Song of the Thin Man [50 Films Older Than Me #9]

Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #9.

Spoilers ahead.  

Song of the Thin Man

Directed by Edward Buzzell

Release Year:  1947 (23 years before I was born)

What it is about:  Married and sleuthing couple Nick and Nora Charles get involved in a mystery involving the death of a jazz bandleader, Tommy Drake. The owner of the gambling cruise ship he was playing on, Phil Brant, is the prime suspect, but the Charles’ investigations reveal other suspects. Central to much of it is a talented but disturbed clarinet player, Buddy Hollis, and the singer in the band, Fran Page, who ends up being a second murder victim. In the end, Nick brings all the suspects back on the boat under the pretense of having a supposedly recovered Buddy Hollis announce who committed the initial murder. This works in revealing the killer to be businessman Mitchell Talbin who killed Brant because the bandleader was having an affair with his wife.

Starring William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles. Suspects in the murder include Bruce Cowling as Brant, Jayne Meadows as Brant’s love Janet, Ralph Morgan as Janet’s unhappy father David, Don Taylor as Buddy Hollis, William Bishop as gangster Al Amboy, Gloria Grahame as Fran Page, Keenan Wynn as Krause (another musician) and Leon Ames as Mitchell Talbin. Phillip Reed is murder victim Tommy Drake. A young Dean Stockwell (he was 11 when the movie was released) plays Nick and Nora’s son, Nick jr.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’ve been familiar with the Thin Man movies by reputation, mostly. I remember watching one (maybe the original?) a long time ago, and I knew that they are light-hearted romantic mysteries featuring Nick Charles drinking a lot of alcohol.

But I was also even more familiar with the series, thanks to the fact that I got confused and have thought that the film The Thin Man Goes Home was the one released in 1947 (and thus on my list for this series). In reality, it came out in 1945, as the fifth film in this series, but I didn’t know that until after I watched it lately. Song of the Thin Man was the one that came out in ’47 and was the sixth and last movie.

Reality: Song of the Thin Man is a cute film which succeeds largely on the chemistry of the films’ leads, which is the sense that I have for the whole series. William Powell and Myrna Loy are both highly charming and a lot of fun to watch. Nick and Nora Charles are not exactly deep characters but they are likable and funny and genuinely fond of each other, and though their interactions are little dated (Nora is a bit more housebound than maybe she would be a modern presentation) it’s not extreme nor terribly distracting.

As a mystery, the film has got some interesting places to take us. Nick and Nora, socialites that they are, are present at a bit charity event where all the set up for the murder takes place, but they miss the crime itself and remain oblivious to it until the main suspect shows up on their front door. Then they begin their investigation, which brings them to an array of colorful (although ethnically uniform) suspects and takes them far afield to venues such as the slightly underground world of 1940’s jazz music, and to a mental institution in upstate New York (in Poughkeepsie, not far from where I am from, actually). I don’t know how authentic each of these depictions are but they are presented in plausible way. This film does a good job balancing a variety of tones and making them all feel cohesive–the films’ moments of straightforward drama, character-based banter or overtly comedic antics with Nick jr and Asta the dog, it all comes together with a distinct air of light-hearted charm that is a treat to watch.

The disappointment in this film for me comes in its resolution. Though there is a lot that Nick comes to solve over the course of the story, in the end the murderer is exposed because Nick sets up an elaborate “sting” in order to trick him into reveal himself. This involves manipulating a mentally disturbed musician into appearing healthy again, and using him as bait by implying he’s going to announce the identity of the murderer at a public concert. Improbably, Nick is able to get every single suspect to show up at this event, for maximum dramatic effect.

The whole thing is super-uncomfortable, because of the manipulation involved with someone who has had a mental breakdown and is still not well. And then it’s not as enjoyable to watch because Nick and Nora don’t actually solve it themselves–they more outwit the criminal than anything else. It’s still clever, of course, and it’s certainly dramatic (a bunch of shooting takes place after this), but it’s not as satisfying from a mystery-story perspective. In this sense, The Thin Man Goes Home actually worked better as a mystery–in that one I thought the revelation of the murderer, the motive and what clues had pointed the way to the solution worked better, overall. (The Thin Man Goes Home is also a funnier film, I think, so on the whole I enjoyed it more).

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? If I’d just seen Song of the Thin Man, I probably wouldn’t be all that interested in any more of these films. Because I’d also watched The Thin Man Goes Home, I do feel like I appreciate the characters and the series’ style a bit better. It’d be fun to watch (or rewatch) the first four films sometime–hopefully I’d find that Song of the Thin Man was the weakest entry.

See here for the Master List.

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