Saturday, January 16, 2021

Do you have a writer’s haven? (Plus the math of the business)

I’m an optimist by nature and nurture so I always see the bright side of things. The glass is half full kinda guy. But there’s a lot of sucky stuff going on right now in the world. I see it on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I read about it on the internet. It dominates the nightly news and the late talk shows. It rears its head at the dinner table and on phone conversations with family and friends. It is everywhere.

Except when I write.

When it’s just me, the keyboard, and my imagination, the world is a thousand miles away. I don’t let anything interfere with my writing time. I keep the world out.

Now, the “when” plays a huge role. I’m a 5am Writer, at least on the weekdays. Weekends involve some sleeping in, but I’m still a morning writer. Fundamental to my writing schedule is a simple directive: don’t let the outside world in—in any capacity—until after I’ve done my writing. The only thing open is my imagination. There will be time enough for all the other stuff later in the day.

On most mornings, I have about an hour where I do nothing but write. That’s 60 minutes. However many minutes you have, be sure to make them count.

Speaking of count, here’s the math part of the post.

This week on Twitter [Sounds like a segment on the local news, huh?], I replied to a question” What do you say to the writer who says “I don’t have time to write.”

My answer is simple: Do you have a spare 15 minutes in a day?

If so, you could write 250-500 words a day, 1,750-3,500 a week, 7,500-15,000 a month, and 91,250-182,500 a year. That’s more than enough to write more than one novel and many short stories. Everyone has a spare 15 minutes. Just choose to write.

And keep the world at bay.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Nick and Nora Go Out on a High Note in Song of the Thin Man

You know this movie might be different when Asta wasn't called out in the opening credits. Turns out, it was a return to form.

The film opens on the S.S. Fortune at a charity gala where a big band orchestra with a singer in entertaining the crowd. A couple of former hoods gives some running commentary, especially about the dames, and we get our introduction to Nick and Nora Charles in 1947. Nick gets the first line: "Boys, boys, in polite society, we don't say, Yoo-hoo. We say Yoo-whom."

And we're back!

I think it's safe to say that if you were to be shown stills of William Powell and Myrna Loy in these six Thin Man films, you'd be able to identify the film just by the hairstyle. Nick now wears his hair combed to the side with way less hair product. Nora's style is much more simple, similar to how she wore it in the fifth Thin Man movie, The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). But it's understandable. Not only are we in post-war America, but Powell is 56 and Loy 42. They are middle aged now and the times have changed.

It doesn't take long before we see some shady dealings. Band leader Tommy Drake is irritated with David Thayer, the charity sponsor, for low wages. Drake's got a new gig: he's going on tour where he can make more dough. The only problem is he owes gangster Al Amboy $12,000. When Amboy hears about Drake's plans, he demands the money right then.

Phil Brant, the owner of the gambling boat, is in love with Janet Thayer. They're ready to elope the next day considering her father, the sponsor of the event, doesn't like him. That's all well and good until they became the prime suspects in a murder investigation. Tommy Drake sneaks into Brant's office to break open the safe and abscond with the money. He is shot dead.  

The next morning, we get our first glimpse of the domestic life of Nick and Nora and Nick Jr., played by Dean Stockwell. As a Generation X guy, I know him best from the TV show Quantum Leap and his roles in movies like The Player and Air Force One. Their New York apartment is just as swanky as you'd expect, but what's quite fun is seeing Nick and Nora now as parents.

What is also quite obvious is the witty dialogue is back after a one-movie hiatus. James O'Hanlon and Harry Crane are both credited with additional dialogue so I suspect director Edward Buzzell brought them in to spice up the old repartee. It shows and it's very welcome.

Nick starts sleuthing (without Nora!) and sneaks onto the gambling ship. He finds a piece of sheet music with a receipt from Amboy for the full amount. Our detective also meets clarinetist Clinker Krause who unknowingly has the sheet music in his clarinet case. Back to the dialogue, Clinker talks jive about the then-current jazz styles in such a way that befuddles the Depression-era Nick and Nora (who has now joined Nick). It's a funny ongoing bit, especially considering Nick and Nora probably frequented jazz joints in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Clinker burns the sheet music so Nick has to solve the case without a crucial piece of evidence.

When Nick realizes a clue and decides to visit Janet Thayer at 4:00 am, a sleepy Nora says that, "We're in this together" and finally(!) Nick doesn't ditch her. Too bad it took until the last movie for this to happen. In fact, she even takes initiative and circles back to a rest home where our insane clarinetist, Buddy, is holed up. He confesses to killing Drake and even tries to shoot Nora.

One of the aspects of these Thin Man movies is that Nick and Nora rarely are threatened or in danger. However, with this last entry, there’s a sequence where young Nick Jr. is missing while the parents are away. All joking ceases as Nick and Nora worry until he is found and Nick learns the real reason.

If wouldn’t be a Thin Man movie without the final reveal, and this time, it’s back on the S.S. Fortune. It’s great seeing Nick and Nora comment on each of the suspects as they arrive and are seated. Again, Nora shines by noting something her husband missed: the necklace worn by the moll of Amboy matches the earrings of the lady with booking agent Mitchell Talbin. Nick then reckons the necklace was worth $12,000, the exact amount owed.

Teamwork. Man, if we had more of this earlier in the franchise. Frankly, it’s what I expected from the get-go. It’s how I remember the TV show Hart to Hart being and it’s certainly how Castle was in its run. Probably Remington Steele and Moonlighting, too, except those latter three all started with the romantic leads at odds with each other.

