Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) is the fourth in the six-film Thin Man series. Like the previous three movies, it was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and stars William Powell, Myrna Loy, and that terrific terrier, Asta.
The first Thin Man (1934) was a quickly made (12 days!) adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Despite a low budget and low expectations, it was a surprise hit. It brought in $1.4 million, which was about six times its budget.
After the success of The Thin Man, MGM lost no time making a sequel, the aptly titled After the Thin Man (1936). They hired Hammett to write a new story, assigned the same director, the same screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and cast the same stars.
Audiences loved that film, too; it was MGM’s 5th highest grossing movie of the year with $3.1 million in box office on a budget of only $673,000.
Next came Another Thin Man (1939), with the same screenwriters, director, and stars. It was a success, too, so MGM kept rolling.
But the formula changed with Shadow of the Thin Man. This time, Harry Kurnitz wrote the story, and he and Irving Brecher wrote the screenplay. But I miss Goodrich and Hackett’s work, and think this is one of the weaker Thin Mans.
But it’s still fun–how can it be anything else with Loy, Powell, and Asta? There is a reason that Powell and Loy made fourteen movies together!
Fun fact: Van Dyke had recently directed the pair in I Love You Again (1940), after which Powell and Loy worked on their eleventh movie together, Love Crazy (1941). That film premiered in late May, and they started filming Shadow of the Thin Man in August.
To the film! Shadow of the the Thin Man takes place a few years after the previous Thin Man. Baby Nicky is now a little boy, and Nick and Nora have grown up a little too. Unfortunately.
We open in a San Francisco park where Nick (William Powell), Nicky (Richard “Dickie” Hall), and Asta stroll along. Nick has a leash for Nicky, and Nicky has a leash for Asta. Also, maybe it was a thing to dress your children as miniature service members? Later on, Nicky wears a sailor suit, too.
Anyway, Nick is a sarcastic father, as we thought he might be. He and Nicky settle on a bench and Nick reads his son a “new fairytale” that is actually the day’s racing form. But Nicky quickly catches on.
Meanwhile, Nora (Myrna Loy) and the maid, Stella (Louise Beavers) wonder where the boys are. Fun fact: you may recognize Beavers from any number of movies, including Imitation of Life (1934), Primrose Path (1940), and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). She acted in movies, usually in a “mammy” or maid role, (the sadly limited range available to most African-American actresses), from the 1920s through 1960, and also appeared on TV.
Nora spots the boys from the balcony, and summons Nick home by shaking up a cocktail. You can watch it here.
Later that afternoon, Nick and Nora head to the racetrack for some adult fun without their son. But they get caught up in a large police response when a jockey is found dead in the locker room. Naturally, Nick gets pulled into the investigation by their old pal Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene from After the Thin Man), though Nick would much rather watch the horses.
We learn that the dead jockey was a witness in the state’s investigation into a gambling syndicate, so his death is very suspicious. He was found shot from a low angle in the shower, but Nick has no epiphanies (yet!).
When Nick and Nora return home, Nicky asks his dad to drink milk instead of his usual cocktails. Nick tries to get out of it, but Nora eggs her son on and eventually Nick has no choice. It’s a cute gag though the scene goes on a little long. After all, we get it immediately: Nick loves alcohol but now there is a child and he has to adapt.
Also, Nora jumps in on Nicky’s side and pushes Nick to drink the milk, which seems odd. She usually matches Nick martini for martini, so it seems out of character. One might have expected her to explain that grown ups don’t have to drink milk, or make some crack about how Nick is allergic to non-alcoholic beverages. But she doesn’t. It’s just one instance among many when the movie alters the fun-loving, fast times, witty-repartee-relationship between Nick and Nora. We’ll get to more of that later.
Their cozy family dinner is interrupted by reporter Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson) and Major Sculley (Henry O’Neill). Paul is a dogged reporter searching for the truth and Major Sculley is the special deputy for the state legislature’s investigation into the gambling syndicate. The jockey was the state’s first good witness, and they think the bad guys killed him to keep him from talking. The stakes are high, so Paul and Major Sculley have come to ask for Nick’s help in the case.
Fun fact: this was Barry Nelson’s first movie role. He went on to appear in several more movies, Broadway shows, and television programs. He also holds the distinction of being the first actor to play James Bond. He appeared as the famous spy in a 1954 television show called Climax!, which beat Sean Connery’s James Bond by eight years.
Anyway, Nick refuses their request and seems entirely uninterested in the case. But he does accept Paul’s tickets to the evening’s wrestling bout. The arena is run by one of the suspected crooked gamblers in the syndicate, but Nick seems more excited to have free tickets. And Nora is delighted–she’s never been to a wrestling match!
