William Powell accompanies Rob Loy, The Highland Rogue.
Fiona asked if I could recommend a good book and I thrust Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at her. She plodded through it, not quite convinced — “I’m mainly enjoying his descriptions of different shapes of mens’ heads,” — but then expressed greater interest in The Thin Man, which she consumed with the same alacrity Nick and Nora devote to booze. So then she wanted to watch the film. Weirdly, I always seem to be watching the second film in MGM’s series, AFTER THE THIN MAN, the one with Jimmy Stewart in, and never any of the others. I’m not sure I’d seen any of them all the way through. So now we’re doing the whole set.
Note: easy to forget that the first two films are set and Christmas and New Year respectively, and follow straight on, one from one the other. Recommended light seasonal viewing if you want to avoid sentiment and saccharine.
MGM had a habit of starting movies too early in the plot, it seems to me, but there are, I suppose, solid reasons for doing so with Hammett’s book. A good deal of set-up is needed, backloaded in the novel by having characters talking about what happened before Nick the Greek came on the scene. The movie introduces us to this business firsthand, which is good for audience comprehension but very bad for interest — waiting for Nick and Nora is like waiting for Groucho, and the movie only starts once they appear.
The pleasures of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s interplay are well-attested. Powell in particular seizes any chance for a bit of interaction, and works his eyebrows like a slavemaster in his dealings with the supporting cast. Rather than Hammett’s somewhat hardboiled fellow who can drain oceans of liquor without visible effect, Powell relishes the chance to play drunk scenes. Loy isn’t that kind of show-off, so she comes across as the more efficient alcoholic, although Nora does get a hangover, something Nick somehow avoids.
Cedric Gibbons and his team conjure gorgeous art deco interiors, not the world I picture in reading Hammett but very much a movie world I love to hang out in. (I’m an invisible spectre when I hang out in these movies, so the fact that I’m not in my tuxedo isn’t a problem.) Better yet, the first film is shot by the great James Wong Howe — it has wonderful compositions of people and rooms, and a certain added distance imparts a trace of bleakness. The lighting is source lighting in a noir vein, but since the rooms tend to be creamy white, the shadows get bleached out and the whole thing resembles a faintly sinister Heaven.
Porter Hall’s glassy stare here clinches the odd mood.
As late as the second sequel, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett are still recycling the odd bit of leftover dialogue from Hammett’s original book, but the visual interest largely departs with Howe, although Dolly Tree keeps her end up with the splendid gowns. Van Dyke gets pretty sloppy, teleporting his cast about via the miracle of bad continuity, and the whole series is an odd mixture of “A” picture production values (with casts bristling with familiar faces) and “B” level ambitions, which I guess set in with any movie series. But throughout, the stars create perhaps the most enviable marriage in screen history.
I just wish the movies all looked like this –