The Thin Man (1934)

+++ The first film in this highly renowned franchise introduces us to our hero couple, Nick and Nora Charles.

Nick used to be a very good private eye in New York, well-respected by the police, the press, and even the criminals he helped to put behind bars. When he married Nora, who comes from a wealthy family, his life changed. They moved to California, and Nick has not been doing any detective work for the past four years.

Now, however, they are all back in New York: Nick, Nora, and their dog Asta. And immediately, trouble is afoot. By coincidence, Nick runs into an old acquaintance who is worried about her father’s disappearance. And Nora urges Nick to investigate, as she thinks it would be rather a bit of fun. +++

 

What could I possibly tell you about one of the world’s best-known films? Nothing new, probably. The film is based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett; but since I have never read it I have no idea if the plot and the characters are close to the book or not. According to imdb, the witty banter between Nick and Nora is something that already existed in the book, although it was rewritten by the screenwriters (husband-and-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) and was on occasion improvised during filming.

 

In the film, “the thin man” is a term that is used to describe a specific character who has disappeared. But the name was so strongly associated with this successful film that it was retroactively pinned at Nick Charles himself and so all the sequels in the franchise contain “The Thin Man” in their title.

Some claim that The Thin Man is the first “proper” film franchise, i. e. a franchise in which characters return for several “original” sequels.

 

The film was directed by W. S. Van Dyke, with legendary Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe in charge of the camera. Van Dyke was determined to cast William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora, but the studio executives were not convinced. They tried to dissuade Van Dyke, amongst other things by saying Loy was only free for three weeks before her next project was scheduled. Van Dyke, an efficient director anyway, completed the shooting of The Thin Man in well under three weeks (precise numbers vary between 12 and 18 days). The entire project seems to have been a very speedy, including script-writing and pre-production: the film, which was released theatrically on May 25th 1934, had just been shot in April and May, and the novel itself had only been published a few months before.

 

There is some nice use of shadows, and of fading in and out of images. There is also a nice special effect showing a net spreading out over a map of the United States. But first and foremost this film is noteworthy for its excellent dialogue and the cast’s great performances. The chemistry between Powell and Loy, their perfect interplay and timing, stands out. The exchanges between Nick and Nora are clearly influenced by the Screwball comedies of the era, with Nora being a rather good example for the intellectually independent female characters of those films.

 

The supporting characters are also cast well – and especially the minor supporting roles, with their eccentricities and quirks, are benefiting from being played with sincerity and dedication, as for example in William Henry’s uncompromisingly comical performance.

The Thin Man also marks only the second film in the long career of Cesar Romero, and his minor supporting role is surprisingly big and central for a silver screen newcomer.

 

The criminal plot itself feels a bit contrived at times, but it is not too outlandish. And anyway, as the film puts more weight on the relationship of Nick and Nora and less on the case, it does not matter greatly. While this film is first and foremost a detective thriller, its comedic elements are what built its fame and reputation.

 

There is some faint sexual innuendo in the dialogue. And some of the lines worried the studio, with regards to the censors. I am also not sure what the censors must have thought of the rather wild and liberal party at the Charles’s hotel apartment, where alcohol is consumed in large quantities, and where Nick is freely associating with criminals.

The film was released only weeks before the stricter enforcement of the Hays Code began. But, according to imdb, some regions still opted to censor some lines from the dialogue.

 

This crime-comedy-mix is rightfully regarded as a classic, and I would definitely list it as a “must-see” film.

Rating: at least 8 out of 10.

 

 

 

PS: My DVD-copy contains a remarkable theatrical trailer for the film, in which William Powell plays both Nick Charles and fellow private eye Philo Vance through split screen technique. Powell had successfully portrayed Vance on film four times in the previous five years, and the studio clearly wanted to remind audiences how much they liked seeing Powell in a P. I. role. In the trailer, Charles and Vance discuss the Thin Man case. I believe the trailer can also be found on the internet.

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