The couple arrives at the arena where Nora’s broad-brimmed chapeau immediately comes in for criticism. Random men call it “screwy,” but Nora gets far too into the wrestling to care. You can watch the scene here.
As Nora accidentally strangles Nick, plenty of action is happening elsewhere in the arena. In fact, there is so much going on with new characters that we forget about Nick and Nora for a while. It’s also a little hard to keep track of everyone: they’re all vaguely seedy and menacing but we don’t know why or how they’re connected.
From left to right, we’ve got Maguire (Will Wright), a ticket collector who hears more than he should, Macy (Joseph Anthony), some kind of goon, Whitey Barrow (Alan Baxter), a dirty reporter, Link Stephens (Loring Smith) who runs the arena and seems high up in the gambling racket, and Link’s girlfriend, Claire Porter (Stella Adler), a British dame draped in diamonds. You can watch the scene introducing the group here.
Fun fact: this was Adler’s second movie after 1937’s Love on Toast, but she had been acting on stage since she was a child. She would appear in just one more movie after this one, My Girl Tisa (1948) before she focused exclusively on teaching. She was a believer in the Stanislavski acting method and opened the Stella Adler School of Acting in New York in 1949. Alumni include Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert DeNiro, and Warren Beatty, among many others. She also taught at the New School, NYU, and the Yale School of Drama, and became one of the most famous acting teachers in America.
Back to the film! We witness a heated exchange between Claire and Whitey in which he asks her for the $5,000 she promised him and she gives him a diamond bracelet instead. Then Link’s secretary, Molly (Donna Reed), overhears some sketchy conversations between Whitey, Macy, and Link about Whitey needing to leave town for a while until things cool down.
Fun fact: this was Reed’s third film role and second big part. She would go on to a long career in movies, perhaps most famously in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and From Here to Eternity (1953). She also enjoyed success on television on The Donna Reed Show and Dallas, among others.
After overhearing the conversation, Molly leaves the office to meet her boyfriend, Paul–she’s his inside woman–and Paul takes her office keys. He is tired of sleuthing without any luck and decides to sneak into Link’s office to see what he can find.
Paul finds a ledger and a strange laundry list, but Whitey catches him as he leaves. The pair fight and Paul gets knocked unconscious. Then someone (we don’t see who) shoots and kills Whitey.
Oh, remember Nick and Nora? They are still in the movie.
They get pulled into Whitey’s murder when Abrams arrives to investigate. As Nick and Abrams look around, Nora spots an important clue: the odd laundry list. (The ledger is gone). Nick realizes that the laundry list is a coded record of the night’s illegal betting take.
But Abrams still has to arrest Paul and Molly for Whitey’s murder, though he doesn’t think they did it.
Now that Nick’s friends are in trouble, he decides to get involved. He exchanges Nora for his favorite snooping partner, Asta, and goes back to the racetrack to look into the jockey’s death. Why he does this in the middle of the night instead of waiting until the next morning, I don’t know. It’s more dramatic, I guess. Though much harder to see anything.
But naturally Nick finds the gun almost immediately in a drain pipe in the shower. He also almost shoots his wife, who followed him to the racetrack but isn’t as good at clandestine sleuthing as Asta.
On their way out, the night watchman calls Nora’s hat “screwy,” just as the men did at the wrestling match. So she plops it on his head before driving off.
The hat thing brings me to something I mentioned before: Nora is the butt of the joke in this movie more than usual. It’s a departure from the Thin Man formula, because usually she dishes it out and never seems ruffled by anything. It’s not the only oddity in this movie, either. For example, there aren’t any cracks about how Nick married Nora for her money, and Nick doesn’t drop wink-wink jokes about mistresses or his colorful past and associates. Also, the pair don’t race through cocktails the way they used to, or steal kisses and embraces between put downs. I miss the goofy mockery and loving sarcasm of previous films.
Anyway, back to this movie. Nick takes the gun he found in the shower to Abrams and explains his new theory: the jockey was thinking about committing suicide because he was afraid the bad guys were coming after him, but he changed his mind. So he dropped the gun into the drain pipe to hide it, but the hammer hit the pipe and the gun went off, shooting and killing him.
But Nick asks Abrams to keep this accidental death a secret because he wants everyone to think that the jockey was murdered by the same person who killed Whitey. He hopes that this fake theory will push Whitey’s murderer to frame someone for both deaths, and hopefully make a mistake along the way.
While Nick is out that afternoon, Maguire comes by their hotel with some information. Nora, tastefully attired in a sparkly negligee (the gowns in this movie were designed by Kalloch), happily takes down his info about Macy’s alibi for Whitey’s murder being fake, and Maguire seeing Claire and Whitey arguing the night of his death.
Then she changes clothes and rushes to the carousel where Nick is barely hanging on, literally.
