The Thin Man (U.S., W.S. Van Dyke)
Some movies defy expectations. When Louis B. Mayer gave the green light for The Thin Man in 1934 he and everyone else at MGM expected it to be a cheap little B-picture. Shot in only 12 days with a budget of just over $200,000, the movie turned out to be a major hit and has ingrained itself into our cultural consciousness. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man is the story of Nick Charles, a retired police detective now married to wealthy socialite, Nora. On a visit to New York, Nick’s former beat, he learns that an old friend has gone missing and the missing man’s girlfriend has been murdered. Everyone assumes Nick’s friend killed his mistress and fled, but at the urging of the man’s daughter, Nick reluctantly begins his own investigation. Nora is giddy at the prospect of adventure and mystery but Nick tries, unsuccessfully of course, to keep her out of it.
Nick and Nora Charles are the ultimate in posh sophistication without an ounce of snobbery. Allegedly Hammett based Nick and Nora on his relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, though if that is true, I’m sure it was highly idealized. They are the everyman’s fantasy of how they would act and behave should they become wealthy: they stay in swanky hotels, dress in the best clothes, eat gourmet food, swill plenty of booze, but none of that means they shy away from hobnobbing with former criminals and other associated dregs of society that Nick arrested in his past. Their Christmas party is an interesting socio-economic mix where Nick isn’t uncomfortable with Nora’s rich friends and Nora takes Nick’s hoods in good-natured stride.
William Powell and Myrna Loy play Nick and Nora with down-to-earth elegance. They are confident in themselves and each other so they don’t feel the need, as so many of the rich and wanna-be rich do, to look down their noses at us poverty plagued people. They are also supremely confident in their relationship. There is a wonderful moment when Nick is consoling the missing man’s daughter with a hug and Nora walks into the room, not knowing anything about why her husband is hugging this attractive young woman. Instead of pushing her away and rushing to explain – possibly the reaction most people would have in a similar situation – Nick simply makes a face and sticks out his tongue at his wife. In turn, Nora makes a face back at him without a hint of jealousy. She knows he wouldn’t cheat on her and he knows she knows this. When writers create smart characters they can dispense with the silly and tired conventions of storytelling on which so many movies rely, giving us fresh characters exhibiting genuine but unconventional behavior like this.
The performances of Powell and Loy are great but they could only have been built on the smart script by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. It isn’t perfect, probably reflecting the low priority MGM assigned to the picture. The romance between Maureen O’Sullivan and her beau is a snoozer and I think they make a mistake spending time with the missing scientist in the beginning rather than focusing on the Charles’ and letting us find out about the crime along with them. But these are minor annoyances in a script that largely succeeds, including a well written scene at the end where all the suspects come together, now a cliché of the mystery genre. But the biggest success of the script is the top notch dialogue. When a man pulls a gun on Nick and Nora, Nick calmly asks, “Would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn’t mind but I’m a very timid fellow.” Or when Nora joins her tipsy husband at a bar and asks how many drinks he has had. He tells her six and, instead of chiding him for drinking too much, she orders five more drinks for herself “to even the score.” The mystery is largely uninteresting (the answer is fairly obvious from the get go) and even Nick devotes minimal thought to the matter, as though it wouldn’t be any fun to figure it out too soon. It is on the strength of the writing and Powell and Loy’s performances that this movie stands. Because of The Thin Man Nick and Nora, along with their dog Asta, are ingrained in our collective consciousnesses, the epitome of sophistication, intelligence and folksy common sense – not to mention a swell detective team.