Famed mystery writer Dashiell Hammett’s final novel The Thin Man (1934) was such a hit that MGM produced a film six months after the novel’s release. This was nominated for an Academy Award and was so popular that MGM kept the series going for five more films. The novel focuses on two of Hammett’s most popular and enduring characters, Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a retired detective devoted to his much younger and richer wife. Along with their dog Asta, the Charles’ engage in quite a lot of drinking, exchange plenty of witty dialogue, and solve a few murders along the way. I’m going to take an in depth look at the entire series. All six Thin Man films, plus two documentaries, William Powell: A True Gentleman and Myrna Loy: So Nice To Come Home To, are available in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box set.
William Powell and Myrna Loy star as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934), a comic mystery film about a retired detective, Nick Charles, dragged back into the game when he and Nora vacation in New York. The “Thin Man” refers to Clyde Wynant, a missing man that Nick is hired to locate. Wynant’s girlfriend turns up dead and his daughter is desperate to prove his innocence. Both excited and amused, Nora encourages Nick to take the case. They plow through a lot of martinis and dinner parties before Nick gets to the bottom of a case involving stolen money and a hidden corpse. The most important part of the film (and the series in general) is not the murders or Nick’s detective work, but his endearing relationship with his wife, which is often sarcastic, touching, humorous, and unabashedly alcoholic.
In After The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936), Powell and Loy returned for this sequel (and all the others, fortunately) alongside James Stewart. This was written by Dashiell Hammett, though it is not based on another novel or story. Nick and Nora return home to California and are roped into a family dinner, where Nick is again hired to find a missing man: the husband of Nora’s cousin. It turns out he is having an affair with a night club singer and attempts to blackmail one of his wife’s friends/old paramours. When her husband turns up dead, it’s up to Nick to find the murderer.
Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1939) is based on Hammett’s story “The Farewell Murder.” Nick and Nora are on vacation again, but this around they have a son, Nicky, Jr. The family, along with Asta, have returned to New York for a weekend on Long Island with a family friend, Colonel MacFay. MacFay wants to hire Nick, because he’s been receiving threats. Unfortunately the Colonel is murdered and Nick has to investigate. Though there is an obvious suspect, he thinks something more sinister is afoot.
Shadow of the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1941) has Nick and Nora (and Nicky and Asta) trying to relax, yet again, but they are sucked into another murder when a jockey is shot to death at a racetrack that they happen to be visiting. This time the local police request Nick’s help finding the murderer. He uncovers a gambling ring and another murder, and this time Nick and Nora are sucked into far more action, including a fight at a restaurant and a wrestling match. After this film, there was a four year pause in the series, due to Myrna Loy volunteering for the Red Cross during WWII.
The Thin Man Goes Home (Richard Thorpe, 1945) is so far the biggest departure in the series. Nick and Nora and family are on vacation once again, this time visiting Nick’s parents in New England. An employee at an aircraft factory attempts to contact Nick, but is shot to death before he gets a chance. Nick is forced to spring back into action and find the man’s killer. A number of things factor into the case, including an odd painting and a local mad woman. This is also one of the few Nick and Nora films to directly reference the war, as aircraft blueprints are central to the murders.
The last film in the series, Song of the Thin Man (Edward Buzzell, 1947), is another departure, in terms of the tone and plot of the earlier films, but fortunately ends on a relatively high note. Nick investigates the murder of Tommy Drake, the head of a jazz band employed as entertainment on a gambling ship. Nick’s friend and the ship’s owner, Phil Brant, is the main suspect and Nick must work to clear his name, particularly after an attempt is made on Brant’s life. It will not be easy, as Drake had a number of enemies, including gangsters and other musicians.
Powell and Loy were one of many Hollywood dream teams, ultimately appearing in 14 films together. William Powell (1892 - 1984) was one of MGM’s biggest stars. He studied acting in New York and appeared on Broadway before moving to Hollywood in the early ‘20s. Powell acted in almost 100 films throughout his long career. His regular on screen partner (they were also quite good friends in real life), Myrna Loy (1905-1993), began as a dancer and had a few roles in the later years of silent cinema. The Thin Man helped establish her career and allowed her to take more robust, serious roles. She was in even more films than Powell at almost 140.
Aside from their 6 Thin Man films, Powell and Loy partnered for 8 additional films. Manhattan Melodrama (1934) is a crime-tinged melodrama about a love triangle involving Powell, Loy, and Clark Gable. Evelyn Prentice (1934) has a similar theme, but involves a murder and wrong-man scenario. The Great Ziegfeld (1936), a musical, is a total change of pace and concerns the creation of famed entertainment act, the Ziegfeld Follies. Libeled Lady (1936), a screwball comedy that co-stars Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, is about a socialite who sues a newspaper for libel and the editor’s attempts to trick her into dropping the suit.
Double Wedding (1937) is another romantic comedy about a director who convinces a young woman to become an actress, much to the chagrin of her sister and fiancée. I Love You Again (1940) is another romantic comedy about a man who has an accident and remembers his former life as a conman, but tries to change his ways. As with I Love You Again, Love Crazy (1941) is about a couple on the verge of divorce, this time because of an old girlfriend and a pushy mother in law. The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947) is a political comedy about a senator who wants to become president. Some of these films can be found in the Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection. The six Thin Man films come highly recommended, particularly the first four, and represent the best of what the comedy-mystery subgenre has to offer.