I'm doing the first of two reviews today, with the first in a classic series. The second one will be in my next blog.
“Hey, would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn’t mind, but I’m a very timid fellow. All right, shoot... I mean, uh, what’s on your mind?” ~ Nick Charles
“Oh Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.” ~ Nora Charles
“Oh, you used to fascinate me. A real live detective. You used to tell me the most wonderful stories. Were they true?” ~ Dorothy
“You’ve got types?” ~ Nora
“Only you, darling, lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.” ~ Nick
Director W.S. Van Dyke brought The Thin Man to the big screen in 1934, a film based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett which mixed comedy and mystery together in an entertaining package. It would be the first of six films bringing together frequent co-stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as the married couple Nick and Nora Charles. The title refers to the victim, but audiences came to associate the character as the thin man.
The film opens in New York, where we first meet Nick and Nora, in the city visiting at Christmas time. Nick (Powell) is a former private detective who spends a good deal of time pursuing good drinks at bars. He knows all the wrong people and seems to draw a whole lot of attention from reporters wherever he goes. Nora (Loy) is a social dynamo who comes from money, with a lot of blue blood relatives and a fondness for Nick. They travel with their dog Asta, a yappy terrier.
A young woman, Dorothy (Maureen O’Hara), whose father happens to be an old friend of Nick, asks him for help. Her father has vanished, and his disappearance leads into other criminal matters being carried out. Nick reluctantly gets involved in the case, much to the delight of Nora, who finds criminal cases to be fascinating, and tends to get too active in helping her husband along in his investigation.
Hammett, whose work also included The Maltese Falcon, wrote this one as his final published novel. It follows the happily married pair of Nick and Nora as they banter with each other and pursue a murder investigation. The dynamic between the two is based in part on Hammett’s on and off relationship with playwright Lillian Hellmann, and is the basis of the story. Married screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich adapted the story for the big screen, mixing together the smart, funny dialogue and the mystery element of Hammett’s story.
Van Dyke filmed the whole thing in a couple of weeks (this is startling in the current day in which films take months to be filmed), and paces things in a breezy way. The mystery of the story is there- investigation, clues, shady characters- and yet the murder mystery is secondary to the sense of fun the two leading characters are having. The film has been compared more to a drawing room comedy, albeit one with dead bodies, and that’s accurate, given the clever sense of humour to it all.
The casting all around was well done. This is an early role for the late Maureen O’Hara, who plays the likable debutante Dorothy, caught between loyalties and love for her father on the one hand and that for her mother, who really doesn’t deserve either. Minna Gombell plays her mother Mimi, a selfish, high strung woman living off her ex husband’s money, with next to nothing in the way of scruples. The film also gives an early role to Cesar Romero as Mimi’s new husband Chris, a greedy layabout perfectly content to sponge off his wife, as well as her ex-husband’s money. Nat Pendleton plays the police lieutenant John Guild, working the case at first parallel to the efforts by Nick, and then co-operatively with the detective. Asta the dog is played by Skippy (later renamed Asta), and the dog is a character in and of himself (he also appeared some years later in Bringing Up Baby as George, a relentlessly yappy mutt with a fondness for dinosaur bones. Asta might be a detective’s dog with a nose for clues, but he’s also a bit of a coward, and sometimes seems to be wondering if he’s in the right movie.
It’s the two leading actors who really shine in this film, and they’re magic together. Myrna Loy had spent much of her career up to this point playing exotic women and femme fatales, and the studio had wondered if she’d be right for the role. Van Dyke was certain she’d be right, and persuaded them to let him cast her as Nora. And Loy was perfect for the role, with a gift for comedy that really comes across through the film. Nora’s perhaps more enthusiastic than her husband about investigating a case- so much so that Nick’s willing to send her off on something perhaps less dangerous than following murderers. Nora is smart and sassy, and her fondness for her husband is clear through the film. The chemistry between the two actors really works well- they feel like a married couple who genuinely like each other.
William Powell was also seen by the studio as too straight laced for Nick Charles, but Van Dyke got his way with the casting, and Powell was brilliant in the role. He seemed to be having a ball with the role- his use of an air gun to fire on Christmas ornaments is hilarious- and that sense of fun comes across in his performance. Nick may or may not be an alcoholic- both he and Nora do tend to drink quite a lot through the film- but if he is, he’s a functioning alcoholic. I find it curious that once Nick starts taking the case seriously, he pretty much stops drinking. He walks through the story with a sense of bemusement and whimsy; he can be in the middle of a party with people he doesn’t even know and acts as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. And as amused as he might be by life, he’s still smart, and that also comes across in the way Powell plays him.
The Thin Man is a delight to watch, an entertaining mix of comedy and mystery with two leads who have an ideal chemistry and playfulness in the way they spar. It’s a smart film, briskly paced, and remains fun and fresh decades after its release. If you haven’t seen it- or its series of sequels- you’ve been missing out on a real classic and the performances of great actors.