An oldy but definitely still a goody, “The Thin Man” is based on a Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name. William Powell and Myrna Loy star as Nick and Nora Charles, a detective and his wife who become embroiled in a murder investigation, in this classic mystery/comedy. It has a cast of bizarre characters and a lot of red herrings. It’s not a particularly innovative story – it’s a garden variety murder mystery, but can mostly be enjoyed for its comedic elements, including an unusual take on the Christie-esque ‘dinner to announce the murderer’ scene.
The director, WS Van Dyke, shot the film in less than three weeks. He believed that he would lose the spontaneity and freshness of his cast if there were constant reshoots. It seems to have worked – Powell and Loy are absolutely fantastic as the main characters. Their on-screen chemistry and their banter is both funny and real, in that you can believe them as a married couple who are very good friends. He was not averse to re-using shots – the film has a dog, and a shot was taken of it peeking through a kitchen door into the living room before thinking twice about entering and turning around. This was used twice in the film, and why not, because its placing by the director was perfect and added to the humour (ie even the dog wasn’t going to get involved with these weirdos.)
I’m not really sure how anyone could be a detective and drink as much as Nick Charles, but apparently he can really hold his liquor. Powell’s inebriated scenes are never over-done. He seems slightly tipsy at best, though this is after half a dozen martinis. I suspect we’d call both the main characters alcoholics in today’s world, and probably would not like them as they are idle rich and just have parties all the time. It was a different time, and these antics were seen as sophisticated. This film is not supposed to be realistic, so it hardly matters, but I see it as a historical marker of how things have changed in films.
Supporting cast include Maureen O’Sullivan as an ingenue-type character (with a really strange family), Nat Pendleton as the clueless police officer Guild, and Cesar Romero as the crooked and lazy second husband of O’Sullivan’s mother. All the supporting cast portrayed their very eccentric and colourful characters with great energy and they were very enjoyable to watch.
What a script! Albert Hackert and Frances Goodrich, who went on the write the script for “It’s a wonderful life”, presented witty and fast dialogue that is an absolute delight. Even minor characters have hilarious moments, like the character at the Christmas party who gets maudlin drunk and keeps trying to call his mother in San Francisco. A classic example is at the dinner party at the end of the film, where, after one of the characters insists he saw his dead father in his crystal ball, Nora says to the waiter: ‘Will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?’ When one of the guests punches another guest who passes out, Nick says calmly: ‘Waiter, will you remove that?’
On Nora’s entrance:
Nick Charles: Oh, it’s all right, Joe. It’s all right. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.
Nora Charles: Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.
On being threatened with a gun:
Nick Charles: Hey, would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn’t care, but I’m a very timid fellow.
Nora Charles: You idiot!
Nick Charles: [to the gunman] Alright, shoot! I mean, uh, what’s on your mind?
The funniest aspect of the dinner party is this – we have all seen the Agatha Christie style dinners, where Hercule Poirot announces his conclusions about the murder. I don’t recall ever having seen a version of this where the ‘guests’ have only turned up because Nick sent the police to round them up and deliver them. Most of them were not willingly at the dinner at all, and some arrived in handcuffs. I found that hilarious. Some of the policemen were dressed up as waiters, much to the horror of the head waiter, who was looking appalled at the whole concept. One of these went on to shove a tray of martinis at two of the guests, with an order to ‘have a martini!’
“The Thin Man” is a great film and thoroughly enjoyable. What was the mystery about? Who cares? It’s really incidental to the fun you will have watching and enjoying a great cast putting on a marvellous show. I recommend this movie highly – it’s a delight.