She tells him Maguire’s blockbuster information, and Nick decides to start with Claire. He flatters her into lowering her guard and then accuses her of having an affair with Whitey. Her British accent falters; perhaps she is not who she pretends to be?
After their conversation, Nick snoops around Whitey’s apartment. Asta helps him find Claire’s diamond bracelet in the radiator. There is always something very important hidden in apartments in these movies!
Just then, Claire arrives looking for her bracelet. She’s caught, so she admits that she and Whitey were having an affair and that she gave him the bracelet to cover some gambling debts. She’s terrified of what Link will do if he finds out.
That evening, the Charles meet newly released Paul and Molly at a seafood restaurant. (So even though the movie has a different tone, we now have many of the familiar set pieces: Nick sneaking around a crime scene at night with Asta, a young couple in love and in trouble, apartment snooping, a theme restaurant, and Nick’s attempts to keep Nora out of the case. Soon we will get all the suspects together in one room for the grand explanation, too! Though we never get an heiress in trouble…)
At the bar, Nick runs into another player in the gambling game, the slimy bookie Rainbow Benny (Lou Lubin) who held Whitey’s gambling debts. He’s terrified for his life and wearing a bulletproof vest, though if he is so scared, why did he go out for dinner?
Nick tells Paul about the Rainbow Benny-Whitey connection, and Paul calls Major Sculley to update him on the case. Then Abrams shows up with some information about Claire. She’s not the high society dame she appears to be, and Whitey was probably blackmailing her about her past. So now she has a motive.
Things keep moving rapidly along: next, the gang is called away from their seafood dinner with news of another death. Rainbow Benny was just found hanging in his room, but Nick doesn’t think it’s a suicide. The missing ledger is also there, burned to a crisp in his fireplace.
The next day, we finally get the huge cast of suspects to Abram’s office for the denouement. Nick talks through the various elements of the case and makes each person look guilty in turn, including Claire’s chauffeur, a man we have barely seen before. So many characters!
As usual, Nick gives a rundown of the case as various suspects jump in with denials and accusations of their own. And, as usual, someone lets something slip, and Nick gets the final bit of information he needs to piece the whole puzzle together.
He realizes that Rainbow Benny had just switched apartments a few hours before he died, yet Major Sculley led Abrams and Nick to the correct flat even though he claimed he hadn’t been there in over a week. So how did he know that Benny had moved unless he was the one who killed him?!
Surprise! Major Sculley, the force for good in the gambling investigation, was really helping out the bad guys this whole time! Whitey knew, so Sculley killed him to keep him quiet, and then he tried to frame Rainbow Benny for the jockey and Whitey’s death.
As usual, the room explodes in a tense standoff and gunfire once the suspect realizes he is caught. But this time, Nora runs at Sculley, allowing Nick and Abrams to disarm him. And all ends well!
Shadow of the Thin Man was in production during the month of August 1941, and opened just months later on November 21, which explains the Thanksgiving themed ads.
The fourth Thin Man got good reviews. Showmen’s Trade Reviews called the movie “smart comedy and yet there’s a generous supply of action in the picture, making it popular with the classes as well as the masses.” The trade paper noted that “Powell plays his role as usual to perfection and Myrna Loy, looking more lovely than ever is an excellent foil for him while maintaining her own in the comedy field as well.”
The Los Angeles Times critic John Scott praised the film and the actors, too, writing that, “this is an interesting ‘whodunit’ with never a dull moment…Powell appears in fine fettle as Nick…and Powell and Miss Loy are as charming a couple as ever in the new film…They supply the spark that should make ‘Shadow of the Thin Man’ popular at the box office.”
Motion Picture Reviews‘ take was also positive. Its review stated that “the various episodes of the plot are packed with interest and every character is a distinct individual.” (I disagree–who are all of these goons and how exactly are they connected? Oh well.) The magazine continued with its praise: “The whole tenor of the piece is suave and sophisticated, and one must be quick to catch the significance of many of the lines, so that while one would not recommend it for young people, it could scarcely do any harm.”
Variety noted the movie’s “lively script, with spirited dialog and some amusing situations,” and wrote that “both stars handle their assignments in a manner that gets the ultimate of laughs.” The “production generally is smart in appearance,” and the “film is surefire for the large audience that the two stars have created for the ‘Thin Man’ series.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I find this entry to be the weakest in the bunch, despite the praise of the contemporary reviews. But it was successful enough to spawn two more Thin Mans, though this was the last one directed by Van Dyke. He passed away in 1943, so other directors helmed the last two films in the series, which were released in 1945 and 1947.
Not fun fact: two weeks after the movie premiered, everything changed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Many stars got involved in the war effort, and Myrna Loy actually left Hollywood and volunteered with the Red Cross in New York for several years. She didn’t make another movie until The Thin Man Goes Home (1945).