The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man (1934). 93 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring William Powell (as Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (as Nora Charles), Maureen O’Sullivan (as Dorothy Wynant), Nat Pendleton (as Lieutenant John Guild), Minna Gombell (as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson), Porter Hall (as Herbert MacCauley), Henry Wadsworth (as Tommy), William Henry (as Gilbert Wynant), Harold Huber (as Arthur Nunheim), Cesar Romero (as Chris Jorgenson), Natalie Moorhead (as Julia Wolf), Edward Brophy (as Joe Morelli), Edward Ellis (as Clyde Wynant), and Skippy (as Asta the dog). Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.

The Thin Man is a unique crime movie. Cheaply and quickly filmed over the course of two weeks by W. S. Van Dyke (alias “one-take Woody”), it makes use of plain sets, very little action, and lots of talk to create a detective story that is more of a lifestyle comedy than a tale of serious murder and sleuthing. Its crime plot, which is only barely comprehensible, largely takes a back seat to the banter and interplay of its witty and easygoing protagonists Nick and Nora Charles, who are played with grace and bemusement by William Powell and Myrna Loy in one of their many screen pairings. By largely focusing on Nick and Nora drinking at parties rather than on crime itself, The Thin Man novelly offers us a crime story in which killing time is the characters’ main preoccupation, and solving actual killings is merely a distraction. Replete with cosmopolitan fantasy and absent of any Depression-era realities, the movie is a complete and total celebration of the suave early 1930s with the period’s wry pre-Code humor and enviable glamour on full display—all of which radiate from Nick and Nora, who together comprise one of the screen’s great married couples. As if that weren’t enough, The Thin Man is also a Christmas movie, complete with holiday party and present-opening scenes, which offer some of the best moments (and smartest dialogue) in the film.

The Thin Man opens in New York City with Dorothy Wynant paying a visit to her inventor father Clyde Wynant’s workshop. Dorothy is soon to be married, and Clyde intends to bestow $50,000 in bonds upon her as a wedding present but soon discovers they are missing. Clyde suspects his secretary and mistress Julia Wolf of embezzling the money and confronts her; shortly thereafter Clyde goes missing. Dorothy tracks down family friend and former detective Nick Charles, who is visiting New York from California with his wife Nora for Christmas, and eventually persuades him to take the case. When Julia is found dead, the absent Clyde is suspected of having murdered her. More deaths ensue, and at one point an armed suspect sneaks into Nick and Nora’s hotel suite and attempts to kill Nick, but the police intervene. Nick eventually discovers the lye-soaked skeleton of a man dressed in large-sized clothing buried in Wynant’s workshop, and the police assume it is another victim of Clyde’s. But in the end during an elaborate dinner party back at Nick’s hotel, at which all of the suspects are made to appear, Nick reveals that the skeleton is actually the remains of Clyde Wynant, “the thin man,” and the murderer is Clyde’s attorney, Herbert MacCauley, who has also stolen the bond money. The movie concludes with Nick, Nora, and their dog Asta riding the train back to California along with newly married Dorothy and her husband.

I would be remiss to begin this discussion without mentioning something about The Thin Man’s crime story, as many viewers will know that the film is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel of the same name and perhaps may expect the crime element to be among the screen version’s primary pleasures. But whereas Hammett’s story is complicated and subtle in a way that we might enjoy, the movie’s crime story is a largely forgettable plot of insignificant consequence. It is convoluted, with too many characters, too many suspects, and too many blondes—at least three or four of the latter, all money-grubbing, all with the same hairdo and difficult to distinguish from each other. Unexceptional little apartments and dingy rooms full of schemers and thieves litter the footpath that guides us towards the mystery’s conclusion. It is a good thing there is not more action and aggressive sleuthing, because the one scene in which there is real detective labor—where Nick investigates Clyde Wynant’s workshop at night with Asta—is mostly dark and confusingly staged.

