Sleuthing Goes Better With Liquor in ‘Thin Man’
Watch it for the jaunty witticisms of cosmopolitan sophisticates
By Todd Hill
If we’re serious about tracing the murder mystery as a literary genre to its origins, we really have to go all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but most especially Agatha Christie arguably did more for the genre than anyone, Christie penning her first book in 1920 and keeping at it all the way into the 1970’s. But it was Poe who got there first, in the 1840’s, with stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”
Unfortunately for Poe, who was hurting for money for much of his short life, motion pictures didn’t exist in the 19th century. Christie, and other writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, had the good fortune of great timing, releasing their works in the mid-20th century, when movies couldn’t be made fast enough and studios were hungry for subject matter.
Detective stories rarely make it to the big screen these days, but in the 1930’s they were all the rage. And the template then, without dispute, was “The Thin Man.”
To be accurate, six “Thin Man” films were eventually released, with the initial 1934 title giving rise to “After the Thin Man” (1936), “Another Thin Man” (1939), “Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941), “The Thin Man Goes Home” (1945) and “Song of the Thin Man” (1947). And critics complain about too many sequels today!
For the record, this article is only focused on the first “Thin Man” picture, which has always been considered the best of the bunch; it was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture. Besides, if you’ve seen one of these flicks you really have seen them all. And if you haven’t, it’s the first one you should track down.
The articles on this website are committed to exploring whether various classic films, and certain television programs, are worthy of their exalted status and why (or why not). Devotees of the detective story, the murder mystery, would do better than to spend time with “The Thin Man” or its progeny, of which they’re likely already aware.
Sure, there’s a murder mystery for a detective to solve in “The Thin Man,” and that eventuality does transpire. But it’s pretty much beside the point. To a certain extent, “The Thin Man” matters today simply because of its basic setup. It blazed the path for so many imitators, on both the big and, much later, small screen, from the 1971–77 TV series “McMillan and Wife” to “Moonlighting” (1985–89).
More than anything though, “The Thin Man” matters because its central characters, Nick and Nora Charles — and don’t forget Asta, their wire fox terrier — are fabulous. Fabulousness — that’s this movie’s reason for being.
The film is based on a slim novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, although any similarities between the two are largely surface considerations. It’s a matter of emphasis. Hammett was romantically involved, on a periodic basis, with the playwright Lillian Hellmann. They were cosmopolitan sophisticates, given to engaging in clever banter, which naturally found its way into the dialogue of Nick and Nora, albeit to a much lesser extent than in the film that would soon follow.
When it came time to make a movie of “The Thin Man,” producers instructed director W.S. Van Dyke to push aside the murder mystery and focus instead on the jaunty witticisms of Nick and Nora, although they initially made that task harder by saying no to the actors Van Dyke wanted for the parts. Fortunately for cinema history, the director ultimately got his way.
Once William Powell and Myrna Loy were on board they stuck around for the entire series. Nick Charles was immediately a familiar type to Powell, who had played the roving private eye Philo Vance for Paramount from 1929–33. Loy was more of an unknown at first, an actress who was frequently cast as Asian and exotic characters. But Powell and Loy had worked together before — in all, they appeared in 14 films together — and their on-screen chemistry was a known phenomenon.
Helping that along considerably was Van Dyke, who shot “The Thin Man” in something like two weeks, and was given to wrapping scenes in one take, sometimes grabbing rehearsal footage or using improvised shots for the final cut. A memorable scene featuring Powell shooting ornaments off the family Christmas tree with a pop gun was one such appropriation.
Also aiding in the consistent insouciance is the fact that Nick and Nora are wealthy, and have the luxury of living it up on one or the other coast — and occasionally solving crimes — without having to worry about making a living or where the money is coming from. “The Thin Man” hit theaters in 1934, deep into the Great Depression. No wonder it was a huge hit.
And did I mention the booze? There’s a LOT of drinking in this movie. Although Nick and Nora are rarely seen suffering the effects of so much intoxication, seldom are they seen without a glass in their hands. Anyone foolhardy enough to engage in a “Thin Man” drinking game, downing a shot every time it’s bottoms up on screen, will be passed out by the time the movie’s over. Perhaps it should be noted that Prohibition ended just a year before this film came out.
Somehow, Nick and Nora find time amidst all the drinking and fabulousness to solve a convoluted crime in “The Thin Man,” although it’s actually Asta who discovers the body. The movie ends, as all detective stories must, it seems, with an “I suppose you’re all wondering why I brought you here” dinner at which all is revealed. Don’t worry if you can’t make heads or tails of what Nick Charles is saying in this scene; Powell wasn’t able to follow along either.
Asta, wisely, appears to have left the room. The terrier, played by a dog named Skippy, is frequently seen skipping out of rooms, fed up with Nick and Nora’s nonsense. The movie’s concluding scene features him covering his face with his paws. Evidently, this wasn’t an act. The actors weren’t allowed to interact with the dog for fear of breaking his concentration, and at one point he even bit Loy. It sounds like he was a real prima donna.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.