The final confrontation is rather violent for this series, another outcome from World War II.

“Now, Nick Charles is going to retire,” Nick says. “From detective work?” Nora retorts. “No, to bed.”


Final Thoughts


I can’t help but suspect everyone involved knew going in this was likely going to be the final Thin Man film. Being the only one that didn’t make a profit probably sealed the deal. 

Song of the Thin Man is the final Thin Man film and final film for which the pair starred together with equal billing. Loy evidently makes an uncredited appearance in Powell’s 1947 film The Senator was Indiscreet, making it their actual final film. I’ve been wanting to see this entire franchise for quite a long time and I’m glad to have finally done so. I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them, but if I’m being honest, the fifth film, The Thin Man Goes Home, was the weakest one for me. It seemed to have forgotten what made these films special, something the sixth film rectified.

Seeing each of these movies first thing every morning has been a treat, and I’m not shy to say I’d have enjoyed more if there had been more. The way Dean Stockwell portrayed Nick Jr. makes me wonder why no-one has every done a story with Nick Jr. as the detective. The stories almost write themselves.

And I’m curious why there hasn’t been another Thin Man movie made since. Johnny Depp was going to have a modern remake, but that project was cancelled. David Niven and Maggie Smith play Dick and Dora Charleston in the 1976 movie Murder by Death and that’ll be next on my list. I’ve mentioned Castle, Remington Steele, Moonlighting, and Hart to Hart as shows that have taken inspiration from Nick and Nora. Castle is one of my all-time favorite TV shows, but I’m going to go and find some Hart to Hart episodes somewhere. The recipe of a husband-and-wife detective team is too delicious to pass up. I do wish the Nora we saw in Song of the Thin Man had arrived sooner.

I enjoyed these films so much that I’m going to seek out and find the other films Powell and Loy starred in together. But only after watching the documentaries that were packaged with the DVD box set. I’ll review them next year.

Nick and Nora Charles. William Powell and Myrna Loy. Boy, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, do they?


Quotes:


Nick: Who are they?
Nora: Just the people who invited us.

Nick: If this rampage of respectability persists, we're going to have to get you a bulletproof girdle.

Nora [commenting on Nick's swell attire]: You look just a page out of Esquire.
Nick Jr.: Not the page I saw.

Nick's neighbor [after hearing a gunshot]: Was anybody hurt?
Nick [commenting on the shattered bottle of scotch]: Yes, an old friend of mine went to pieces.

Nick Jr.[at 4 am] : How about a story.
Nick: Not tonight.
Nick Jr.: But your stories always put me to sleep.

Nick: Sometimes I amaze even myself. [And the Star Wars fan in me just then wondered if George Lucas was a fan of the Thin Man films and picked up this line for Han Solo.]

Nick [in the lead-up to the finale]: If this party gets rough, duck under the table.
Nora: I’m ready to do that now, although not the way I like.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The War Changes Nick and Nora in The Thin Man Goes Home

I guess the desire to uncover the backstory of fictional heroes isn't new.

Two things instantly jump out in the first three minutes of The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), the fifth Thin Man movie. One is Myrna Loy's clothes. In the previous four films, Nora is always dressed to the nines, but those pictures were all pre-war. Now that America is neck deep in World War II (this film was released in January 1945, the first movie in the franchise not to be released in the holiday season since The Thin Man), it seems Nora's attire reflects the mood of the nation. The train station in the opening scene also shows a few sailors and I'd be hard pressed to say if I saw any soldiers in the earlier films. 

Oh, and William Powell literally pratfalls, twice. Is that a harbinger of things to come or is he drunk? Well, he's not drunk. The husband and wife are on the way to visit his parents and they don't like drinking. Nick's trying to get on the wagon--at least for this trip--another tip of the hat to wartime life: alcohol rationing. "A couple of weeks on this program and I'll be a new man," Nick says. "I rather liked the old one," Nora replies forlornly.

We meet Nick's mother and father, a doctor in Sycamore Springs. Nora and her mother-in-law talk about the difficulty between father and son and they pine for a chance to have Nick demonstrate just how good a detective he really is. 

In one sequence, Nick is dressed in his old clothes and, for the first time in five movies, Nick looks like a wrinkled slob. 

A half hour into the movie, we finally get some criminality. A guy and a gal are after a painting by a local artist, the latest of which Nora buys for Nick. That very night, a young man shows up at the Charles house. No sooner does Nick open the door than the man is shot dead. Peter Burton. On the surface, Nick's not involved, but he's got a nose for these things. He slips out of the house and beats the cops to Burton's hotel room. After switching the room numbers, he slips in, but not before we see a shadowed figure inside the room. By silhouette alone, it appears to be the town oddball, Mary. She promptly knocks Nick out. 

There's a short monologue Nora gives to Asta in which she mimics Nick. After five films, it's pretty fun to see.

As Nick starts to ask around, some of the locals start to threaten Dr. Charles's dreams of a hospital in town. Nora suspects an old friend of Nick's as the culprit and follows him around town. Irritatingly, Nick still has the habit of ditching Nora. The detective asked Brogan to lead Nora on a wild goose chase. In the previous two films, Nora seemed like she was becoming more of a sleuth. In this sequence, she reverted back to being a comic sub-plot. She was approached by a man named Drake to buy the painting for $500, something that helps Nick with the case.

Still, she accompanies him on a few trails and to a couple scenes of crimes, more so than in previous films. 

