The Thin Man
Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Based on The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Of all the old school detective films I’ve watched (and I’ve watched quite a few), the most enduringly entertaining detective series is by far the Thin Man films, headed by the irreplaceable William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. The married couple quip and drink their way through complicated murder mysteries and have a good time while doing so. The mysteries are top notch, the chemistry between Powell and Loy is legendary, the guest stars put in powerful performances, and there is plenty of danger and gags to keep the fun and excitement at a steady pace.
Nick and Nora Charles have since embedded themselves in pop culture, becoming a mystery archetype with similarly premised shows and films. There is even occasionally the dreaded remake rumors, though nothing will replicate the chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy.
The Thin Man films are among the first series of classic films I tracked down and watched the whole sequence of back when I was just starting out as a cinephile (along with the Hope/Crosby/Lamour Road movies and the Marx Brothers), so the films have a nostalgic connection for me. But they’re also pretty darn good regardless of memory enhancement, even if the series begins to drag a bit with the final two films.
As everyone who is anyone knows, the “Thin Man” of the title refers not to Nick Charles, but to the murdered victim, Clyde Wynant. Audiences soon came to refer to Nick Charles as the Thin Man, so the name stuck through all the sequels and the television series. The Thin Man was the last of five novels by Dashiell Hammett, who did story work on the next two Thin Man films (edited versions of these stories were published after his death). Hammett was sick with TB, and focused his career on screenwriting and political activism before joining the Army in World War 2 (having pulled strings to get enlisted). He later was jailed and became a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist due to his left-leanings, and died of lung cancer in 1961.
Coming out in 1934, The Thin Man appears right as the Hays Production Code was beginning to get enforced more vigorously. Of the six movies, it has the most dirty jokes and references that the other films could only dream of using. But there is still plenty of things that seem done just to keep people from panicking, such as Nick and Nora sleeping in separate beds (as they do in all six movies!) One wonders just how Nick Jr. was conceived, though they did spend an awful lot of time together in tiny train cars, so there’s that answer!
Nick Charles is a former detective who seems to have worked out of both New York City and San Francisco, and seemingly solved every case that ever happened on both coasts. Thanks to his skills, everyone knows him, from the cops to a colorful cast of characters of the criminal persuasion. You see, Nick is such a gentleman that he gives them all square deals instead of treating them like criminals, and most of them were proud to have been caught by him. Thus, when trouble is afoot, everyone seems to assume he’s going to help crack the case. Everyone except Nick Charles, that is! But that reluctance doesn’t last long, and we’re soon off to the races!
Nora Charles was born into money, a Nob Hill heiress (a neighborhood of San Francisco where the moneyed elite settled in the late 1800s) who married Nick out of love, and because the couple are perfect for each other. Instead of one personality dominating, Nora easily keeps up with Nick with the zingers, and often with the drinking. Nora even tries her hand at detectiving, usually over Nick’s objections. Occasionally she ends up getting into trouble, but Nick is on hand to bail her out (or occasionally she bails him out!), and often she helps find additional clues for the puzzle.
The final main character of the Thin Man features is Asta the dog, a male wire fox terrier. Asta is played by a canine actor named Skippy, who appeared in several other films such as The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby. Skippy eventually just became known as Asta. There is conflicting information on how many Thin Man films feature Skippy and how many feature replacement dogs, but the original Asta is for sure in the first two films, and definitely replaced for the last two films. Skippy commanded a huge salary for the time, $250 a week. The Asta on the Thin Man tv series was reportedly a grandchild of the original. In the books, Asta is a female schnauzer. Asta is a mini canine detective of his own, finding clues when out with Nick, though Asta does destroy evidence on at least one notable occasion. Asta has a bark worse than his bite, occasionally being frightened by kittens and hiding during danger. Asta got a family in After the Thin Man, which consists mainly of visual gags and his wife having already found someone who sticks around to be with, culminating with Asta abandoning them for a life of jet-setting with the Charles.
