In spite of its flaws, Another Thin Man played off the fun interactions between Nick and Nora Charles without shoving baby Nickie down your throat (and though the literal image is interesting, I’m speaking figuratively). With Shadow of the Thin Man, W.S. Van Dyke and crew strike a better compromise, returning to the first film’s origins with mild divergence to a slightly taller baby Nickie. The character development is spot-on, but the story’s convoluted nature leaves little to the imagination. Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are spending the afternoon at the local track when a jockey is murdered. As Nick gets drawn into the investigation he starts to uncover corruption, organized crime, and illegal gambling.
Compared to the previous three Thin Man entries, Shadow of the Thin Man feels less concerned with the mystery at its heart. There’s a tenuousness to everything, from the way Nick and Nora stumble upon the mystery (being stopped by a cop and being led to the track by a swarm of police cars), to the return to it throughout. Much of this is because the duo take breaks to return home and care for their child. This could lead to a disconnect between two different running plots, but the family angle wins out at several points, garnering the wittier dialogue and stronger character interactions.
In Another Thin Man, the baby took Nora away from the story and was shoehorned in to events with Nickie being in jeopardy every five minutes. In Shadow, all of those niggling issues are removed; Nora receives some of the best integration in the series and Nickie is less of a gimmick. The latter kicks off the plot, leading to the suspicion the previous flaws were in-tact. We appear to jump forward a few years with Nickie (Richard Hall) being about 3-4 years old. Nickie and his father are walking through the park with both “holding up the caravan.” We quickly return to Nora and her maid, Stella (played by a post-Imitation of Life Louise Beavers) noticing that the duo are actually sitting down. It’s implied that Nick, Jr. has inherited some of his father’s vices as Stella say, “This morning he was playing with a corkscrew.” This is probably the only drinking we get because Nick stays on the wagon for this movie. It isn’t that anything specifically is mentioned so much as he just doesn’t have time to drink. And when he does sit down for dinner little Nick guilts him into drinking milk. Speaking of Hall, his Nickie is pretty darn cute without being cloying. You believe he’s the perfect combination of Nick and Nora.
Speaking of our beloved duo, the story returns to their banter as the lynchpin to the series’ humor. There is a runaway gag about Nora being Nick’s mistress, or at least not Nick’s wife that I wasn’t too sure about. Is this implying something about Nick or Nora? We know Nick had a rather unsavory past, but nothing so far in the series has implied anything about his past taste in women, or that he’d be open to cheating on his wife. As for Nora, she’s beautiful and one of the core dynamics is their rich girl/poor boy relationship, but that never properly sets up the gag’s payoff. And it happens so many times you just wish Nick had taken out an ad. A better gag is at the expense of Nora’s ridiculous hat that she wears to a wrestling match. The wrestling match is a great moment where Nora shows off the power she’s been hiding for the last few movies. Wrapped up in the machismo of the match, she ends up putting Nick in a headlock. Loy’s facial expressions alert us to a physical comedy the actress wasn’t known for.
A sly wink to the audience happens when Nora tells Nick “you can’t neglect me.” Apparently, the script isn’t interested in neglecting her either, as she takes a front seat to work with Nick on this case, probably more so than she did in The Thin Man itself. The climax actually has her risking her life for her husband, saving him from danger. Yes, the joke is the gun wasn’t ever loaded, but Nora, and the audience, weren’t aware. In a way, Nora is the hero of this movie!
The script understands the last movie did enough to cement the new family dynamics, so the movie puts little Nickie in the house for the majority of the runtime and settles into the mystery/crime comedy of the first feature. The problem is the plot is hard to follow and rather tedious. It’s typical of “at the track” stories with an emphasis on racketeering and organized crime. The villains are interchangeable with the exception of Stella Adler’s Claire Porter, distinctive because she’s a female villainess who isn’t a moll. Unfortunately, Adler isn’t given much to work with, as are none of the central villains. The final confrontation, and eventual revelation of the true culprit isn’t satisfying because you’re never engaged in the mystery to begin with. This is a Nick and Nora movie, plain and simple, which is great but if you’re interested in the mystery angle you’ll be disappointed.
In my exploration of the series up to this point, there hasn’t been an entry that’s outright bad. The consistency of the story and acting remains high, even if each movie has its own particular flaws. Shadow of the Thin Man crams too much into the mystery, but makes up for it all with a stronger relationship and alliance between Nick and Nora Charles. We also aren’t given too much Nick, Jr. as a gimmick. We haven’t gotten a shadow of a movie just yet.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.