As is the pattern, Nick gathers all the characters into a room, this time Dr. Charles's laboratory. In yet another bit of meta commentary, Nora explains to her father-in-law how these things work, with the killer always cracking under pressure. For the first time, however, Nora admits she knows the bad guy so finally, she's in on Nick's sleuthing. Her running commentary to her father-in-law is kind of funny. I can't help but wonder if Loy asked for these changes. 

The reveal was actually pretty good, especially considering the suspects were either friends of Dr. Charles or Nick himself. And, yeah, old man Charles is proud of his son so all's well. 

Of the five Thin Man films to date, this one is the most staid. That's probably because of the setting but it also might be the era. This film was released just after America's fourth Christmas at war. There was likely a weariness in the audience and the filmmakers, but I'm going a bit farther than that. 

Generally speaking, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction was between the world wars. After the second, crime and mystery fiction changed from the gentlemanly puzzle stories to the hard-edged tales to which veterans could relate. While the war isn't over yet with the fifth Thin Man film, you get the sense that World War II has changed the franchise. What was once a set of characters and situations designed to take Depression-era viewers away from everyday concerns almost feels frivolous in the middle of a world war. Sure, viewers in 1944 on the home front needed things to take their minds off the horrendous cost of defeating fascism, but there's a little bit of just going through the motions with The Thin Man Goes Home. 

Nick and Nora certainly rattle off one-liners like in every other film, but the energy is not as high as the first four, especially the first two. Again, the on-screen chemistry between Powell and Loy is apparent (this is their 12th of 14 total films they made together) and even the trailer plays up this aspect. It is also the first Thin Man film not to be directed by W. S. Van Dyke, a director known as "One Take Woody" for his swift work ethic. 

The Thin Man Goes Home isn't a bad film by any stretch. The final reveal when we learn what's going on is quite good and germane to the war. But this one just feels different. Now, I'm very interested to see the last Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man (1947) and see what the post-war world does to detective fiction's First Couple.


Quotes:


Nick: What happened?

Nora: It was the table you fixed. It fainted again.


Nick's Dad: Is it always like this?

Nora: Always.

Nick's Dad: You have my deepest sympathies.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Shadow of the Thin Man Softens Up Nick and Nora

Released the day after Thanksgiving 1941, Shadow of the Thin Man is the fourth film in the six-film series. The film opens on domestic bliss. Nick, young Nick Jr., and Asta are walking in the park. The fairy tale he tells his boy is the racing betting odds. After Nora starts shaking a cocktail, Nick hurries home, showing more drinking in the first ten minutes of this movie than in all of Another Thin Man. Cut to a dining room scene a little bit later in the movie and Nicky convinces his dad to drink a glass of milk versus the cocktail in his hand. "You wanted to be a father," Nora says before Nick downs the milk. In what must have been an unscripted scene, Myrna Loy all but cracks up as William Powell attempts to down the drink. We even get a bit of true laughter. 

A trip to track reintroduces us to Lt. Abrams, last seen in the second Thin Man film, After the Thin Man. It seems a jockey has been killed after throwing a race the previous day. Soon, Nick talks with Paul Clarke (future first James Bond actor Barry Nelson) and Major Sculley about a gambling syndicate in the area. The dead jockey was their first real witness and he was bumped off to keep from talking. 

Nick and Nora show up at a wrestling match and we get a little sub-plot with a reporter, Whitey, trying to extort the moll. Later on, we see Whitey meeting with Link Stephens, who appears to be the leader of the syndicate. Donna Reed plays Link's secretary who's also in league (and engaged) with Clarke who takes her keys back to Link's office. Sure enough, he finds the evidence but Whitey catches him red handed. A fight ensues, Clarke gets knocked over the head while Whitey gets shot dead. The law thinks Clarke's their man, but no so Nick.

Nick heads back to the racetrack showers and finds the gun. He and the lieutenant know that the same gun killed both the jocket and Whitey but they tell the reporters a different story. Meanwhile, Nora uses her whiles to get some info from Maguire and passes it off to Nick while he's on a merry-go-round. 

Various clues and scenes lead us to the inevitable final gathering of all the suspects, cops, Nick, Nora, and Asta. As usual, Nick has a bunch of pieces to the puzzle, but doesn't quite know how they add up. That is, until he makes this observation: "If you let somebody talk long enough, they'll spill they beans. And they have." At which point the camera cuts to each of the suspects. Until the culprit pulls Nick's gun and threatens to shoot our detective.

At which point Nora does something completely unexpected: she jumps in front of the culprit to protect Nick. Yes, really. I've been noticing Nora's gradual involvement in these cases increase, but this was rather unexpected. Nice to see.

What is also pretty fun to see is Nora's hats. She wears a few in this picture, most of which hang half off her head. She walks as if she's balancing her posture to make sure the hats don't topple. 

If the third Thin Man film showed a more mature Nick and Nora, this one tries to up the ante a little. There's a funny bit at a wrestling match where Nora, anxious in watching the bout, puts Nick in a head clamp. Powell and Loy seem to be having fun as always, but it's really a treat to watch Loy when Nora isn't speaking. 

The mystery is a twisty-turny one and you'd need a scorecard to follow all the clues. But when Nick outs the real killer, the final clue is pretty darn obvious. 

