Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Thin Man

Though The Thin Man wound up being a huge hit, triggering an entire series with five more films featuring the same characters, it was not conceived as anything more than a one-off B picture. The film was a cheaply produced quickie for director W.S. Van Dyke, a fast-paced mix of a detective thriller and a romantic comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Powell and Loy play the hard-drinking, fast-talking Nick and Nora Charles, a playful, debonair couple with high society pretensions. She's an heiress of some kind, and he's a former detective who apparently still gets the itch to investigate every so often. The film is soaked in martinis and highballs, so much liquor flowing that one wonders how Nick ever finds a clue. And his wife is easily his match: at one point, she arrives late to a party, asks her husband how many drinks he's had so far, and then tells the bartender to line up the same number in front of her so she can catch up right away. The duo are perfect together, with an unmatchable romantic and comedic chemistry, passing lines back and forth as easily as the ever-present cocktail glasses that are never far from their hands.

Of course, somewhere within this alcohol haze is a mystery, as well, and despite the overall light and funny tone, the film is no slouch in developing its darker elements. The mystery, derived from a Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, is incredibly dense and twisty, with plenty of potential suspects. In the long, atmospheric prologue, before Nick and Nora even show up for the first time, Van Dyke establishes the contours of this mystery, giving out just enough information to whet the audience's appetite without giving too much away. The eccentric inventor Wynant (Edward Ellis) — the "thin man" of the title, though everyone always assumed that the moniker referred to Nick instead — is preparing for a trip out of town in mysterious circumstances, refusing to tell anyone where he's going, not even his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan). Wynant's divorced, and carrying on an affair with his secretary Julia (Natalie Moorhead), though she's got her own stable of men who she's seeing on the side. Before he leaves town, Wynant confronts her about her wayward behavior, and also demands that she replace the $50,000 she's stolen from him. He then heads off into the night, his long thin shadow stretched across the sidewalk in an iconic image, never to be seen again.

Once Nick and Nora enter the picture, everyone's already looking for the vanished Wynant, who hasn't been seen in months. Soon enough, dead bodies start piling up, with Wynant the number one suspect. First, Julia shows up shot, then her occasional lover Nunheim (Harold Huber), and the police are more eager than ever to locate the missing inventor. From the beginning, Nick never believes that Wynant is guilty, but as much as he insists that he is retired as a detective and wants nothing to do with the case, everyone else involved keeps assuming that he's on the job. This includes Wynant's entire family, including Dorothy, his ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell), and his creepy mama's boy son Gilbert (William Henry), who cheerfully admits he has a "mild" Oedipal infatuation with his mother to match the similar dedication of Dorothy for her dad. The film's cast is endlessly colorful and fascinating, and the script always has some fun bits of business ready for its rotating assortment of potential suspects. Edward Brophy is great as Morelli, a thug who keeps interrupting his gunpoint interrogation of Nick to reminisce about old hoods they both used to know. There's also a great scene in which Nick and his cop buddy Guild (Nat Pendleton) try to question Nunheim while the crook's girlfriend storms around and throws pots and pans at her cheating man.

All of these elements are perfectly balanced, so that the film is as witty and hilarious as it is suspenseful. Despite the very serious mystery and all the tough characters drifting around the story's fringes, it's Powell and Loy's crisply funny performances that drive everything. There's so much liquor being swilled in this film that one practically becomes drunk watching it. Powell in particular injects a boozy quality into his performance, an oh-so-slight stumble in his step or hesitation in his words to indicate the fact that he's just poured back half a dozen drinks. The banter between the couple is perfectly pitched, and Powell and Loy have such a natural flow that one really would believe they'd been married for quite some time. They're so comfortable together, transitioning smoothly from barbed patter to quiet romantic moments, and the real test of their chemistry is that even during their more sharp-tongued verbal sparring matches, it's obvious that they're just having a blast.

This spirit of fun translates into every aspect of the film, from the nonstop clever script to the diverse troop of supporting performances to the noirish visual touches that Van Dyke places throughout the film. Most striking of all are the montages of the search for Wynant, in which the thin man's silhouette is superimposed over images of the city and newsprint headlines recounting his supposed murders. Van Dyke has a good eye for small touches like this, as well as for keeping the whole picture in focus even as he delves into the details and detours. For the climax, the traditional parlor scene where Nick gathers the suspects together (hilariously, for a formal dinner party complete with cops serving the drinks and hors d'oeuvres), Van Dyke keeps returning to a long establishing shot of the whole table, even as he cuts to individual closeups for the reactions to Nick's revelations. It's beautifully handled, with economy and fluidity to spare. The Thin Man is a nearly perfect Hollywood film, breezy and funny and light on its feet, with just enough grit and charisma in the mix to make it all hang together so well.


