The Thin Man (1934)
Airing at 8PM EST
The first in a series of six films, The Thin Man is a charming, witty comedy about a not-so-retired detective, his glamorous, wealthy wife, and their adorable wire-haired terrier, Asta. Nick and Nora Charles spend their days drinking and carousing with their circle of dilettantes, but when one of his friends disappears, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the investigation, much to the delight of his curious wife. The story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s eponymous final novel, and the characters of Nick and Nora are said to have been modeled on Hammett and his longtime love, playwright Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes).
Myrna Loy and William Powell, both of whom spent their early careers being typecast as villains and vamps, light up the screen in one of those indefinably perfect cinema pairings. Their chemistry crackles, and each demonstrates a flair for comedy that would forever change the trajectory of each of their careers, pushing both of them into more sophisticated leading roles.
The details of Nick’s case in this movie are unimportant. The attraction of this film–in fact, of the entire series–lies in the clever, rapid-fire dialogue, particularly the exchanges between husband and wife. Nick and Nora’s repartee, filled with double entendre and sly observation, elevates the material far above the “B” status to which its relatively standard murder-mystery plot belongs:
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
And though these two clearly love one another, there’s (thankfully) little sentimentality in the script.
Nora: Take care of yourself.
Nick: Why, sure I will.
Nora: Don’t say it like that! Say it as if you meant it!
Nick: Well, I do believe the little woman cares.
Nora: I don’t care! It’s just that I’m used to you, that’s all.
This is not a typical married couple, as evidenced by this exchange. Nora does not defer to her husband; he instead defers to her, and by virtue of her wealth, she is the de facto head of the household. But Nick does not begrudge her this position. There is no macho posturing to prove his virility; he goes out of his way to try to avoid being sucked back into detective work, and only does so because Nora’s insatiable curiosity about his previous life as a detective badgers him into it. And though Nick indulges in alcohol unrepentantly, Nora matches him at the bar, step for step, hangover for hangover.
It’s a refreshing examination of couplehood, and one of the first cinematic examples I can recall of a marriage that works more as a partnership than a relationship of subservience.
Most importantly, The Thin Man is among the first crop of screwball comedy films that would come to define Hollywood hilarity in the ensuing decade. Though its madcap antics are somewhat more subtle than fellow forebearer It Happened One Night (1934), the mix of slapstick, frantic dialogue, and unconventional marital relations would be repeated in many subsequent films in the genre, among them Libeled Lady (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937).
Though the sequels have some merit, this initial film in the series remains the most entertaining of all. The Thin Man collection has been on DVD for several years now (and has been on my wish list for just about as long), but it is a mite pricey still. But these films pop up on TCM regularly, so keep your eyes peeled for future showings.
Nominations: Best Actor (Powell), Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Picture