It is fascinating to see the transformation of these central characters over four films so far and from 1934 to late 1941. The edginess of the first two has smoothed out into the palatable yet still enjoyable latter two. I think the broad appeal of the Thin Man movies to a general audience (likely including kids) is responsible for the breezy nature of this film. The sex appeal between the two leads is also softened. Where in the first two, there was definite marital/sexual chemistry, by 1941, it, too, is smoothed over. Here's a short quote that'll give you an idea of what I mean.

Nick: I tell you what, you go home, cold cream that lovely face, slip into an exciting negligee...

Nora: Yes.

Nick: And I'll see you at breakfast.

Nick drinks more on screen but Nora doesn't, even though it's hinted at. Powell's hair is likely dyed at this point because it is very dark. It was also fun to see Nick Jr. old enough to recite lines back and forth with Powell and Loy. He fits right in with the Charles family. 

This is the last Thin Man film before the Pearl Harbor attack only a few weeks after Shadow of the Thin Man drops in theaters. I am very curious to see what the war experience does to this franchise.


Quotes:


Nora [to her maid]: He's [Nicky] becoming more like his father every day.

Stella: He sure is. Yesterday I saw him with a corkscrew.


Lt. Abrams: That jockey that threw the race yesterday was shot.

Nora: My, they are stict on this track.


Stevens: You're going to see some great wrestling tonight.

Nick: How do you know? Were you at the rehearsal.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Another Thin Man Sobers Up Nick and Gives Nora Something To Do

Unlike the second film, the mystery in Another Thin Man (1939) is set in motion within the first five minutes. As soon as Nick and Nora arrive in New York City, Colonel MacFay, the old gent who minds Nora's inheritance (and was partners with Nora's father), calls them and insists they come on out to his estate on Long Island. On the drive up with the new nanny they picked up in New York, Nick sees a body, but when the limo stops, the body's gone. 

When our heroes finally get to the estate, they find the old colonel in a fit. He thinks Phil Church--a former business partner who went to jail for ten years after a business deal went awry--is out to kill him. He's got a bunch of guards welding shotguns. His daughter, Lois, and her fiancee, Dudley, are there, along with the chauffeur, MacFay's secretary, Freddie, and his housekeeper, Isabella. We viewers are about to get the lowdown over dinner when Nora finally gets a little victory: she pickpockets the colonel's keys and slips them to Nick. "I haven't been married to you for nothing." After two movies with next to no sleuthing, it's great to see Nora involved in the action.

After Lois's dog is killed and the swimming pool house is burned, we learn from Dudley that the beef Phil has with the colonel is simple: their business deal meant Phil did a few illegal things that would reap Colonel MacFay all the profits without knowing too many of the details, but if things went south, Phil would be left holding the bag. 

Nick walks over to Phil Church's house--under surveillance by the cops--and stays long enough to get threatened by him and his gal, Smitty, and his Asian servant, Dum-Dum. When the trio gets to New York, we learn Smitty's married to a guy in jail but Phil's wanting to take things to the next step. 

Cut back to the MacFay mansion and little Nicky wakes his parents and Lois joins them. No sooner are they talking than the power goes out and a gunshot is heard in the dark. The colonel is dead. His room is all destroyed. The nanny escapes amid all the commotion. The Assistant DA and the local cops show up and actually start to suspect Nick. In a bit of meta-commentary, a pair of cops question Nora, talking about all the times Nick shows up, there's a pretty girl and a murder ensues. They specifically reference the earlier Thin Man movies. Dudley is shot dead and everyone suspects Phil Church is the villain.

Nick, Nora, and everyone else all escape back to The Big Apple where the housekeeper lets slip that she's Lois's mother! Pretty darn convenient now that Lois is set to inherit $5 million. Clues lead Nick--who has ditched Nora yet again--to the West Indies Club where viewers in 1939 are treated to a music-and-dance number befitting the Cuban rage at the time. Turns out, Nora is already there. She's to hold $14.75 in her handkerchief and the guy who knows where Dum-Dum is will meet her. Again, Nora finally has something to do and it's nice. 

We also get the return of police lieutenant Guild from The Thin Man

In a funny little scene, a bunch of former criminals all show up, babies in their arms, for a "boithday" party for little Nicky. One of the goons is none other than Shemp Howard in a pre-Three Stooges role.

Not to give away the ending, suffice it to say we have a scene with all the characters in the same room and Nick walking them and the audience through all the clues. This solution was quite special given the steps involved with the initial killing of Colonel MacFay. It makes sense considering original author Dashiell Hammett wrote the story. 

The Core of the Series

But the heart of these movies is the relationship between Nick and Nora. While this movie doesn't have as many scenes with them filled with the witty banter, there's a genuine warmth between William Powell and Myrna Loy. I can't remember if, in the first Thin Man movie, they mentioned how long Nick and Nora had been married, but now that they are parents, there's a mellowing out. But the love between is still fresh and full. Nick and Nora each have scenes where only via their facials expressions, you can tell they love each other. It's really nice to see that. Heck you can see that in the movie poster.

Of course, those kinds of scenes are not without humor. When Nick meets up with Nora, she asks him how he knew she was there. "I saw a great group of men standing around a table," he begins as Loy smiles. "I knew there was only one woman in the world who could attract men like that - a woman with a lot of money." And Loy's smile drops.

Nick drinks way less in this one and Nora doesn't sip anything at all. That's probably a result of movie standards maturing in the five years since the first film and the studios not wanting to highlight all the drinking. There's less physical comedy here, too. The end result makes this a fun picture, heavy on the mystery and sleuthing.