John said...

A favorite sub-genre of mine is the comedy-mystery and "The Thin Man" is the best of this small group. Powell and Loy are just so perfect. A classy sharply written script. Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery", though not as good, is still a nice homage to "The Thin Man" films. Excellent review Ed.

Expos 1983 Blog said...

yes, this is an excellent film--although, as a Hammett aficionado, I have to break its connection to the novel in order to enjoy it. I would argue that, under the banter, the novel is, in fact, Hammett's bleakest work (and kind of the summum of his most--and only--industrious decade)...

strangely enough, a lot of literary critics don't take the novel very seriously (thinking of it as a light diversion, after the full-on critique of Red Harvest, etc), and when you read them, you can't help feeling that they've fallen under the film's genial spell

probably the most important divergence centers upon Nick Charles' relationship to the chaotic elements of the plot... Powell's NC may stumble, but he always seems to be in perfect command, right up until the final round-up (which is repeated in all of the subsequent Thin Man films)--where he serves as the conductor/MC of the murder-investigation-as-symphony/convention ... There's nothing like this scene in the novel. The Charles on the page has a lot more in common with the author's earlier protagonists (especially Continental Op), who clearly don't have a clue what's happening around them, but succeed by taking a crazy situation and exacerbating it to its breaking point

another really telling omission (on a par with the excision of the Flitcraft narrative from Maltese Falcon) is the interpolated tale of cannibalism, which casts an extraordinary pall upon even the jokiest moments of Hammett's Thin Man...

still, the film IS an absolutely perfect screwball mystery (it established the genre, in fact), with brisk direction, a fun script and a truly extraordinary cast... not just Powell/Loy, who are dazzlingly fun (although I must admit that I like them even more in non-Thin Man outings like Libeled Lady, Double Wedding, I Love You Again and Love Crazy), but also Edward Ellis (I think he's really fantastic--conveying equal parts lovable absent-minded professor and vicious satyr--in his few scenes as the ill fated victim) , Nat Pendleton, Porter Hall, Cesar Romero, Maureen O'Sullivan, Harold Huber, Edward Brophy, Minna Gombell... I'm about the millionth person to make this observation, but it's clearer in the Thin Man than almost anywhere else--perfect casts like this went out with the studio system--you couldn't raise a group like that today even if you had two YEARS to make your movie, let alone two WEEKS!

also--Asta is wonderful (and would be even better as Mr. Smith in the Awful Truth!)


Bob Turnbull said...

Sorry to bring down the quality of comment here for a second, but I have to say that Myrna Loy is just one of the most sensual creatures to ever grace the screen. That smoky look she has, the class, the quick wit...Oh my.

She may be even better in "Libeled Lady" which was also with Powell - what a combo they made. I don't remember a great deal of specifics about "The Thin Man" (only seen it once), but I remember the two of them.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Dave, as someone who hasn't read the original novel, I do appreciate the comparison to the book. I sort of suspected that the book was a much more serious affair. There's plenty of great noir mysteries, though, and the casting of Powell and Loy here pretty much guaranteed that the film would work much better with a comedic tone.

And Bob, heartily agreed. I think there's also something really endearing about the onscreen relationship between Powell and Loy that enhances her appeal; she just seems to be having so much fun flirting and playing with him.

Anonymous said...

oh I quite agree--in fact, I think Van Dyke, Hunt Stromberg (the producer), the Hacketts (screenwriters) and Powell/Loy deserve a lot of credit for transforming a novel into a trend-setting piece that was exactly right for its era...

my only concern is that they did it SO well that they permanently preempted a darker cinematic interpretation (i.e. just imagine how different it would have been if the property had been free to serve as a follow-up to Huston's Maltese Falcon!)

of course--I'm not sure any film could really duplicate the impact of Hammett's first person narrative (as opposed to the third person books--like Falcon and Glass Key--which translate quite well onto the screen)

Dave Fiore