated desire for it in some cockeyed way. But most of us can’t solve murders on a whim either. So they get to be our surrogates on both accounts.

I won’t say he’s the epoch of amateur sleuthing, as the company includes the Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marples, and Jessica Fletchers of the world, but Nick Charles is one of the wittiest individuals to hold the mantle.

It must be noted that he was a creation of the Depression, a needed respite from the day-to-day, but you get the sense that today he comes off as a bit callous. Surely a man who knows so many undesirable characters was aware that there was a Depression on. And yet you see, that’s precisely the trick. In this world, such an event does not exist.

There’s no need to worry about it and this alternate reality instead gets to occupy itself with murder and excess, jokes and romantic patter. It truly is escapism and a gift to the masses. No wonder people loved Nick and Nora so much because it really does seem like they filled a need at the time.

While he’s not the center of attention nor is his role all that meaty until the final moments, James Stewart is nevertheless entertaining in this early part with a slam-bang finish that gives a glimpse of the passionate intensity he offered as an actor. It was full steam ahead for both him and The Thin Man series though you might say his future was a little more promising.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Though he would make Jamaica Inn the following year, it’s undoubtedly The Lady Vanishes that situated Hitchcock for the move to Hollywood as his last great British film showcasing once more his immense aptitude as a storyteller no matter the resources on hand.

At the beginning of the proceedings, an avalanche makes accommodations at an inn, hidden away in Europe somewhere, rather sparse and it makes for strange bedfellows and noisy neighbors. Among them are the prized comedy duo Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford), a pair of quibbling cricket enthusiasts. Meanwhile, radiant Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is just coming off a glorious vacation with a couple girlfriends as she returns to get married to her fiancee.

Dame May Whitty makes a fine showing as a rather whimsical eccentric, playing the role of a kind-spirited governess enjoying some time in the land she deems a little slice of paradise. In one off-handed comment, she notes with bright eyes, “I don’t think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

It’s a passing line that suggests Hitchcock’s own indifference to politics. He briefly touches on the political climate at the time but never looks to go in depth and make some grandiose statement about the state of affairs in Europe. That is not his sentiment. Instead, he takes the natural climate of the times utilizing them for the sake of his narrative.

Things couldn’t be more delightful for them both in their encounter and yet the overcrowding is far from agreeable as an obnoxious neighbor in the attic (Michael Redgrave) unwittingly serenades the entire floor below him with an atrocious melody. It pales in comparison to the beautiful vibrato Ms. Froy was met with on her balcony nor is it quite as significant.

Of course, it’s Iris that Gilbert Redman really perturbs especially when she gets him ejected by the manager only to have him turn right back around and make himself at home in her suite. Thus, we have a bit of initial friction at home in a rom-com soon to be turned into a delightful mystery escapade with splashes of intrigue and absurdity.

The largest and most enjoyable leg of the adventure takes place onboard the train but it only works because of a seemingly inconsequential development. Iris is positively swimming after an ill-fated brick conks her on the temple and she is helped onto the train by Ms. Froy who tells her to rest up.

Iris obliges. Except when she awakens her lady companion is not in their compartment. She’s nowhere to be found. In fact, everyone that she interrogates corroborates that they never saw this kindly old lady. She must not exist. Just like that the game is afoot as our heroine endeavors to track down her friend and stave off the impending doubts that this woman was only a figment of her imagination.

It’s these perplexing developments that feel rather like a conspiracy. Still, it’s hardly that type of thing at all. It’s the very fact that all these people are humans — they’re selfish –with different self-serving motives for keeping up the charade. The clandestine couple with the man looking to stay conspicuous and a woman not minding a little bit of scandal.

The Cricket aficionados bent on getting to their match in time along with a whole host of others. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist (Paul Lukas) points out that Ms. Froy sounds vaguely like Freud and must simply be the inner workings of Irises subconscious. Of course, that’s only an easy way to explain away what is actually happening.

She likens Gilbert (Redgrave) to the dog that follows her around and it’s true he quite faithfully stays by her side even taking up the mantle of her investigation. Soon they’re traipsing around like a maladjusted Holmes and Watson, Redgrave going so far as to don a deerstalker as Lockwood coughs and passes him a pipe in utter parody.

They end up making quite a ruckus in the magician car full of hats, rabbits, and boxes with false bottoms and for the added fact that they get into a bit of a scuffle. But that’s only the beginning. Because, of course, what is a Hitchcock film without a little bit of international espionage? But once again he brings it into the world of tourists and well-to-do British subjects who have no right to be in such a scenario.

Factions form and the remaining passengers look to make a break for it amid a gunfight with foreign adversaries. Never before has there been such a droll reaction to a gunshot wound. A very Hitchcock moment without question.

The Lady Vanishes fits into the long lineage of Hitchcock with similarly high profile sequences from The 39 Steps (1935) to Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959) but for the amount of time spent aboard, this picture is his most formidable train film.  It uses the very motion and sound of the steam engine to add crucial momentum to the plot.

Hitchcock speeds events to their conclusion and once more we find that in many cases our objective was utterly pointless, even throwaway, but it did give rise to one of the great thrillers of the 1930s. Part of the film’s unequivocal success comes from drawing equally from the wells of comedy and suspense. The laughs are ever present but far from being to the detriment of the drama they only augment the action, adding to the contours of our characters and pointing out the sheer ridiculousness found in this plotline. It’s wonderful.

4.5/5 Stars