I'm liking this series quite a bit despite my modern sensibilities being jarred. It's fascinating to see a husband-and-wife sleuthing team, especially in this era. You can see how everything from Hart to Hart to Castle took inspiration from Nick and Nora.

Quotes:

Nora: It wasn't his fault, [Mr. Charles] smells like a dog. 


Nick [upon seeing Nora at the West Indies Club]: How long have you been leading a double life?

Nora: Just since I've been married.


Nora: I got rid of all those reporters.

Nick: What did you tell them?

Nora: I told them we were out of scotch.

Nick: What a gruesome thought!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

After the Thin Man is Another Fun Romp with a Better Mystery

It took the movie studios two years to make the sequel to The Thin Man, but I only had to wait a day.

Released on Christmas Day 1936, After the Thin Man picks up right where the first film ended: with Nick and Nora Charles on the train home to San Francisco. I always get a kick out of reporters, newsboys, and random folks on the street who say hey to Nick like he's a celebrity. Can you imagine any of the other fictional detectives being like that?

The filmmakers knew what make The Thin Man special--the relationship between Nick and Nora with Asta thrown in--so they made the sequel film nearly two hours, quite a bit longer than the first film's run time of 91 minutes. It gave William Powell and Myrna Loy ample extra scenes that don't really forward the plot, but serve as little cocktails of joy with their onscreen chemistry. They just kind of flit through the story (and life?) taking everything as it comes. Like when they arrive at their house on New Year's Eve and discover a giant "surprise" party with the house full of people. I love how they're so calm with what they find. They just start dancing and make their way into the kitchen where Nora takes a call from her cousin, Selma, and the real plot starts.

It seems Selma's husband, Robert, has gone missing. The "old battle ax" Aunt Katherine asks Nick to look into it so that the family name is kept out of the papers. Jimmy Stewart plays David, Selma's former suitor, and he arrives and then is sent away. He tells Nick that Robert called him with a proposition: pay Robert $25,000 and he'd (Robert) would leave Selma to David. 

In one of the funnier casting choices, Aunt Katherine's butler is a barely walking old geezer named Henry. When Nick deposits his overcoat in Henry's arms, the butler nearly falls over. Throw in a "walk this way" moment where Nick mimics Henry's odd gait, and you've got more physical gags in the first twenty minutes of this film than all of the first. 

Nick and Nora head out to the LiChi Club where much of the main plot is revealed. Robert's there and he's got eyes for the star performer, Polly. She's in cahoots with the club owner, Dancer, and their goal is to steal the $25,000. Meanwhile, Polly's brother, Phil, knows about the scheme and wants in on it. 

David pays off Robert but Phil sees it. David jets home to pick up some clothes. Selma's there and, after he leaves, grabs a gun and chases after him. Polly's also there, in the fog. Dancer's driving to the house. A shot rings out and Robert falls dead. Selma arrives, gun in hand, staring down at her dead husband. David arrives, tells her to go home and act like she knows nothing. He later see David toss the gun into a river. 

What I find fascinating is that the murder occurs fifty minutes into the movie. In a modern movie, the killing would happen in Act I or maybe even the prologue and we'd get the relationship stuff via the investigation. In a film like this, we get all the backstory first, enabling us to get to know the characters before the shooting. I probably wouldn't want every story done this way, but it's a nice change of pace.

Another thing I noticed is during the scene in Dancer's office. Nick's there, some cops, Polly, Dancer, and Dancer's lawyer. Nick is "just talking" but he's planting seeds and asking questions of the bad guys. It's almost like he's a pseudo Greek chorus, observing the events versus participating in them. Additionally, when Dancer cuts the lights and a fight ensues, Nick doesn't even bother joining in. He just gets under the desk while everyone else scurries around. In this way, he's almost like Bret Maverick from the TV show.

After a rock with a note tied to it is hurled through the Charles's window in the wee small hours of the morning, there's yet another sequence with Asta as the main star. Considering he is actually part of the billed cast, I'm guessing his agent worked out the details.

With my modern sensibilities, I'll admit it's rather irritating when Nick locks Nora in a closet so that she can't come with him to visit Phil in a seedy hotel. I know it's of the era, but it's still pretty lousy. 

But Nick's visit to the hotel reveals a secret, and it leads him to realize he has most of the pieces in place. But he needs to fill in those last blanks. To do that, he gets the police detective to round up all the characters and, in a repeat from the first film (probably all of them), he gives a monologue where he uncovers the culprit. While this scene isn't quite as entertaining as the dinner party version in The Thin Man, it's great to see Nick finally spots the one clue that reveals the killer. 

As a writer, I appreciate the murder/mystery aspect of After the Thin Man better than the first. It's definitely one in which all the clues are present to the audience, allowing them to piece it together before or at the same time as Nick. But I so love the dialogue between Nick and Nora. I liked the longer movie and love seeing these two actors do their thing.

So, I have seen the first two Thin Man movies before. Starting tomorrow with Another Thin Man, I'm heading into uncharted territory.


Quotes:


Nora: Oh you wouldn't know them. They're respectable.


Nick [to the police detective after Nick and Nora slept through the day]: Want some breakfast?

Cop: No, I just had dinner.


Nick: Come on, let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty.


Nora: Aunt Katherine wants to speak to you.

Nick: What have I done now?

Nora: Do you know why Robert wasn't here tonight?

Nick: Sure, because he's smart

Nora: I'm not fooling, darling, he's disappeared.

Nick: That's swell. Now if we could just get Aunt Katherine to disappear...