But the lackluster nature of the mystery does not taint our admiration for the private eye who becomes embroiled in it, or for his adjacent literary context. The Nick Charles of the film belongs more to a tradition of gentleman detectives than the protagonist of the novel The Thin Man, which has at its helm a fairly terse version of the same character who is largely still a part of the hardboiled police world. Instead, the film’s Nick functions as a kind of American version of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple—two industrious sleuths who are, like Nick, only loosely affiliated with the police. Often rather than actively pursuing detective work, they are followed by crimes, even during holidays abroad, and solve them as private consultants to law enforcement. Detective work for them is sometimes a nerdy pastime, but it can also be a passionate and structured pursuit.

While there are similarities between Nick and Christie’s inspectors, The Thin Man’s detective is imbued with a laid-back urbanity and nonchalance that may perplex Golden Age crime fiction fans. He does not even want to become involved in the Wynant investigation at first, and although he cares about Dorothy Wynant and has known her since she was a child, he must be repeatedly cajoled into helping out. He finally emerges from a self-imposed retirement to take on the case (he was employed as a police detective prior to marrying Nora), but his approach to detective work appears to be largely shaped by his retirement lifestyle, powered in part by the spirit of leisure; over the course of the investigation, he is essentially just taking his dog out for a walk and throwing a dinner party when he makes his discoveries. And unlike Christie’s final gatherings, which are tense affairs with guests often gathered around a stern drawing room (typically each one guilty of something), Nick’s dinner party with all of his suspects seated around the table is in contrast largely a lark, the nervousness of the suspects balanced out by his silly aloofness. As he drinks away at the head of the table, Nora asks him in a private aside if he knows what he is doing—not at all, he says; he is just playing things by ear.

This admission again separates him from Christie’s investigators, but it does not make him any less reliable or valiant. We observe him dealing with armed assailants on multiple occasions, so his bravery is well established. Moreover, he may play things by ear, and his participation in detective work may be marked by reluctance, but his approach works: the killer is apprehended, the money is discovered, and Nick has a bullet wound left over to speak to his grit. The Nick Charles we see on screen may possibly be too easygoing for Christie devotees, and he may incidentally also lack the hardboiled gumption of Hammett’s protagonist in the novel—but beneath his suave exterior he is shrewd, and he conquers the case with a coolness that can borrow a hard edge when it needs to.

A detective film in which the murder is incidental may dissatisfy anyone looking for a real crime story. But for those who are receptive to the witty, provocative, and innuendo-laden dialogue that takes the crime’s place, the movie is a pre-Code comic gem. From the beginning, The Thin Man’s dialogue surpasses its guns, conspiracies, and dead bodies in terms of entertainment value. At the Christmas Eve party, Gilbert Wynant chats with a reporter and tells him his deceased father was a sexagenarian: “But we can’t put that in the paper,” the reporter replies. Later, when Lieutenant Guild suspects Nick does not have a permit for his gun, he asks, “Have you heard of the Sullivan Act?” Nora replies, “Oh, that’s all right. We’re married.” And there is this great exchange on Christmas morning, the day after Nick and Nora are confronted by the armed thug Morelli in their bedroom:

Nick Charles: “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
Nora Charles: “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
Nick Charles: “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

We are left to guess for ourselves where Nick’s tabloids are, but the fact that it is up to us to make that association is a sign of how playful the film’s bawdy humor can be.

Viewers are more likely to recall the naughty jokes or even the wry remarks made by the protagonists rather than the details of the murder, which simply underscores the movie’s primary identity as a chic and stylish comedy. Yet we cannot discuss the The Thin Man’s pre-Code content, its abundance of witty conversations, or or its comic element without discussing its primary milieu—the 1930s New York cocktail party, which makes the spirited double-entendres and stream of elegant retorts possible. Indeed, this booze-laden atmosphere is one of the movie’s principle delights and clues us into the film’s second story, which runs parallel with the murder mystery: Prohibition has ended, Manhattan is awash in legal liquid intoxicants again, and the party seemingly never ends.

