(1936, b/w) In the era of the martini ("I'm just putting away this liquor," imbibing as he's packing) and the thin mustache, the urbane, witty gumshoe Nick Charles (William Powell) returns with his cute, clever, "favorite woman" and wife ("You don't scold, you don't nag, and you look far too pretty in the mornings") Nora (Myrna Loy) on the Sunset Limited to San Francisco from the East Coast. As the couple step off the train with their wire-haired terrier Asta, Nick announces to the reporters hounding him about his next detective case: "I'm retired. I'm just going to take care of my wife's money so I'll have something in my old age."
The second of director W.S. Van Dyke's movies based on Dashiell Hammett's characters, from Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's neatly plotted screenplay, is a nifty balancing of suspenseful drama and killing comedy.
After another of Nick's street acquaintances, Fingers, mistakenly pinches Nora's purse, Nick asks her who the well-dressed elderly couple were just passing in a car: "Oh, you wouldn't know them, darling. They're respectable." Wanting nothing more on New Year's evening than to get some sleep after three days on the train, they arrive at their home to find a surprise party for them in progress followed by an invitation to dine with Nora's wealthy Aunt Katherine Forrest (Jessie Ralph).
At the "wax works" of "old faces" - Nick ("One squint at Aunt Katherine would sober anybody up") and "the old battle ax" mutually detest each other - Nora learns of her cousin's distress: Selma (Elissa Landi) says her husband Robert Landis (Alan Marshall) disappeared three days earlier, suspecting he's with another woman. Not wanting any publicity, Aunt Katherine asks Nick to investigate "quietly." Late-arrival David Graham (James Stewart), once engaged to Selma and still carrying a torch for her, tells Nick that Robert the playboy had demanded $25,000 to clear out.
With midnight approaching, Nick takes Nora to the Lichee Club where they find Robert, who's about to leave with his girlfriend, singer Polly Byrnes (Dorothy McNulty, who later changed her real name to Penny Singleton). When Polly's brother Phil tries to shake her down, Dancer (Joseph Calleia), the club's co-owner with Lum Kee (William Law), believing Polly's his girl, throws Phil out. On an earlier case Nick's detective work had put Lum Kee's brother in prison.
Now, see, Willie the Weeper, just out on parole, see, is having a coming-out party, so he and his boys need, see, to be seen in respectable company; Nick welcomes them to join him and Nora at their table. Outside in the fog Robert, having received in payment a bracelet and bonds from David, is shot dead.
By Selma, who's holding a pistol? By Phil, who has a gun, lurking nearby in the shadows? By Dancer or Lum, out for a breath of air with their chauffeur, both packing heat? David takes the gun from Selma, tells her to go home, and tosses the weapon into the bay.
While Lt Abrams (Sam Levene) investigates the murder - "Nobody has anything. Nobody knows anything" - and Dr Adolph Kammer, a psychiatrist, takes Selma under his protective care, Nick laments: "This is the craziest case."
Eager to do her part in her husband's exciting adventures with crime, Nora develops a theory: Phil shot Robert because he was actually married to Polly who was about to run off with Robert. But Phil (actually Ralph West, a one-time con) is founded strangled to death in his room, and then the building's janitor (formerly Nora's family's gardener) Pedro Dominguez turns up dead as well.
When a stone with a message lands on the floor, having crashed through a window, Asta, with family troubles of his own - Mrs Asta has been having an affair with a black terrier - decides to play keep-away with both from Nick and Nora. After the ensuing, extremely entangled events are finally resolved and the guilty parties hauled off to jail, Nick back on a train confides to Nora: "And I don't need anything in the world, darling, but you and a toothbrush." She has another surprise for him.
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