Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sophisticated Suspense: The Thin Man

Long before glamorous millionaires Jonathan, Jennifer, and Freeway Hart solved crimes for ABC on Tuesday nights, super-glamorous millionaires Nick, Nora, and Asta Charles were wittily revealing criminals for MGM on the silver screen. The Harts had five seasons to do their worst to the world of white-collar criminals, while the Charles had only 6 feature films. Plus, they looked a billion times better doing it—one crime they didn’t have to solve was the hair and wardrobe of the 1980s! 

Born out of the creative mind of one of the greatest authors of detective novels, Dashiell Hammett, Nick (William Powell) and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) set the bar for all other would-be married sleuths. Sophisticated, witty, and glamorous, the couple could trade rapid-fire dialogue, nonchalantly down martinis and eat caviar, while cleverly solving whatever crime came their way. And, it all started with The Thin Man (1934)—a low-budget MGM film that went on to spawn one of the studio’s most profitable film series, as well as a long-running radio serial and a short-running TV series starring Peter Lawford. The film earned four Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Powell), Best Director (W.S. Van Dyke) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who coincidentally were married). Although it went home Oscar-less, The Thin Man did lose to a worthy adversary: It Happened One Night took home all four Oscars for which The Thin Man was nominated. I, personally, like The Thin Man more than It Happened One Night, but that’s another story for another day.

Powell and Loy made fourteen films together for a reason—they had oodles of chemistry. It started with Manhattan Melodrama in 1934(also directed by Van Dyke) and ended with The Senator Was Indiscreet in 1947. Yet, The Thin Man is their best film together (although I am also partial to The Great Ziegfeld…but why didn’t Billie Burke play herself?).

The film has way too many twists and turns to give a full synopsis. As such, I will give the abridged version. The Thin Man is inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis)—a man who has been swindled out of $50,000 in government bonds by his two-timing mistress Julia (Natalie Moorhead).  When he goes missing his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) becomes worried and asks former detective Nick Charles to find him. Recently married and always inebriated, Nick and his wife Nora just want to drink, eat and be merry, but greedy rich people keep getting in their way—or dead mistresses (Julia) are discovered. Plus, Nora starts to think helping her husband solve a murder would be exciting, so she sets out to convince him to take the case.

I suppose it was pretty exciting when she opened the door to gun-wielding Joe Morelli (Edward S. Brophy)—Julia’s other lover. Or perhaps it was really exciting when Nick cold-cocked her to remove her from the line of fire? Having taken a flesh wound himself, Nick finds himself under suspicion when the police find a gun hidden in one of Nora’s drawers.  Classic line from Nora: "What's that man doing in my drawers?” And, so, after being harassed, shot, and insinuated into the case, Nick goes about finding the killer of not only Julia, but her scar-faced accomplice Nunheim (Harold Huber) and another person…but I can’t tell, or that would ruin the ending! Suffice to say, it is a delight to watch Nick put all the pieces together to solve the murders.

Besides the clever unraveling of the mystery, what makes this film such a blast is the witty dialogue. For example, when a reporter asks Nora if her husband is working on a case she responds: “A case of Scotch. Pitch in and help him.” Another example, and perhaps the best example of the repartee between husband and wife comes when Nora worries that she’s about to become a widow:
Nick: You wouldn’t be a widow for long.
Nora: You bet I wouldn’t.
Nick: Not with all your money.
The film is just too full of great lines to repeat them all, but trust me, there are many laugh-out-loud moments. 

While it’s not a hard-boiled detective story, it is a film that keeps you guessing to the very end.  I think I prefer my suspense mixed with sophisticated comedy—you get to laugh a lot while watching the mystery unfold.  Plus, beneath the mystery and hilarious barbs, the film is also about romance.  Without even really trying, it turns out to be a film that just about any viewer will enjoy.  Personally, is is one of my all-time favorite films. Plus, it has Asta!!!


  1. Kim, Wonderful review to a movie I have seen :)
    I agree, the movie, The Thin Man, is a fast paced, stylish film. If you are interested in period fashions, you will want to see this film. William Powell and Myrna Loy, have amazing on screen chemistry.

  2. It is sad Goodrich and Hackett don't get some credit for their influence in the husband-wife detectives genre. Many of the wonderful lines and much of Nora's determination not to let Nick have all the fun that is in the movie were not in the book.

  3. A delightful post, Kim, on a film with characters popular enough to be spoofed four decades later (I watched MURDER BY DEATH tonight with David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston). For me, the THIN MAN movies were all about the great chemistry you described; Powell and Loy were a wonderful team and they were still fun even after the series faded with its later entries. Of course, Powell had fine chemistry with many of his leading ladies. THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD is very much in the same vein as THE THIN MAN with Jean Arthur as Powell's leading lady. But it doesn't have Asta!

  4. Kim, I loved the way you included Asta as part of the family when you said, "Nick, Nora and Asta Charles." Your description of Powell and Loy's chemistry, what makes it special, and why the series is so popular is very well-done. I love The Thin Man -- clever, classy rapid-fire dialogue is a favorite with me, and their humor is not only funny but we can definitely see the romance underlying everything.

    I have a theory about why Billie Burke didn't play herself in The Great Ziegfield. In those days, divorce was still considered very controversial in real life, although the movies were full of it. I don't imagine Billie would want to openly play a second wife in a divorce situation, especially with Luise Rainier acting out her broken heart so poignantly. I don't know, but it seems likely to me. I enjoyed your post very much!

  5. Kim, one of the things that I find particularly interesting is that Hammett never penned a sequel to his literary work yet the film was received so well that five celluoid sequels were made. Because of name recognition they kept the "Thin Man" reference in each title even though it was meant for Wynant's character.

    Chemistry on screen is priceless! And a cute pup always catches my eye. Loved your tribute, Kim. William Powell also played Philo Vance (four times, I think) but I preferred Warren William in that role.

  6. toto2, Hammett wrote an early story draft for the second film, "After the Thin Man". It has appeared in print but hard to find.

  7. Dawn has seen one of the films I reviewed--will miracles never cease! LOL

    Becky, you have a point about why she didn't play herself. Still, it would have been an interesting watch.

    Glad everyone enjoyed the post.

  8. Kim,
    I love every last one of the Thin Man movies! They were the first films I watched as a little girl with my mother and they are the reason I grew to love old films.

    Nick and Nora will forever be my absolute favorite on screen comedy duo. There will never be a time that any of the films in the series airs that I won't re-watch them and sit delighted like it's my first time.

    This was a another great post that brought up great childhood memories. Thanks!

  9. Like almost every classic film fan on the planet, I, too, am a big fan of "The Thin Man" as well as some of its sequels. I will watch even the least in the series just to spend time with Nick & Nora (& Asta). My favorite onscreen pairings are William Powell + Myrna Loy and Cary Grant + Irene Dunne and of course Fred Astaire + Ginger Rogers...nothing like wit and sophistication...thanks, Kim...

  10. Kim, sorry this is so late. I have no significant thoughts to add to your superb post or to the subsequent comments. I can just say that I enjoyed reading this very much!

  11. Eve, I agree about your pairings. Grant worked well with both Loy and Dunne.