I found myself observing the movie’s alcohol-laden atmosphere and thinking of the Robert Mitchum film Out of the Past (1947), which Roger Ebert has called the greatest cigarette film of all time due to its protagonist’s constant smoking and the artfulness with which smoking in that film is undertaken. If it is possible to award such a title to a movie, then surely The Thin Man is the greatest social drinking movie of the 1930s. This was a decade whose mountain of escapist high-society films was host to plentiful scenes of inebriated and reveling party guests, but even then, The Thin Man easily outdoes its contemporaries with a near-continuous flow of liquor on screen. The characters’ martini and highball glasses become ubiquitous props, even part of the scenery; but while the consumption of alcohol can seem like background noise in this film, it is at the front of the revelers’ minds, too, and distractions from it are hardly to be tolerated. When a reporter asks if Nick can share more about the Wynant case, Nick responds, “Yes, it’s putting me way behind in my drinking.”

And yet Nick and Nora never appear to be inebriated and always seem to be in control of their faculties. Indeed, what they consume is pure magic. Alcohol does not cause them to slur their speech, move slowly, grow morose, or become lost in their thoughts. Instead it makes the pair sharper, wittier—and with great effect. At the formal dinner party that concludes the film, Nick appears to solve the crime in impromptu fashion while seated at the table, drink in hand. Rather than hindering him, his drinking there serves to make him appear suave, debonair, and relaxed—all things that assist him in interviewing the nervous suspects seated around him and in making his final assessment.

While the alcohol at the criminal dinner party serves to fine-tune Nick’s faculties, at his Christmas Eve party, alcohol actually appears to be generative, even creative. As Nick meanders around the hotel suite with a tray of martinis and highballs, his mission to distribute alcohol inspires conversation and is how we get to know the pickled party guests: a prize fighter, a weepy man who misses his mother. Alcohol thus individuates people and helps to bring out their stories. Drinking and distributing drinks not only keeps the dialogue flowing but also drive the scene forward, propelling the camera around the living room and drawing us closer to the protagonists and their acquaintances.

Surely there is a fair amount of fantasy involved in these scenes, which lead us to believe that Nick and Nora can drink indefinite quantities of alcohol and only seem more astute and delightful. Even in the scene where Nora allegedly has a hangover (after drinking six martinis in a bar to match the quantity her husband has already imbibed), she looks more as if she is playing at having a hangover with a large compress comically tied to her forehead like a tam-o’-shanter; she enters the next room with it still tied on when they have a guest and interacts with him in a genial and energetic way. Likewise, we must wonder if it is really the case that Nick should be able to disarm Joe Morelli so capably after a night of bingeing with his friends. If anything, alcohol appears to be a liquid source of empowerment that enables Nick to confront Morelli. He must immediately fuel up afterwards, first with a glass of liquor that Nora hands him, then with the bottle itself. In The Thin Man, greatness and alcohol are firmly linked, and the cocktails that the characters consume are the replenishing waters of dreams.

I should note that if you’re a friend of Nick and Nora’s in this film and are not drinking, you’re under suspicion. Consider, for example, this snippet of dialogue from a scene in which Nick Charles welcomes Herbert MacCauley into his home:

Nick Charles: What are you drinking?
Herbert MacCauley: Oh, nothing, thanks. Nothing.
Nick Charles: Oh, that’s a mistake.

The fact that MacCauley rejects Nick’s offer of a drink indicates that he is not of this crowd, and it is possibly even an early sign that MacCauley is untrustworthy.

It must be pointed out that the reason Nick can afford to spend more time drinking than sleuthing is Nora’s fortune. She has inherited a large portfolio of profitable businesses, and the two are well taken care of. Indeed the couple’s fabulous life coincides with the absence of any Depression-era poverty. For example, Nick buys Nora an expensive watch and fur coat for Christmas, and on Christmas morning he casually demolishes a windowpane in his hotel suite without regret. Food is constantly ordered and sent up to the Charles suite in spite of the presence of a kitchen. And Nora is dressed to the nines at all times in various outlandish, expensive, and impractical outfits—a dress with a large fluffy, diaphanous collar; a fur embellishment that she has to flatten out when it gets in her way; and exaggerated satin princess sleeves on her bed robe.