The Thin Man came out in the heyday of the Great Depression, and Nick and Nora are running around with money to spare, living it up. Films had become a means of escape, and William Powell and Myrna Loy are just so charming together that you don’t mind that they’re rich. Powell previously played an aristocratic detective named Philo Vance in a series of films (the original trailer for The Thin Man has Powell’s Philo Vance introducing Powell’s Nick Charles) Director Woody Van Dyke had to fight to get his cast, using Powell’s prior role as leverage and fighting for Myrna Loy, which meant production had to be rushed so it would finish in time for a film the studio wanted to use Loy for.
Like many good mystery films, the story is not about the mystery so much as the couple and the characters. Thus, Nick and Nora flying zingers back and forth while having a good time and going with the flow make for an engrossing viewing experience, and that’s helped by the strong casts of supporting characters, both humorous and dangerous, and even four-legged such as Asta the dog. Powell and Loy appeared together in 14 films, six of them being Thin Man entries. The couple was so associated with their wonderful chemistry each other onscreen that people thought they were actually married in real life, leading to a few awkward situations if an actual significant other was around.
The Thin Man became a surprise hit, which lead to a string of sequels. Dashiell Hammett contributed stories to the first two sequels, and Van Dyke directed all of the pre-war Thin Man movies (he died in 1945). The series lost its oomph with the last two entries, but was revitalized in the 1950s as a television series (including an episode featuring Robby the Robot!) and occasionally we get a revival threatened. The concept is one that would lend itself to a great modern television series, it would just require two leads with explosive chemistry to pull it off.
I have watched a number of older detective series, and they harken back to the days when you could just barge into people’s homes and do all sorts of unsavory stuff. There were no CSI labs, and there is plenty of detectives messing up crime scenes by moving bodies, touching evidence, or “borrowing” clues for later. Yet there are also references to labs, showing there was some actual forensics work going on, even if the movies gloss over all of it. After wall, we got to have the big conclusion where Nick explains the entire crime to a crowded room of suspects only to reveal the murderer at the last second, that doesn’t really work if an out of date DNA sequencer matches a suspect before Nick’s decided if he’s even going to get off the couch and go detectiving.
Old curmudgeon and inventor Clyde Wynant learns of his daughter Dorothy’s impending nuptials just as he’s about to go away to work in secret on his latest invention, putting things in hands of his lawyer, Herbert MacCaulay (Porter Hall). But before he leaves, he discovers that he has a bunch of savings bonds that have gone missing. His mistress Julia Wolf is up to no good, having taken extra money over the years and now claims he told her to sell those bonds worth $50,000, bonds he was saving for his daughter’s wedding present. Julia Wolf’s friend Joe Morelli (Edward Brophy), who was at her place and yelled at Wynant before he knew who he was and a random guy with scars named Arthur Nunheim (Harold Huber) who calls but says nothing when Wynant answers both present themselves so they can be future suspects. Wynant seems to be going to do something sinister, but after walking down the street and casting a long, thin shadow that will become the symbol of the series, he vanishes.
After three months, there is no sign of Clyde Wynant. Christmas time has come, and Shane Black approves. Nick Charles has been in California for four years, having retired from his New York detecting gig and marrying Nora, and then taking care of the businesses her dad left them. We are introduced to him in his natural state, well liquored. He’s still drinking and explaining about how to mix drinks and having no idea who Dorothy is until she reminds him. Nora gets another wonderful instruction, stumbling into the bar with an armful of Christmas presents and Asta dragging her along. She quickly orders 5 extra martinis to catch up to Nick.
