#236) The Thin Man (1934)

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#236) The Thin Man (1934)

OR “Nick & Nora’s Infinite Jest”

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Written by Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.

Class of 1997

The Plot: Inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) has gone missing, and his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) wants family friend Nick Charles (William Powell) on the case. Nick is a retired detective who would rather spend the holidays in New York with his heiress wife Nora (Myrna Loy), their dog Asta (Skippy) and plenty of drinks and quips between them. But the mystery unfolds further when Clyde’s secretary/mistress Julia (Natalie Moorhead) is found dead. Who is the killer? What became of Clyde? And how does one get the nickname “The Thin Man”? Like the Charleses’ minibar, this case is wide open.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up for “The Thin Man” doesn’t have specific superlatives, but they do mention the film’s general plot, Oscar nominations, and sustained popularity.

But Does It Really?: I liked this movie. I didn’t love it, but I did like it. William Powell and Myrna Loy are effortlessly charming and comfortable with each other; it’s no wonder they did five more of these. I never laughed out loud, but the back-and-forth rapport between these two did make me chuckle out loud several times (COL?). This is also one of the rare comedy/mystery movies where the mystery is actually good. Not surprising from the author of “The Maltese Falcon”, but it’s refreshing to have a movie that’s funny as well as suspenseful. Nick & Nora Charles are two indelible movie characters, and “The Thin Man” is a natural choice for the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Most of the supporting cast, notably Cesar “The Joker” Romero. Shoutout to Natalie Moorhead as Julia (aka “the vic”) and Edward Ellis as Clyde (aka “The Thin Man”).

Wow, That’s Dated: Ah, the high-end lifestyle of post-prohibition America. Drinks flow freely and openly, but are still somewhat taboo.

Take a Shot: Nick actually does reference the “thin man” once about an hour into the film. It should be noted, however, that “The Thin Man” is only relevant in this entry. The sequels had “Thin Man” in the title solely for brand recognition.

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial hit, “The Thin Man” received four Oscar nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor for William Powell. It lost in all four categories to the first film to sweep the Oscars: Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night”. William Powell and W.S. Van Dyke never won an Oscar in either of their prolific film careers. “The Thin Man” could have gone 0-5 if Myrna Loy had been nominated for Best Actress, but she didn’t make the cut. While never nominated for an Oscar, Ms. Loy did finally receive an honorary award in 1991.

Other notes

  • Part of the film’s endearing spontaneity is due to the direction of W.S. Van Dyke. Notorious for keeping retakes to a minimum, while bringing his films in on time and under budget, Van Dyke was known by his nickname, “One Take Woody”.
  • Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich had been married for two years when assigned to adapt “The Thin Man”. They were informed by MGM to leave the mystery parts alone and focus on the dialogue between Nick & Nora. Incidentally, Dashiell Hammett based a lot of their dialogue in the book on his relationship with Lillian Hellman, which means the movie “Julia” should have been a lot funnier.
  • Just a reminder that Maureen O’Sullivan is Mia Farrow’s mom.
  • Nick and Nora don’t show up until Reel Two. That’s a long time to spend with the victim and the suspects. For a moment I thought I was watching the wrong movie.
  • Once the Charleses do show up, the movie really finds its footing. I could listen to this verbal tennis match all day.
  • “The Thin Man” is another movie for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas List. Most of the film takes place around Christmas, but the Charleses just use it as excuse to drink more. Nora even has the great line “Next person who says, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me I’ll kill ‘em!”
  • I get the feeling Minna Gombell got a lot of roles originally turned down by Billie Burke.
  • Apparently the scene wipe had just been invented: we get four or five in a matter of minutes.
  • Edward Brophy as Morrelli is the most ‘30s thing about this movie. He’s not Edward G. Robinson, but he’s definitely the fast-talking gangster trope that people think of. Fun Fact: Brophy shows up in “The Thin Man Goes Home” as a completely different character!
  • A sign of a time pre-Miranda rights: the police punch the criminal in custody.
  • My favorite exchange in the film: “Ever heard of the Solomon Act?” “It’s alright; we’re married.”
  • The actual case keeps you guessing, but was I suppose to follow all of that? Hammett’s throwing a lot at me.
  • I thoroughly enjoy Nick & Nora’s pronunciation of “suspects” with the emphasis on the second syllable. Very “Too Much Tuna”. Go ahead, try it. Fun, right?
  • It comes as no surprise that Nick Charles would gather all of his suspects (still great) at a formal dinner. William Powell allegedly hated all of the dialogue he had to memorize for Nick’s summation, but the final result is effortless and wonderfully tense.
  • You could have ended with a train tunnel shot and you didn’t? Come on, movie!

Legacy

  • Over the next fifteen years, Powell & Loy reprised their iconic roles in five sequels, solving mysteries and trading barbs and drinking way above the legal limit.
  • Airing on ABC for two seasons, “The Thin Man” TV series saw Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk taking over the lead roles, while the setting was transplanted to the Greenwich Village of the late ‘50s.
  • I will find any excuse to reference Dick & Dora Charleston from “Murder by Death”.
  • One of the most notorious duds in Broadway history, the musical “Nick & Nora” ran for just 9 performances in December 1991. I have some thoughts (see “A Brief Editorial” below).
  • And of course, if you know one thing about “The Thin Man”, it’s their dog’s name. “Asta” is an answer in every crossword puzzle I’ve ever done.

A Brief Editorial: While I was far too young to have seen “Nick & Nora” on Broadway, I did see the only other production of it: A 2015 run at 42nd St. Moon in San Francisco. I cannot comment on the actual production (they did the best with what they were given), but the show gave me a better understanding of why “Nick & Nora” failed as a musical.

For starters, these aren’t characters that should be singing. If you’re going to convert witty banter to the stage, the appropriate adaptation is a straight play, not brief book scenes jammed in-between songs. As for the show itself, “Nick & Nora” starts off assuming you know who these two characters are, with no attempt at even the briefest of exposition (“Another martini, my retired detective husband?”) Even if you do know who Nick & Nora Charles are, their dynamic is immediately flipped at the start of the show when, out of heretofore unmentioned envy, Nora decides that she wants to be the one who takes on a case, in this instance a Hollywood murder one of Nora’s old friends is a suspect in. This culminates in the two having an argument at the end of Act I and going their separate ways, only to reconcile at the very beginning of Act II, leaving all that forced drama with zero emotional weight. And on top of all this, I figured out who did it by intermission (and I ain’t exactly Poirot in these situations). The writers foolishly label one major character a red herring too early on, making their absence throughout the show more conspicuous. “Nick & Nora” is a misguided musical that misses the essence of its source material, which shouldn’t have been musicalized in the first place.

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