The Thin Man
Imagine living in the United States
in 1934. People had been suffering through the Depression for five years. After 18 dry
years, the US citizenry had repealed Prohibition in 1933. Folks wanted to escape the
day-to-day hardships of their lives and they did so by going to the movies. Hollywood
accommodated the need for diversion by pumping out an endless stream of movies about rich,
carefree people. The movies were filled with gorgeous people who had no financial worries
and whose main job was to make witty remarks. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, resplendent
in formal attire, were doing the carioca in The Gay Divorcee. Rich socialite
Claudette Colbert was teaching Clark Gable the finer points of hitchhiking in It
Happened One Night. However, the high point of the genre was The Thin Man, in
which Nick Charles (William Powell), an ex-detective, marries Nora (Myrna Loy), an
ultra-wealthy and stunningly gorgeous heiress to, as Nick describes it, "a
narrow-gauge railway, lumber mill, and, oh, several other things."
- Starring: William Powell,
Myrna Loy, Maureen OSullivan, Nat Pendleton, Asta
- Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke
- Theatrical release: 1934
- DVD release: 2002
- Video: Academy Ratio
- Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
- Released by: Warner Home Video
The story is a typical whodunit. Wealthy inventor Clyde
Wynant (Edward Ellis) is missing. His daughter Dorothy (Maureen OSullivan) fears
foul play. She runs into retired detective Nick Charles in a fancy nightclub while he is
explaining the particulars of making a martini to the bar staff. ("The important
thing is the rhythm! Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to
fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz
time.") She begs for his help, but Nick is enjoying the easy life. Events conspire to
force Nick to look into the matter. He finds plenty of suspicious people, including the
ex-Mrs. Wynant and her husband, Wynants mistress, a family lawyer, a crazy son, and
various lowlife specimens. The whole thing comes to a climax when Nick calls all of the
suspects together for dinner and an opportunity to expose the true criminal.
If the plot had to carry The Thin Man, no one would
remember it today. Clearly, the studio bosses gave it little regard. Filmed in just two
weeks on a B-movie budget, the film was rush-released as an opener for a double feature.
The only star was William Powell, and he was about the level of Ralph Fiennes today --
respectable and recognizable, but not a superstar. Myrna Loy was known mostly as an exotic
vamp. MGM head Louis Mayer didnt think the public would buy her in the role of a
wife, but director W.S. Van Dyke had made another film earlier in the year (Manhattan
Melodrama, the movie that spoiled John Dillingers day) that had starred Clark
Gable, Powell, and Loy. He thought she would make a great Nora. Van Dyke eventually had
And thank God, because what makes The Thin Man a
classic is the interplay between Powell and Loy. Described at the time as the most perfect
married couple in the world, Nick and Nora display the easy friendship, lovingly sarcastic
banter, and dreamy glances you generally see only in couples who have been married for
many happy years. You can easily imagine that they both love and honor each other, and
while their glances and touches leave no doubt they take the regular roll in the hay, the
main thing you would want to watch is their day-to-day repartee. The Thin Man is to
sophisticated and funny dialogue what Rear Window is
to suspense and Lawrence of Arabia is to epics: the
A couple of examples: In chapter 6, Nora makes a hilarious
stage entrance as her dog Asta drags her through a bar. She sits down with her slightly
but perennially inebriated husband, who has just finished talking with Dorothy Wynant.
Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes, she's a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.
In chapter 15, its Christmas Day. Nora is lounging
around in her full-length fur coat, while Nick shoots out balloons on the Christmas tree
with his new pellet gun. Nora is reading the newspaper accounts of Nicks fight with
a gunman. She reaches across him to get the New York Herald Tribune.
Nora: Are you finished with this?
Nick: Yes, and I know as much about the murder as they do. (pause) Oh,
I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.
The snappy dialogue came courtesy of novelist Dashiell
Hammett, along with married screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.
Hammetts book (one of his least successful) has several of the best lines, but
Hackett and Goodrich lent the film its humanity. Where the book is bitingly acerbic, the
screenplay is lovingly mischievous. Hackett and Goodrich successfully took the best parts
of the novel and created something infinitely better -- intelligent, loving, playful, and
sexy. While not well known today, they received four Oscar nominations (The Thin Man,
After the Thin Man, Father of the Bride, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), a Pulitzer
Prize for The Diary of Anne Frank, plus the love of millions for scripting It's
a Wonderful Life.
Director Van Dyke was foremost a competent storyteller. He
was best loved in Hollywood by the producers (they called him "One-Take Woody")
who prized his ability to bring in a reliable film, on time, and under budget. He also
deserves our recognition for hiring good writers, a budding superstar cinematographer
(10-time Academy Award nominee James Wong Howe), and ideal actors.
William Powell is the perfect Nick Charles. Handsome and
dashingly dressed, he somehow pulled off the trick of perpetually appearing to be just
slightly inebriated without ever losing his charm or our sympathy. Notice the nuances of
his performance. His intoxicated way of talking respects the dialogue in the script, yet
is always slightly slurred. Something as simple and subtle as his gait is an inspired
addition to the character. Watch the way he always looks a little off-balance, just like a
person would after a third martini. Study his eyes as he gazes lovingly at Nora. His
acting is so subtle and so invisible, you might miss it. Dont. Powell is the heart
of The Thin Man.
Myrna Loy is its soul. She had made 79 films (!) in the
nine years before The Thin Man. But she had always been cast as the
"other" woman. By the time The Thin Man came around, she was 29 years old
and ready for the move to leading lady. Before The Thin Man, no one would have
believed that she would eventually become typecast as "the perfect wife." But it
happened. In film after film, from The Thin Man and its five sequels, through The Best Years of Our Lives, even in supporting roles
like The April Fools, Loy was cast as the tolerant wife of an offbeat husband. But
she wasnt reticent or timid. Besides being lovable and intelligent, she always had a
snappy comeback and a delicious kiss. It didnt hurt that she was dazzlingly
The public loved her in the role of ideal wife. Just two
years after The Thin Man, she was named Queen of the Movies in a
survey of Ed Sullivans readers, and was one of the top box-office draws in the US.
She starred with all the top names, but the public kept demanding more Powell and Loy. The
reason was simple -- they made marriage sexy, exciting, classy, and unpredictable. They
went on to do 14 films together, all worth watching.
Warner Home Video has done a great job with the DVD. It
looks much better than either the VHS or laserdisc versions. There are a few unavoidable
scratches, but the rich black-and-white picture has excellent delineation of all the
beautiful textures (especially Noras superb wardrobe). The mono sound is what you
would expect from a 69-year-old film -- clear but a little noisy. The extras include a
very incomplete filmography for four of the principals. We also get the theatrical
trailers for all six of the Thin Man movies. I especially loved the trailer for The
Thin Man, a little story about a chance meeting of detectives Philo Vance (a role
Powell was famous for) and Nick Charles. Unfortunately, Warner Home Video missed some
opportunities. How about Loy receiving the Kennedy Center honor in 1988? Or her interview
in The Lion Roars, a documentary about MGM? Or something from her interview in the
1965 documentary The Love Goddesses? Oh, well. It doesnt matter. Im
happy just to have the film.
Its February, and on the 14th we honor St. Valentine
of Rome, the patron saint of lovers and happy marriages. What better time to watch The
Thin Man, the best movie ever made about how perfect and how perfectly wonderful
marriage can be? Now, can we please have the other five Thin Man movies?