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Thin Man is a Darn Fine Film (and a Christmas Movie, Too)

If Die Hard is a Christmas movie, then so is 1934's The Thin Man.

As a Christmas gift, the family gave me the complete Thin Man movies on DVD. I've seen the first two more than once, but now, this week, I'll be watching one a day until New Year's Day. Why now? Well, the first movie takes place around Christmas, thus my opening statement. The second takes place around New Year's Day. See what I mean?

Anyway, most of us know about The Thin Man, the 1934 movie based on Dashiell Hammett's last novel of the same name. The novel was published in January 1934 and the film was released on 25 May of the same year. Got to appreciate the efficiency of everything back in the Depression. The film's stars are William Powell and Myrna Loy who play Nick and Nora Charles. The pair are in New York for a visit before they return to California and their real life. Nick, a former detective, now runs the railroad company his father-in-law used to operate. He's retired from the detective business, but circumstances drag him back into a case.

Old man Clyde Wynant has disappeared. His daughter Dorothy asks Nick for his help, but the former detective keeps demurring. He doesn't want any part of the business and prefers to let the cops handle the dirty work. Nora wants to see her husband as he was in his earlier life. The cops partially suspect Nick had something to do with everything but then want his help, too. The rest of the Wynant family--ex-wife Mimi who only wants his money; son Gilbert, a rather bookish type with dark, round plastic glasses who thinks he can solve the case via things he learned in books; Julia, Clyde's secretary and the reason there is an ex-wife but who also helps control the finances--each try to get a piece of Nick. 

But he's having none of it. All he wants to do is drink, be with his wife, walk his dog, Asta, and drink some more. If you know anything about the Nick and Nora film series, is the abundant amount of alcohol consumed and the witty banter between husband and wife. Nick is first introduced at a high-class gin joint, shaking the martini shaker to the time of the music. Already drunk, he then consumes the martini before hearing a commotion outside. Asta is dragging Nora into the bar. Her arms full of presents, we first see her via a pratfall. An interesting way to introduce the heroine, but right in line with the vibe of the film.

Let's be honest: we watch The Thin Man for the relationship and chemistry between Nick and Nora. Their continually throwing one-liners at each other, more than a few of which are double entendres. I haven't heard it, but I bet the radio play was just just as fun, and might have even expanded some of their scenes. Powell is a verbal gymnast with his dialogue and delivery. Fun, too, is his facial expressions, not the least of which is his perfectly trimmed mustache. It's almost like a character on its own. Loy, while appearing in some lovely attire, plays Nora as one who actually wants to get into the mix of things. Her voice often takes on a sarcastic quality, almost like a wink and a nod to the audience. 

It's fun to see how Nora practically begs Nick to take the case, but then worries about him when things get hot. I know it's a 1934 film, but it would have been fun to see Nora do a little sleuthing. Maybe she does in the later films. 

Asta, too, is a great addition. Often, director W. S. Van Dyke will do that thing where you speed up the film to show animals doing something funny, like when some shooting starts, Asta rushes under a chair or behind something. It's easy to see why Asta became the important third wheel on the Nick and Nora train.

As much fun as it is to watch Nick and Nora, there is still a mystery involved. Like any good traditional mystery during the Golden Age of detective stories between the world wars, the clues are all there. It's a decent enough mystery, one that zeroed in on the only realistic bad guy. 

I especially appreciated how Nick got all the cast of characters together at a dining table and gives The Talk. It's one of the hallmarks of stories like this, and Powell is perfect at it. I enjoyed how he'd get to a certain point, say a character's name, have that character protest their innocence, only to have Nick ask about the meal. 

Everything wraps up nice and neat, with Nick and Nora on a train barreling west to California, their detective sojourn in New York complete. A thread that runs throughout the film is the obvious love and affection Nick and Nora have for each other. Even when Nora accidentally catches Nick hugging Dorothy Wynant, she knows her husband. Sure, they sleep in different twin beds in the hotel room, but in the final scene, Nick puts Asta on the top bunk before settling in the bottom bunk with Nora. And Asta lays down and covers his eyes.

The Thin Man is a blast of a film. I'm already looking forward to tomorrow to watching the second film, After the Thin Man, which picks up almost exactly where this one ends. 

Christmas Movie?

To me, there is a difference between a movie about Christmas and a movie that takes place at Christmas. Home Alone, The Santa Clause, the various Grinch movies, etc. all are about Christmas. They couldn't take place at any other time of the year. 

Movies that take place at Christmas are usually about something else but use the trapping of Christmas for humorous effect or a plot device. Die Hard, for me, falls into this second category. So does Batman Returns. Crucially, however, these movies could be set during other times of the year or different holidays. Imagine Die Hard at Thanksgiving. Batman Returns during the Fourth of July. Or The Thin Man around St. Patrick's Day.

Still, many folks consider Die Hard a Christmas movie. If it is, then so is The Thin Man.

Funny Quotes:

Nora: [hungover after catching up to Nick's six martinis] What hit me?

Nick: The last martini.


Nora [when a cop is searching the dresser where her clothes are]: Say, what's that man doing in my drawers?


Reporter [at a Christmas party hosted by Nick and Nora with lots of drinking]: Say listen, is he working on a case?

Nora: Yes, he is.

Reporter: What case?

Nora: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.


Nora: They say you were shot in the tabloids.

Nick: They never got near my tabloids.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

An Advent Calendar of Stories

As of today, we have only twenty days until Christmas. Shopping will definitely look different this year. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been ordering many if not most gifts online. Some of the mad rush as we count down the days until the 25th will shift.

