Published On: Sun, Nov 18th, 2018

Classic Movie Review: William Powell, Myrna Loy Star in The Thin Man

The film has a screwball sensibility in depicting upper crust society types behaving sometimes foolishly during encounters with lower life forms from the social food chain.

Classic Movie, The Thin Man

William Powell is Suave Nick Charles

The dapper, mustachioed leading man, William Powell, already was a Hollywood veteran of the detective genre, having played sleuth Philo Vance in a popular series extending from the late silents to the early talkies.

Playing his wife was Myrna Loy, who for years had been strangely miscast as exotic villainesses, often Asian. This film essentially established her most enduring screen image — that of a playful, smart, sexy urbanite who could hold her own with a strong, albeit comic, male presence.

The film is mainly remembered today for its breezy style, sight gags (especially involving the couple’s dog, Asta), wickedly funny one-liners and a laissez-faire attitude toward alcohol. Powell and Loy play the insouciant Nick and Nora Charles, whose lives seem to revolve around partying, interrupted only by an unsolicited murder case.

Leading Roles Based on Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman

The Thin Man is based on the last of Dashiell Hammett’s five completed crime novels (1930). It helped that a husband and wife screenwriting team, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (It’s a Wonderful Life, Father of the Bride, The Diary of Anne Frank, many others) wrote the picture, along with two of the five sequels.

In more recent and politically correct times, the Charleses probably wouldn’t be portrayed so lovably tipsy. (They are said to be patterned after Hammett and his longtime companion, writer Lillian Hellman.) While the drinking is nearly non-stop, and Nick and Nora sometimes slur their words, they never get sloppy drunk. Thus, the booze never undercuts their playful, sophisticated banter.

Nick and Nora Caught Up in Case
The mystery is set up this way:

In New York, rich and powerful inventor Clyde Wynant demands his ex-mistress Julia return $50,000 in bonds stolen from his private safe. Wynant leaves on a mysterious business trip, only to be accused in absentia of a trio of murders (including Julia’s) in which a lot of people emerge as potential suspects.

Wynant’s old friend, retired private detective Nick Charles and his heiress Wife Nora, are visiting from California. Naturally, they soon are caught up in the Wynant case.

Fittingly, our first view of Nick is at a club. The camera weaves through a busy dance floor to a man boastfully instructing three amused bartenders on the proper way to mix drinks. We see him only from behind, but that aristocratic Powell voice is unmistakable:

“You see, Dix,” he begins, vigorously shaking a mixer, “the important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. On a Manhattan, you shake to fox trot. A Bronx, to two-step time. A dry martini is always shaken to waltz time.”

Nora soon enters, swathed in fur, being pulled along by her leashed wire-haired fox terrier, Asta — valiantly balancing a armfuls of Christmas presents. This, before she tumbles to the floor and the packages go flying.

Famous Screen Chemistry Between Powell, Loy
Much has been written and said about the great chemistry between the leads. All because of scenes like this:

Wynant’s gorgeous, grown daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) approaches family friend Nick, seeking help for her missing father. A short time later, Nora ever so sweetly grills him:

Nora: Who is she?

Nick: Oh darling, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to answer that.

Nora: C’mon.

Nick: Well, Dorothy is really my daughter. Y’see, it was spring in Venice. I was so young. I didn’t know what I was doing. We’re all like that on my father’s side…

Nora: By the way, how is your father’s side?

Nick: Oh it’s much better, thanks. And yours?

The one-liners and sight gags are nearly non-stop. Like, when cops search Nora’s bedroom bureau after a nighttime shooting and the pajama-clad Mrs. Charles objects: “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Cut to Nick, who in mid-swallow of a badly-needed drink, spits into his glass, his eyes bulging hilariously.

The film has a number of virtuoso set-pieces, thanks to the witty script, smart direction by W.S. Van Dyke and some seemingly effortless performances

Christmas Eve Party a Riot
One such sequence is the Charles’ Christmas Eve party, a beautifully choreographed farce in which tipsy host Nick is drawn further into the Wynant case. The pacing is swift but not harried and the partygoers comprise a cross-section of society, including a memorably funny weepy man ironically saddened by the holidays.

And there’s the climactic denouement, the Charles’ elegant sit-down dinner party at which the many suspects are gathered so Nick can deduce who’s the real triple-murderer.

Besides the gorgeous Sullivan (real-life mother of actor Mia Farrow and, by 1934, established as Jane in the Tarzan series), the fine supporting players include Edward Ellis as Wynant, Nat Pendleton as a police detective, Minna Gombel playing Wynant’s greedy ex-wife and strapping young Cesar Romero as a cad involved with Gombel.

The Actual “Thin Man”
By the way, the thin man of the title often is mistakenly thought to be Nick Charles. In fact, Clyde Wynant is the thin man. But, with a hit on its hands, marketing-savvy MGM retained the phrase in the titles of the five sequels.

The Thin Man is as much fun today as it was to Depression-era audiences. It offers countless delicious moments. To wit:

When noble Dorothy falsely confesses to Nick about Julia’s murder — thinking she’ll save her father from suspicion — he instantly debunks the well-meaning girl. As Nick consoles her, in walks Nora.

You think Nora will suspect Nick of cheating. But he nods knowingly at his wife and she scrunches up her aquiline nose. In that laugh out loud instant, we see the trust between two adults who hide their maturity and mutual devotion behind a winning playfulness. A lot of people watching the movie wished they had that kind of relationship with their own mates.

About the Author

- Paul Linus is an eminent online journalist who has been writing news, features and editorials on different websites from across the world for about a decade. He can be contacted at knowledgeherald@gmail.com

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