Rarely has so little spawned so many good sequels. In this case, "little" is Dashiell Hammett's classic detective novel "The Thin Man," a gritty detective story about a pair of married society sleuths, the legendary Nick and Nora Charles. It's prettier, brighter and wittier than Hammett's novel, but even the least of these mysteries is fun.
"The Thin Man" was the sparkling film that started it all. While shaking a martini to the waltz, Nick Charles investigates the disappearance of an old client, and the murder of his secretary-lover, who was stealing from him. It seems like an easy case, but Nick isn't convinced. Ex-wives, anguished daughters, long-suffering cops and creepy stool pigeons all show up for a dinnertime revelation...
"After the Thin Man" returns Nick and Nora to San Francisco. They find that Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) has been abandoned by her husband (Jimmy Stewart) for a sexy nightclub entertainer, and that he's also blackmailing her ex-boyfriend. Soon he turns up dead, and it's up to Nick and Nora to clear Selma's name....
"Another Thin Man" is an adaptation of another Hammett short story, and introduces us to Baby Charles. The new parents arrive in Long Island to visit an old friend of the family, who claims that a former business partner is trying to kill him. Of course, he dies. Disappearing bodies, international suspects, and lots of martinis are par for the course...
"Shadow of the Thin Man" takes the Charles family to the racetrack, where a jockey is unexpectedly killed. Nick doesn't want to be torn away from his vices, but he reluctantly gets involved when the bodies start to pile up. Gambling syndicates, lethal sports and milk-drinking are all tied up in this.
Family expectations strike in "The Thin Man Goes Home" -- the Charleses goes to visit Nick's family, and especially his father. His father wanted Nick to be a doctor, and was snotty about it when Nick became a detective. So to redeem her husband's career choice, Nora spreads the rumour that Nick is there to solve a case -- and lo and behold, somebody gets killed.
"Song of the Thin Man" is the final entry, and strains at times to be cool and fresh. But it's still fairly amusing in the most part. A nasty jazz bandleader is murdered, and there's no shortage of suspects -- jilted girlfriend, gamblers, bruised egos and more. So the Charleses delve into the world of jazz musicians, determined to find the killer.
It's more or less a given that none of the sequels would be as good as the witty, taut "Thin Man." But then again, a bad "Thin Man" movie is still better than most movies, today or of yesteryear. They had witty, literate dialogue, lots of booze, and a hilarious mixture of the romantic comedy and the hard-boiled detective story.
And of course, Myrna Loy and William Powell. These two actors had glorious, playful chemistry together, and charmingly talk to thugs, cops, freaks, and high society doyennes in the same breath. The charm was somewhat diminished by Nick Jr., like when Nora orders Nick to spank the kid. But on the flipside, there's acrobatic terrier Asta, who never fails to charm.
Watching the "Thin Man" series is like taking a trip back in time, to the high society of the 1930s, and staying with the wittiest pair of sophisticates imaginable. Outstanding.