In our entryway, we have an Advent calendar. Ours is a homemade one where each day, we get to place an ornament on the tree. There are a myriad of other Advent calendars: Legos, chocolate, wine, you name it.

One of the most unique focuses on stories. Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith have, for the second year in a row, created an Advent calendar type project. Truth is, it started on Thanksgiving day and extends to New Year’s Day, but all that means is extra stories. Rusch and Smith curated lots of stories, sifting out the best ones.

After you sign up via Kickstarter at the level of your choice, you’ll get an email every day. In the email, Rusch writes an introduction and then gives you a BookFunnel link. From there, you can download the story onto the device of your choice. I use my Kobo reader and it works seamlessly.

So, if you are in the mood to get a story a day this Christmas season, head on over to the webpage and sign up. It’ll make each day of this month fly by.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Before We Die: Season 2 Review

One of the standard guiding principles for second seasons of TV shows is the same but bigger. That principle is alive and well in season two of Sweden’s Before We Die.

After finishing season one last week, the wife and I decided to forge ahead with the second season without taking a break. At only eight episodes (to the first season’s ten), it wasn’t difficult to watch the entire season by Thanksgiving night.

Season two picks up six months after season one ends. Hanna (Marie Richardson) has taken down the Mimica crime family a few notches—they went from running a fancy restaurant to a pizzeria—but she still doesn’t know the identity of the police officer who works directly for the Mimicas. To ferret out the leak, Hanna’s boss assigns her to the Organized Crime division. There, she and her partner, Bjorn (Magnus Krepper) stumble upon a group of corrupt cops dubbed The Circle. These folks are pretty darn bad, killing and stealing at will, all with a diffuse organization not easy to discover and even harder to bring down.

All of this would be difficult enough, but throw in the return of Christian, Hanna’s son, from his exile at the end of season one, and you get another complication. That is, until Bjorn and Hanna decide to let Christian try and infiltrate the Circle. He didn’t come back with Blanka, the daughter of the Mimicas, and he doesn’t want to talk about what happened down in Costa Rica.

Now, I’ll admit that as soon as the plot became another infiltration by Christian into a dangerous group, I was a little irritated. We had already seen this kind of thing in the first season. And some of the scenes between Christian and Hanna, Bjorn, and the police captain were just as irritating. “We should bring him in, get him out,” they’d say. “No, I’m really close,” Christian would counter. And then he’d go back. But the ingredients in this story were just different enough that I quickly moved past my difficulties and just went with the flow. It didn’t help that in the Twitter posts from last week (about season one) a user commented that the second season wasn’t as good as the first. True, but it was different enough to stand on its own.

You see, Christian infiltrates the Circle really, really well. Lena (Maria Sundbom) takes a shine to the young man and things get hot. Yet he has to keep this aspect of things secret from his mom and the other cops, so you end up having the young man (Adam Pålsson) alone playing all sides. Palsson does a good job here, especially considering the other things the character is fighting.

Second seasons always bring in new characters and one of the best is Laura (Shada-Helin Sulhav) as one of the Mimica’s foot soldiers. Laura is cold, calculating, imaginative, and resourceful in her quest to do what’s asked of her. My wife and I both hated the character…which just meant it was an excellent one. Laura’s primary goal is to befriend Blanka, who has returned to Stockholm and is looking for Christian.

If there is a plot point that was irritating—and I mean Kim Bauer in “24” getting caught by that mountain lion irritating—it’s Blanka befriending Laura. It’s smack-your-head stupid, but hey, whatever.

What really holds Before We Die together are the relationships and the push/pull each have against the larger story. It’s fun to see just how far each one is willing to go to achieve a goal. 

There's another couple of scenes in which the characters speak English. Having spent so long reading the sub-titles, it was a fun surprise to realize "Oh, I understand that." Which brings up an interesting question: why English? Is English always the default second language for most of the rest of the world?

Oh, and do yourself a favor: don’t look this season up on IMDB or whatever. Just leave yourself open to the show as it unfolds out over eight hours. We did that and the surprises—almost always in the last thirty seconds of each episode—will be that much better.

Season two of Before We Die doesn’t quite reach the level of the first season, but, taken together as one long 18-hour story, it’s still highly recommended. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Before We Die: Season 1 Review

If you need something else to be thankful for this month, let it be that services like Amazon make available foreign TV series as good as Before We Die (Innan Dor) from Sweden.

Released in 2017 and aired on PBS prior to landing on Amazon, Before We Die centers on Hanna (Marie Richardson), a police office with a jurisdiction in financial crimes. She's a straight arrow, so much that she sent her own son to jail for dealing drugs. I think you can imagine how much of a wall this act puts between mother and son.

Flash forward two years and Hanna has a lover, a fellow cop, Sven, he of Organized Crime. As the show opens, Sven is investigating a motorcycle club in Stockholm. This club is at odds with another group, a Croatian family who has a restaurant in the city. As you can imagine, the Mimica family is not all what they seem.

Neither is Sven. He's actually carrying on a secret investigation into the Mimica family, and he's got an infiltrator by the name of Inez. They communicate via old-fashioned cell phones. Things go bad for Hanna when Sven disappears.

The first few episodes deal with Hanna and her team searching for Sven. Later, she'll become more involved in his investigation, digging deeper into what he's uncovered and how it all fits together.

