Movie Critique – The Thin Man

For review of all movies in this series, go here.

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: Filled with chemistry, humor, mystery and overall sheer joy just to watch the plot move, this is an excellent introduction to Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles to the viewers brilliantly played by Powell and Loy.

The Thin Man is a 1934 American per-code comedy-mystery based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. Directed by Woody S. Van Dyke, the film stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, an upper class couple who enjoy partying and drinking. 

Nick Charles was a private eye and resigned from that business after marrying wealthy heiress, Nora Charles. However, they come across mystery cases or asked to investigate murders or unravel unanswered questions time and again. They form a flirtatious and formidable couple all the while investigating their cases and at the same time living their high life. They are equals in their relationship with teasing and banter to keep them on their toes. They have a terrier named Asta, who tags along and aids them on their cases several times.

In this very first film in the series, while spending Christmas holidays in New York City, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy respectively) are called upon by Dorothy Wynant (portrayed by Maureen O'Sullivan) to find her missing father, Clyde Wynant (portrayed by Edward Ellis), an eccentric inventor, also an old friend of Nick Charles. What seems a simple missing persons case turns into a murder mystery which culminates in an elaborate dinner party at Nick and Nora's house revealing the mystery and killer. 

Incidentally the screenplay for the film was also written by a married couple - Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Nick and Nora Charles are Hammett's comic investigative pair, quite contrast to his severe and hard-boiled Sam Spade. They remind me of Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence, another married couple who are amateur detectives in her books.

Director Van Dyke had concerns casting Powell and Loy - Powell for the reasons that he might come across as too old for playing the part of Nick Charles; and Loy for the reasons that the audience may fail to see her anyone other than an exotic femme fatale, which she had been casted in for a while. However, the pair proved very successful leading them to be casted in five more Thin Man sequels between 1936 and 1947.

None of the remaining movies in the series were based on any of Hammett's novels. Although other than the fifth film in 1945, The Thin Man Goes Home, the title character Thin Man doesn’t refer to Nick Charles as is commonly thought of. The Thin Man more than often ends up being a victim or an antagonist. In this particular movie, the word "The Thin Man" doesn’t even appear in dialogues until at least 50 minutes into the movie, when Nick Charles comments "From now on they're going to think that every thin man with white hair is Wynant."

Perhaps Powell and Loy were such good friends with easy banter off-screen that it showed in their on-screen chemistry and timing of the comedy. Their dog Astra, portrayed by Skippy, however, was not allowed interaction with actors between takes. It's amazing that he acted so companionably with them in actual scenes.

The film trailer is filmed in a very unique way. You can see Nick Charles (again William Powell here) on the cover of a Dashiell Hammett book titled The Thin Man. Nick then steps out as a fellow detective Philo Vance (also William Powell) walks by to talk about his latest case.

If you remember, I recently posted about 1933 American film noir The Kennel Murder Case, in which William Powell portrayed the role of Philo Vance himself. That film was released seven months prior to this film. And you can hear in the trailer that Nick comments that he hadnt seen Vance since The Kennel Murder Case. 

Even the open credits also show the original book, The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett before the rest of the credits start to play. 

It is surprising that the film faced a lot of troubles from censorship - complains about excessive drinking; objection to dialogues such as "what is that man doing in my drawers?"; and such. They were censored in a few areas where the film was released. Censor Board has come a far way along from there in accepting more raunchy and unacceptable scenes on screen.

The couple are so equal in their roles, that even at drinking Nora matches glass to glass with Nick; their teasing with silly facial expressions; their back and forth giving to the characters and letting the others shine around them; perhaps these made their pair a very successful one for Powell and Loy.

Prior to this film they starred in one film only, the 1934 American pre-Code crime drama, Manhattan Melodrama, which was a huge success. They went on to be paired in fourteen successful films after, of which six were in The Thin Man series. More about their pairing can be read here.

Porter Hall portrays the role of Wynant's attorney, Herbert MacCaulay. Very recently I watched the 1936 American drama film, The Petrified Forest, in which Hall portrayed the role of Jason Maple, father of Betty Davis' Gabrielle Maple. 

Gilbert Wynant, portrayed by William Henry, has morbid curiosity in the murder. You can see here how closely he sits to Lt. John Guild (portrayed by Nat Pendleton) observing his every move. Incidentally in the previous movie that I watched, from 1940 The Phantom Raiders, Pendleton played the role of "Gunboat" Jacklin.  

Nick and Nora's Christmas Party turns into a laugh riot with a revolving door of characters entering and leaving, all urging Nick to help them while he keeps saying that he isn't on any case. With off-key songs, funny characters and weird. And so does the final Dinner party takes the cake.

In all the hoopla of solving the mystery, Nick and Nora Charles' marriage takes center stage. We get to see first hand how their life after marriage survives with the humor, fights, romance and friendship all through till the end. 

Having not read the original book, I think this is an excellent introduction to Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles to the viewers brilliantly played by Powell and Loy, solving crimes in the midst of their newly wedded life. Filled with chemistry, humor, mystery and overall sheer joy just to watch the plot move. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. In June of 1936, Lux Radio Theater dramatized this film for an hour long broadcast in which William Powell, Myrna Loy, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, William Henry, and Thomas Jackson reprised their film roles, and W. S. Van Dyke was host.

b. A TV series titled The Thin Man ran from 1957 through 1959starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora Charles.

c. In the 1976 comedy spoof movie Murder by Death, the characters of Nick and Nora Charles became Dick and Dora Charleston, played by David Niven and Maggie Smith.

d. The 1979-84 ABC TV show Hart to Hart romantic detective series is inspired by Nick and Nora Charles characters and Thin Man series' central plot. Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers portray the titular roles.

e. A 2008 film Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist forms a sort of homage to The Thin Man film.

f. Cesar Romero portrays the role of Chris Jorgenson. Years later we see him in the 1960 cult classic Ocean's 11 as Duke Santos. Incidentally, he passed away 18 days after Myrna Loy passed away on December 14, 1993. 

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the beginning of the film, Dorothy Wynant mentions to her father she will be married on Dec 30th, which is three months after that opening scene per the conversation between Dorothy and her father Clyde. And we see that it is snowing at that time. New York doesn’t get snowfall in late September unless that year was one of those odd once in a lifetime kind of moment for Mother Nature in New York City. 

b. In the scene at the bar very early in the film, Nick has his dog Asta's leash in his right hand and points with his left hand for the dog to do tricks. But when the dog is shown from over Nick's shoulder, the leash is in his left hand and he is pointing his right hand to the dog.

c. When Nick is talking with MacCaulay in his living, when the camera faces Nick, his left hand is on the arm of the chair. But when the scene is filmed from Nick's back you can see that the left hand is now propped against his head. 

d. When Nick takes Dorothy into a bedroom, he has an ice bucket half filled with ice. But when he walks out the ice is all melted. Perhaps the shot took longer to take, and they forgot to refill the bucket with ice again.

e. At the party at Nick & Nora's home, one of the guest pops out all the balloons tied to the Christmas tree. But the next morning we see Nick shooting at those very same balloons and popping them again with his gun. When did they blow up new balloons and put there?

f. When Morelli points the gun at Nick, it is towards his shoulder. But later in the scene it is shown that he is hit in the rib cage instead.

g. Note the misspelt sub-heading. It should be "Clues Found To…" Instead it is printed as "Clews Found To.."


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