The Thin Man (1934) / Mystery-Comedy
MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some violence
Running time: 91 min.
Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth, WIlliam Henry, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brody, Edward Ellis
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett)
MGM produced this sleeper-hit gem, based on the final book written by Dashiell Hammett, with a small-ish budget and a shooting schedule that lasted barely more than two weeks in length, but would generate enough buzz to become something of a phenomenon, becoming a series of films (six in all), not to mention spinning off into the realms of radio and television. Even with little initial promotion, it would garner such popularity, it would not only be a box office hit, but would also garner four Oscar nomination, including the vaunted Best Picture.
It's a mystery, and a good one, though its main pleasures lay not in the details of the crime or in discovering the culprit so much as the witty repartee of its stars, who quip and snip at each other in refreshing ways that would be emulated in murder mystery films and TV shows even to this day.
Even though the series would continue with "The Thin Man" in the titles (much as the way the Pink Panther series would), the thin man is not William Powell's character, but rather, the absent-minded professor who goes missing and whose whereabouts and activities provide the main plot of this film. That man's name is Clyde Wynant (Ellis, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), who is alarmed to discover that his secretary (and mistress), Julia Wolf (Moorhead, The Phantom of Paris), has stolen $50,000 from his safe. After a confrontation, he goes away and doesn't come back, spurning his daughter Dorothy (O'Sullivan, Hannah and Her Sisters) to seek a private detective to learn his whereabouts.
That detective, albeit reluctantly, is Nick Charles (Powell, My Man Godfrey), who has more or less retired from the game after 'marrying up' to his wealthy and attractive wife Nora (Loy, The Best Years of Our Lives), although the latter is quite enthusiastic at getting to the bottom of the mystery herself and coaxes him on. But soon, others who might know the solution to the mystery end up murdered as well, with all signs pointing to old man Wynant, who certainly had an axe to grind with the victims. This doesn't sit well with Nick, who finally puts down his martinis and takes action, and, along with Nora and loyal wire-haired terrier Asta, gets to the bottom of the mystery of Wynant's whereabouts, as well as exposing the person responsible for the murders.
The comical and romantic chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy sells much of the movie, and it's interesting to note that much of their interplay doesn't really push forward much of the plot. In fact, these moments generate momentum, rather than stall in lulls, precisely because we want to see these two continue their interplay while out on an adventure just to see just how much trouble they can get themselves into, and the clever ways they'll be able to get out of it. As well cast as the film is, they benefit from good humor, some of it quite bawdy by 1930s standards, by the team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, It's a Wonderful Life), who deliver sparkling dialogue for their characters without losing emphasis on the plot taken from the Hammett book, which they lift quite faithfully despite the Hollywood touches.
The Thin Man is a delight that, despite countless emulators, remains very entertaining today especially for fans of old Hollywood features and mysteries with a bantering romantic comedy backbone.
-- Followed by After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947). Also became a TV series in 1957.
©2012 Vince Leo