There is a lot to love about this show, but it all centers on Hanna. I'm not familiar with Marie Richardson but holy cow did she ground the show. As a middle-aged guy, I really enjoyed the lead character in my age bracket. It was a joy to watch her grapple with what she discovers, including the true identity of Inez. Okay, minor spoiler here, but you can probably kinda guess it (and it is revealed in the last seconds of episode 1). Inez is her son, Christian. He's working with Sven having garnered a job as a dishwasher for the Mimica family. Their tumultuous relationship plays out over the entire ten-episode run of season 1 in splendid fashion.

Christian is the only actor I recognized. He is played by Adam Pålsson. Americans will know him for the titular character in Netflix's Young Wallander. He does a fantastic job as the ex-con who is taken in by the family and given more and more responsibilities in their criminal activities. Christian makes some interesting choices, and Pålsson sells the blow back very well.

One of the fellow cops Hanna brings in is Bjorn, played by Magnus Krepper. He's a tough, rough, no-BS kind of cop. The one who'll bend the rules if it leans toward justice, or at least as he sees justice. Krepper shows Bjorn as intense yet the veteran cop is about to be a new dad.

Any good crime drama is nothing without a compelling villain, and Alexej Manvelov, as Davor Mimica, is wonderfully restrained yet terrifyingly deadly. He, too, has a secret that he keeps from his family, including his sister, Blanka (Sandra Redlaff). She's engaged to non-family member Stefan but she also has eyes for Christian, so there's some jealousy going on.

I'll admit that some of the themes and ideas and plot points you've seen before. I know I have. There were a few story beats I guessed, but there's one, late in the series, I didn't. It's one of those revelations that, like The Sixth Sense, will make you want to re-watch the show from the beginning.

But those story beats do not diminish this excellent show. My wife (who selected it) and I thoroughly enjoyed the series and are eagerly anticipating diving into season 2 this weekend.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Book Review: The Way We All Became The Brady Bunch by Kimberly Potts

Perhaps the most surprising turn of events sparked by the Covid pandemic and the subsequent order to work from home was my rediscovery of The Brady Bunch.

I'm an avid watcher of MeTV, especially the westerns on Saturday and the science fiction shows later that night. More often than not, the cable box remains on that channel into Sunday morning. Earlier this year after I watched my church's broadcast on YouTube, I reverted back to broadcast TV and caught the opening of what the channel calls The Brady Brunch: a two-hour block on Sunday mornings of episodes of the Brady Bunch. Back in the spring, MeTV was running the series in order and it was the episode when the family flew out to Cincinnati and had an adventure at the King's Island theme park.

I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed this episode and I watched that group of four. Then I did it again the next Sunday. And the next. After reaching the end of the run, MeTV started doing themes: all Marcia, all Bobby, etc.

My interest in the show piqued, it was serendipity when podcaster Ken Mills interviewed Kimberly Potts on his POP podcast. Turned out Potts was there to talk about her new book: The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch: How the Canceled Sitcom Became the Beloved Pop Culture Icon We Are Still Talking About Today. (Yes, it's a long title.)

Perfect! I got the book on my Kindle and, in between two digital covers, had nearly all my Brady Bunch questions answered.

Of all places to start, Potts began the book with The X-Files. The penultimate episode recreated the famous interior of the Brady house. That a science fiction show in 2002 would choose to craft a story around a cancelled family sitcom is one proof of how endearing the Brady Bunch remains.

The book is chronological, starting with the seed of an idea in the mind of creator Sherwood Schwartz and going all the way up to 2019 when the Brady kids--now, middle aged--participated in the HGTV renovation of the actual Brady house and literally everything in between. A few facts that fascinated me.

Schwartz conceived of the idea in 1966, but the network wasn't ready for a show with a mixed family. It wasn't until the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda premiered that ABC gave the show a shot.

I didn't really know how bad Robert Reed was on set about the scripts and how Schwartz was running the show. While the actor never feuded in front of the child actors, he was a pain, so much so that he boycotted the fifth season finale...which turned out to be the series finale. That the episode dealt with Greg's high school graduation is a pretty crappy hill on which to die. Still, Reed returned for every single reunion show for the rest of his life. Yet, through it all, he loved his six TV kids, even taking them on a vacation and giving them all small home movie cameras, the footage of which became a TV special.

Speaking of specials, Potts discusses all the various spin-offs and specials along the way, including a forgotten-by-me thing called The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. Yes, it really happened, and there's proof on YouTube. I kept a list and I plan on seeking out as many as I can. Did you know Reed and Florence Henderson guest-starred on the Love Boat in character? I have got to find that one.

I enjoyed Potts's description of the sheer volume of tributes throughout the years, from sitcom to dramatic show, that paid tribute to The Brady Bunch. Much like Star Trek, The Brady Bunch never truly went away. It just morphing and changing with the times.

And it’s the simple love for this show, the loving parents, the six kids, and Alice (!) that had propelled this show into the 21st Century. Kimberly Potts’s book is essential reading if you want to learn all there is to know about this sitcom.

Why has it endured? It all comes down to Sherwood Schwartz’s vision for the show, a lesson we all can learn:

The Brady Bunch was going to be another example of what he believed was one of the most important ideas in life: that any group of people, no matter how different, no matter how little they might seem to have in common, could learn to live together. He wanted the show to be groundbreaking and modern, to reflect this new and significant sociological change with he prevalence of blended families, and it did. He couldn’t have planned for the decades-long impact his slice of Americana would have on television and every other avenue of pop culture, but it did indeed achieve that, too.

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