Archive for The Thin Man

Cummings and Goings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 23, 2015 by dcairns

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SEVEN SINNERS is a title which kept getting trotted out — the one Lewis Milestone made in 1925, long thought lost, has just been rediscovered, which is cause for rejoicing. The unlikely pairing of John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich resulted in a delightful romp for Tay Garnett in 1940. But the version I looked at was from Britain in 1936, and it’s a fairly naked attempt at doing a THIN MAN knock off with American stars — Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings, who made England her home, it seems, and went on to triumph in BLITHE SPIRIT.

I don’t imagine any of those movies have a good reason to be called SEVEN SINNERS. This one doesn’t. It just sounds good.

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Lowe, who has a lovely mellifluous voice, is a drunken detective a la Nick Charles, and Cummings plays an insurance investigator supposed to accompany him to Scotland to investigate missing jewels. Sadly, they never make it north of the border, but their adventure instead hinges upon murder and train-wrecking, and shunts them from Nice (at carnival time) to Paris and on to London and then the English countryside. All fun stuff.

The train angle stems from the involvement of author Arnold Ridley, who wrote THE GHOST TRAIN and THE WRECKER — the spectacular full-scale smash-up from that accomplished silent thriller is recycled here as stock footage. The whole film may well have been written around it. Elsewhere, director Albert de Courville (best known for: nothing at all) mocks up colossal derailings by spinning the camera and mixing together multiple images to suggest Lowe’s intoxicated experience of being thrown to the ceiling in a spinning corridor.

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Messrs Launder & Gilliat are credited with the script, and do a fine job simulating the kind of patter stars like, say, Myrna Loy and William Powell would throw off in Hollywood productions. It should seem a poor cousin to those movies, but it actually manages to carve out its own little corner and curls up in it like a shaggy dog, looking vaguely pleased with itself but not smelling too bad. Each scene is based around an amusing bit of investigation, the logic connecting them is playful but solid enough, and the business transacted within them is frequently amusing too. Hitchcock would have asked for more real sense of jeopardy — British comedy-thrillers tended to fall heavily on the first quality and scrimp on the second — but it’s all perfect undemanding afternoon entertainment.

“A minute to strip. A minute to dress. I’ll be back in a minute,” says Lowe.

“Better make it two,” says Cummings.

As always with these things, you’re left wishing there was a whole series with these characters. Maybe they’d finally reach Scotland.

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Here’s Howe

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2013 by dcairns

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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.

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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.

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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 —

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h43m23s12— perfect little pale boxes of people!