W.S. Van Dyke, 1934
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy
"It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."
Retired detective Nick Charles, his younger, rich wife Nora, and their beloved fox terrier Asta are on vacation in New York for the holiday season when Nick is unexpectedly called out of retirement. An old friend, Clyde Wynant (the titular “Thin Man”), has disappeared and possibly been murdered. His daughter Dorothy begs for Nick’s help, particularly when Wynant’s girlfriend turns up dead and the missing Wynant is the main suspect. Nora is delighted that Nick is on the case again and curiously follows the proceedings, which take Nick into a world of blackmail, stolen patents, and murder. Nick narrows down the suspect pool and gathers them all together for an impromptu dinner party in which he forces the real killer to reveal him or herself.
Produced by MGM, this is really a cross between a drawing-room pot boiler and a screwball romantic comedy with murder and mystery to fill in the gaps. Many of the best scenes are unrelated to the mystery at all, such as Nick lounging in his pajamas and shooting balloons on the Christmas tree in their hotel room. One of my favorite moments is a gag repeated throughout all the sequels, where Nick dashes off to investigate and Nora, desperate to follow him, is tricked to go somewhere else. When they reunite, she is a bit rueful, but also clearly finds his behavior funny.
Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man, which was released the same year as the film adaptation, this is one of Hammett’s lighter works aside darker mystery and noir fare like The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and a considerable amount of short fiction. Nick and Nora Charles were allegedly modeled on Hammett’s lengthy relationship with Lillian Hellman, a playwright. Interestingly, the screenplay for The Thin Man and the first few sequels was written by a married couple, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who also penned It’s A Wonderful Life and Easter Parade.
Though The Thin Man was Oscar nominated, it lost against It Happened One Night, another Pre-Code, witty, dialogue driven romantic comedy from the same year. As with It Happened One Night, the relationship between The Thin Man’s central protagonists is far more compelling than the basic plot. With The Thin Man and its sequels, we really don’t care all that much about the murder mystery, the social drama, or whodunnit. We care about the Charles’ relationship, their charmed lifestyle, witty banter, and obvious love for one another. Those elements help to make this film such an enduring classic and allowed the five following sequels to be enjoyable as well.
The dialogue is oddly self-aware and feels a lot more modern that other romantic comedies from the period (except for It Happened One Night). There are cleverly placed sexual innuendos, plenty of irony and double entendres, and both Nick and Nora seem to be constantly making fun of themselves, the other characters, and the steady stream of alcohol. Though the characters drink constantly (even more so in the book), the film doesn’t judge them or present them as alcoholics and the alcohol is more a status symbol, a form of social lubricant, and a way to alleviate the boredom of upper class, non-working life. Though Nora claims to have a hang over in one scene (she did drink 6 martinis at a time to catch up with Nick), alcohol never slows them down or seems to affect them in any physical way. Both characters are always at the top of their mutual game as far as wit and intelligence go.
William Powell is the real star of the film and carries the majority of the scenes. His mix of warmth, wit, charisma, charm, and icy rationality make him one of the most compelling characters in detective cinema or romantic comedy films. Not to be outdone, the adorable Myrna Loy is always able to keep up and the two had wonderful charisma (they were close friends in real life and co-starred in 14 films together). They also both look great and exude style and class throughout the film, despite the low budget and scant 12 day shooting schedule. The rest of the cast is also entertaining, including performances from Skippy the dog as Asta, Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan), and Cesar Romero (Joker from the Batman TV show). On a final note, the “Thin Man” is not meant to refer to Nick, but rather Clyde Wynant. The reference to him being a tall, thin man is a clue that helps Nick later in the film.
The film comes highly recommended. If you’ve never seen a classic comedy from the ‘30s or ‘40s, this is definitely the place to start and I can promise that you won’t be disappointed. The Thin Man is available in The Complete Thin Man Collection DVD box set along with the five sequels: After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947).