The parade of interesting supporting characters for Thin Man features gets a workout with the Wynant family. Mom Mimi Wynant Jorgenson is full of her own conspiracies with her ex-husband and her new scummy and never-working husband, Chris Jorgenson. Mimi and Julia Wolf both work Clyde for money, but Mimi gets increasingly desperate after his disappearance. She walks in on Julie Wolf’s dead body, quickly snatching Clyde’s necklace out of her hands to keep from implicating her ex. Mimi and Clyde’s bookish introvert son doesn’t work and spends his days reading of abnormal behavior and police procedurals. He’s socially awkward and beyond, becoming fascinated with the eventual police investigation and after Dorothy is accused, he reassures her by saying that only one out of four of her children will be a murderer!
By now, everyone keeps assuming Nick Charles will be on the case, despite his lack of interest. The Charles’ Christmas party becomes a parade of goofy guests and members of the Wynant family popping by to beg for Nick’s help. But the real kicker is after the party, when an armed Joe Morelli who also assumes Nick is working the case storms in. He’s taken out, though Nick has to punch Nora out of the way, and takes a bullet scrape to the arm in doing so.
The next morning, Nick is idly firing an air rifle at balloons on the Christmas tree as Nora mentions the exaggerations in the papers, which is where we get the sweet line exchange below:
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
Between a telegram from “Wynant” asking Nick to take the case and reports of a Wynant suicide (which are false), Nick decides to take the case, tired of being jerked around and ready to do some of his own jerking. There is added fun flavor with Asta playing with a balloon as things transpire.
Nick is on the case, investigating clues with Asta and ditching Nora at every opportunity (“Grant’s Tomb”!) Lieutenant John Guild accompanies him to visit Nunheim, whose girl Marion (Gertrude Short) is loud and storms out after declaring him no good and a stool pigeon, and Nunheim escapes out the window. He’s seen calling someone and demanding $5000 to disappear, but when going to collect the money, Nunheim is gunned down instead. Somewhere, the Count declares “Two murders!” and lightning crackles.
Mimi Jorgenson gives up Wynant’s watch chain to protect Chris from being implicated, and Dorothy decides her life now sucks that her dad is a murderer. She dumps her fiance and runs off. Nick still doesn’t believe Wynant did it, and goes snooping with Asta into Wynant’s shop. There, he finds a shallow grave in the floor and Tanner the bookkeeper sneaking back in with fixed books (as he’d been shaving money on the sly and didn’t want Wynant finding out and coming after him!)
The body in the grave is destroyed by quicklime, but the large clothes and and cane lead the cops to believe it was a big guy. The search is on for Wynant, who is now on the hook for three murders. I enjoy the graphic of a net being spread across a map of the US to show the nationwide dragnet on the lookout for Wynant.
Nick already knows the real score with the body, and most of the story, but he needs all the answers. The only way to get that is to have an old fashioned dinner party, and invite all the suspects. Nick and Nora set the table to get the best reactions from the guests. Everyone arrives, either confused or angry. Dorothy even has a new guy in tow, some older guy who she was about to run off with.
Part of the fun of the Thin Man finales is when everything gets explained, including lots of red herring theories that are mentioned both to get the real answers and to show how the logic was worked through to get the correct answer. They offer a satisfying conclusion even if the whole premise is a bit hokey, and almost always the real murder suddenly brandishes a weapon and a struggle ensues. And let’s not forget all the quips and the fun social interactions from all the various guests from various walks of life in the same room at the same table.
After the fun is done, it’s time to ride the rails, the Charles’ heading home to San Francisco. And possibly giving us the Nick Jr. origin story as we fade to black on Asta using his paw to cover his eyes.
The perfect conclusion to a great tale, and The Thin Man proved popular enough to ensure a batch of sequels. So of course TarsTarkas.NET is covering each one. And if you can’t get enough of Thin Man talk, check out the book Thoughts on the Thin Man, a collaborative effort by many bloggers (including yours truly!) available on Amazon.com! All proceeds go to the ASPCA.
Rated 10/10 (MGM, dead man wanted, shadow theater, drunk guests are the best guests, balloon time, black and white cab for a black and white movie, not a cocoanut oil tax!, finding bodies, clue #2342, a literal dragnet)
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