The Thin Man

Novel, 1932
The Thin Man (1934)

Director W.S. Van Dyke; writers Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich; featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy

The Thin Man sequels (1936–1947)

Directors W.S. Van Dyke (1936–1941), Richard Thorpe (1945), Edward Buzzell (1947); writers Dashiell Hammett, Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Harry Kurnitz, Irving Brecher, Robert Riskin, Dwight Taylor, Stanley Roberts, Steve Fisher, Nat Perrin; featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart (1936), Keenan Wynne (1947)

The Thin Man scene

Laid-back detective Nick Charles (William Powell) displays his skills for his wife Nora (Myrna Loy).

The Thin Man


Soft-boiled romp

I think someone should try to make another film of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. Though I can understand why they don't. The existing black-and-white movie of The Thin Man is wonderful. Chances are Hollywood would screw up any remake. The chemistry that occurred in 1934 with a great mystery novel for the story, a witty script and, most importantly, the interplay of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles—it could never be replicated.

So why do I think there's room for a new adaptation? Because a harder story is available in the novel. The film knocks off the book's roughest edges and plays up the comedy. Admittedly it is based on Hammett's most light-hearted novel, and the film is about as adult and sophisticated as a popular film could be in the 1930s, given the morality code imposed on Hollywood then.

But I'd like to see a grittier effort in which I could believe Nick Charles mixed it up with real underworld characters, who aren't all good-hearted under their gruff veneers. His high-class wife could still love him despite—be drawn to him because of—his unsavoury connections, but there would be more of a pathological feel to it. And it could still be a comedy, perhaps in the vein of Get Shorty or some other screwball crime film of the type popular in the 1990s.

Okay, maybe it's a bad idea. The Powell-Loy flick is a delight I can easily live with as the only Nick-and-Nora screen presentation, and for more realistic stories I'll stick to adaptations of Elmore Leonard.

Despite being a throwback to a more innocent age, The Thin Man still holds up as great entertainment. It's fast-paced, almost breathtakingly so for the first half as characters are quickly introduced, killed off and suspected. The Charles's life is dissolutely madcap as they race from gin-joints to alcoholic parties to murder scenes, cracking jokes all the way. Some of the jokes are corny now, as when Nick does a spit take over Nora complaining about a cop looking "in my drawers", but most of the repartee is as quick and clever as you'll ever hear on screen.

Powell seems to be having a ball, slurring and tottering his way through the script with martini in one hand and highball in the other, and then immediately turning razor-sharp whenever his detecting skills are needed. Loy rolls with the punches (sometimes literally), her tart wit putting him down lovingly. One incredible scene sums it up: she walks into a room to find her hubby with his arms around a beautiful young woman. In any other Hollywood film, she'd be shocked and walk out, slamming the door, as part of a humourous misunderstanding. But Nora sticks her tongue out at Nick as he makes a face back at her over the young woman's shoulder. She knew he was just getting information. It's never referred to again. This is a couple supremely sure of each other despite their continual barbs.

Incredibly the film is said to have been made in fourteen days. MGM gave it a tiny budget and direction in the person of W.S. "One-Take-Woody" Van Dyke, a veteran from the silent-movie days known for his speed. (Maybe that's why the scenes move so quickly.)

But the thrown-together film garnered four Academy Awards nominations: for actor Powell, director Van Dyke, writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and best picture.

— Eric



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The Thin Man

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