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The Thin Man (1934)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE THIN MAN (1934)

Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall

Written By: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dashiell Hammett (novel)

Directed By: WS Van Dyke

The Short Version

The Thin Man is one of the most delightful movies ever made.

William Powell and Myrna Loy pair wonderfully together.

The dialogue is a witty, comedic treat.

Though the action seems casual, the pace is unrelenting.

If you have any love for classic cinema at all, The Thin Man is a must-own.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AGED ARTISAN CHEDDAR.

Exquisite stuff that only gets better over time.


Pairs Well With...

DRY MARTINI.

Six of them.  For breakfast.

“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.”

“Say, listen, is he working on a case?”

“Yes, he is.”

“What case?”

“A case of Scotch.  Pitch in and help him.”


Without a doubt, The Thin Man is one of the most delightful movies ever made.

Conceived as nothing more than a “B movie” and given a spare shooting schedule of just three weeks (that was actually completed in two), The Thin Man turned out to be the surprise hit of 1934, and deservedly so.  With two wonderful leads playing out a wonderfully adapted screenplay from wonderful source material, there was just no way for this picture to go wrong.

Four years before our story begins, Nick Charles (William Powell, My Man Godfrey) was a police detective in New York.  Then wealthy heiress Nora (Myrna Loy, Manhattan Melodrama) stepped into his life, and they got married and moved to San Francisco.  One might perhaps think to call them moonlighting strangers who just met on the way.

Now, they’re back to the Big Apple for an extended holiday, with Nick happily enjoying his retirement from detective work as a continuous exercise in joyously functional alcoholism.  But it seems that some old friends are in trouble, and they’d really appreciate his help.  An absent-minded – and thin – scientist named Wynant (Edward Ellis, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) has disappeared, and his daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan, Tarzan the Ape Man) is quite worried about him.  Nick is reluctant at first, but Nora would very much like to see him show off his detective skills, and besides, everyone else in town seems to think that he’s already agreed to take the case.  With that kind of pressure, he can’t help but relent, and besides, when life’s a party, even murder and larceny can be fun, right?  Especially when one is always half in the bag…

If you’ve got the brain cells to keep up with the dialogue, The Thin Man ranks as one of the most incredibly fun motion pictures of all time.  This isn’t to say that it’s a flat-out comedy, though; rather, it’s a whodunit with the good sense to enjoy itself.  Indeed, to classic movie fans, The Thin Man will resemble nothing as much as Film Noir minus the menace and the shadows.  (There’s little wonder, really, considering that the screenplay is adapted from a novel by one of the literary giants responsible for creating Noir: Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote another novel called “The Maltese Falcon,” the third adaptation of which truly brought Film Noir into its own in 1941.)  The witticisms are quick, the retorts lively (and reportedly based on real exchanges between Hammett and his own long term lady, Lillian Hellman), and the dialogue in general sharper than artisan cheddar.  Also like the Noir to come, while the story’s central element is a mystery, the nuts and bolts of that mystery play third fiddle to the aforementioned dialogue and to the atmosphere in general.

But instead of the endless night and fog of Noir, once past the first ten minutes (wherein the mystery’s origin is established), The Thin Man plays within a bon vivant atmosphere where life is wonderful, the vodka flows like water, and the Great Depression is something that happens to other people.  (The fact that those “other people” happen to be most of the original audience combined with the incredible theatrical success of The Thin Man just goes to show how important the value of cinema-as-escape was at the time.)  Indeed, roughly half the film takes place during some kind of party or another, and thanks to the glib tongues of William Powell and Myrna Loy, even the stuff that doesn’t take place during a party feels like it does, and that a silent waiter keeps refilling your martini glass whenever you’re not looking.  Everything is as relaxed as can be… and yet the pace is relentless.  There’s no such thing as a throwaway scene in this movie; every one of them is important, and, improbable as it may seem, every one of them adds or subtracts another piece from the puzzle at hand.  Sure, when all is said and done, the viewer could declare that “whodunit” could really have been anyone at the final dinner table based on the clues given (another fine tradition that Noir would pick up on), but the fact remains that clues are handed down fast and furious, and that at the end of the day, they’d make sense even if the guilty party wasn’t kind enough to incriminate him/herself (no spoilers) and remove all doubt.  (I’ll also say that based on the climax’s construction, I think Nick does know whodunit beforehand and isn’t just guessing.)  When it comes to getting the most out of a screenplay with limited locations and making relaxed characters feel like the most exciting people in the world working on the most exciting case, director WS Van Dyke does an outstanding job.

Of course, all of his work – and that of Dashiell Hammett and the couple who adapted his story – would be for naught save for the outstanding performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who in this film reach a level of cinematic immortality by creating a screen couple for the ages: a couple that would be often imitated, but never surpassed, and rarely equaled.  Powell masterfully plays Nick as the most affable, quick-witted functional alcoholic in the history of motion pictures; always with a slight slur, but never overdoing it, and never becoming the parody of a drunk that would be oh-so-easy to slip into with the character of Nick Charles.  The intricate dialogue slips from his tongue like vodka into his character’s glass, and always with impeccable comedic or dramatic timing, depending on what the scene calls for.  The only person on the set capable of taking the screen away from him is his co-star, Myrna Loy, who exercises that power judiciously and plays Nora as the most capable of foils for Nick, with her own brand of relaxed, easy grace and razor sharp wit, along with an air subtle control that’s never wielded forcefully and which is all the more effective for it.  Yes, all of these things started on the page, but to see Loy and Powell interpret them is another matter entirely.  Add to that the outstanding chemistry between the two players, and, well… it’s immortality, like I said.

It’s one of many things about The Thin Man that others would attempt to imitate often of the following decades, but few would come close.  (Amazingly enough, I think the closest anyone ever got to reviving William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora would be just over fifty years later in the form of Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd as Maddie and Dave on television’s “Moonlighting.”)  Even its five sequels couldn’t match the original (Loy herself would call the later ones “very bad indeed,” though she was also quick to say that they were worth it for the chance to work with Powell again), but really, one could hardly expect them to.  The Thin Man is one of those rare pieces of cinema that “just happens” – perfection that we’re all very lucky to have had distilled and bottled once, while even the makers themselves didn’t realize what was being created at the time.  It is indeed one of the few pictures that truly defines the phrase “movie magic.”

Bottom line, if you love classic cinema, you need to own The Thin Man, and everyone else needs to experience it at least once.  It really is one of the most delightful movies ever made, combining thoughtful wit with an atmosphere of sheer fun guaranteed to warm even the hardest of hearts and stir even the dullest of souls.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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