Nick and Nora are both liberated financially, and Nick owes his liberty to Nora, but their marriage is not one of real owing and debt. They have an equal stake in the relationship—we see this reflected even in their drinking: if he drinks abundantly, she drinks to keep pace with him in companionship. They also indulge each other’s whims. For example, Nora allows Nick to use their hotel room to engage the prospective murderers for dinner, and she implicitly trusts his judgment when he does so. And Nick in turn protects her: when Morelli endangers her, Nick takes extreme measures to remove her from the line of fire.

Although in later movies in the Thin Man franchise, the Charleses have a small child, the first movie at least envisions them playfully coexisting and satisfied in each other until the end of time, without the need for children or a larger family. It is refreshing while it lasts. We can see that Nick and Nora are in love: they enjoy each other’s company immensely, and they handle each other’s problems and irritating qualities with amusement. Andrew Sarris, in his study, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film and Memory, 1927-1949 (1998), spoke to this point when he observed that Nick and Nora are “the first on-screen Hollywood couple for whom matrimony [does] not signal the end of sex, romance, and adventure.” They are thus not a typical modern screen pair, which we normally have to watch fighting, separating, and reuniting; juggling children; and striving to rekindle former passion and lost romance. In other words, Nick and Nora have it all—money in the form of Nora’s inheritance, friends in the form of their many party guests, people who desire the help of their intellects, and good looks. They do not need this case to solve anything for them; they already have everything solved.

But consider that this might not be easy for everyone to accept. When Roger Ebert called The Thin Man a kind of Astaire-Rogers musical sans music and dancing, “with elegant people in luxury hotel penthouses and no hint of the Depression anywhere in sight,” he drew attention to the obliviousness of the films to economic realities, but he was also by implication aligning Nick and Nora’s relationship to the squabbling, on-again, off-again onscreen relationships of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Astaire-Rogers movies indulge in a great deal of fantasy and escapism, and even the “I hate you, therefore we must be in love” romances found within them fit into a pattern of wishful thinking about courtship (that is, that bickering and feelings of intense dislike inevitably resolve into true love and perfect togetherness). It is important to note, however, that in The Thin Man, the protagonists’ marriage, while glossy and bright, is not an expression of this same fantasy, and while a fortune like Nick and Nora’s may be out of reach for the audience, their relationship is not. Although the film’s unreal depiction of the consequences of drinking and its brushing aside of its Depression-era context place the story in a special bubble inhabited by many 1930s films, Nick and Nora’s marriage on screen is imbued with the feeling of something joyful and real. They manage to be utterly devoted to each other without requiring great displays of romantic fluff, without petty tiffs or ridiculous misunderstandings, and without falling in and out of love with each other. If their relationship seems as unachievable as Nora’s inheritance, perhaps that is only because the offscreen world makes it so.

The Thin Man was wildly successful at the time of its release and spawned a series of movie sequels that did not originate from other Hammett novels. It is worth noting that the thin man of the first installment is murder victim Clyde Wynant, whose lye-soaked corpse is dressed in a fat man’s clothes to disguise its identity. (Nick refers to Wynant explicitly as “the thin man with white hair.”) Later this name would implicitly come to be applied to Nick himself, as the series developed and every movie included “thin man” in its title, but the Wynant story was not revisited. Although these other films can be at times entertaining, they pale in comparison with the first Thin Man; even the series titles eventually show fatigue with the franchise, with Another Thin Man (1939) unintentionally suggesting a kind of dull shrug and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) implying that its plot and characterizations are an insubstantial rendition of the original.

Dashiell Hammett also authored The Maltese Falcon, which had been adapted in 1931 in a passable, ribald pre-Code film and would be remade in the immortal Humphrey Bogart version ten years later. If you primarily know Hammett as a writer of hardboiled detective fiction like The Maltese Falcon and the novel of The Thin Man, the movie of The Thin Man will offer you a glimpse into how surprisingly well his plots can also be adapted into lighter settings. (The screenplay was written by married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who softened up the material considerably.) If you want more of The Thin Man, I recommend reading the novel over watching the sequels. Hammett is a master of his genre, and his disciplined, economical writing with its smart and punchy dialogue is a more stimulating relative of the 1934 movie.