Walk this Way
The conventional wisdom is that a classic is something that is so well formed initially that it serves well for a long time. So classic films, for instance, are seen like classic car engines, well engineered things that still work.
But I think with art, most of the effect is due to something different. A classic is something that had such influence that many works that followed copied it. The original and its copies imprint in our senses and we envelope it in expectations. So the classic forms a kind of reference, and when we encounter the original later on, it seems true because it is how truth has been defined.
That makes classics more important because they are touchstones in how we have constructed ourselves.
I consider this a classic, this second Thin Man, an important film. The great puzzle is why it and its siblings didn’t spawn a genre. That’s what usually happened, in fact is the template for templatemaking.
What is this? A screwball comedy of class? A noir detective story turned somewhat inside out? A theatrical collection of sarcastic endearments?
My favorite scene involves a stolen joke. There’s a rickety butler of the battle-ax Aunt. When Nick comes to visit, the butler totters precipitously and says “walk this way”. Nick follows in comic stride.
If I recall correctly, this joke is from the Marx brothers movie of the previous year, which itself was a retooling of a much older joke. A man goes to the doctor with a stooped, perhaps hunchback manner. The doctor invites him in and in the course of advising says “walk this way” whereupon the patient can remark that if he could walk that way…
That the crew thought they could quote this joke tells me a lot about the nature of this movie. It isn’t really a movie at all, not in the sense that others were. It is a movie that borrows from and quotes others, rather like an early “Scary Movie”. But instead of mining a genre, it takes a higher stance. (Genres hadn’t quite formed by this time anyway.)
It has comedy. It has the assembly of suspects at the end. It has noir segments and shows. It is a creole of everything that went before up to that time. Just as everybody on the street recognises Nick, so does every gob in the theatre recognise the bits of this movie. In both cases, there’s a story fragment attached.
Its a work of genius how this is constructed, by intuition I’m sure. But look at one scene where Nick and Nora are celebrating New Year’s Eve at a restaurant that is involved in the mystery. They watch a show. They watch the stories that contribute to the murder. In doing so, they are joined by “the gang”. After some drinking, one of them pokes heavy fun at Nora, thinking she is only the dame of the moment.
The whole thing is wrapped in that one scene, which otherwise has no reason to exist.
Posted in 2006
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.