For New Year’s week, the Asheville Film Society has picked W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934), a film that covers both Christmas and New Year’s. This is the first—and easily the best—of the famous comedy/mystery series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the tippling married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. Not overproduced like the second film and not prone to the increasing cuteness of the ones that followed, this first entry is just right. It’s still fresh—though its mystery may not be—thanks to its stars and because, now as then, a married couple who have a good time and enjoy each other’s company is something rarely seen in movies. It’s fast, funny, completely unpretentious and totally delightful.
The Thin Man is the only of the films that comes from a literary source. The book was written by Dashiell Hammett, and came out the same year the film was made. Hammett based Nick and Nora on himself and playwright Lillian Hellman, though it could hardly be called autobiographical, since the mystery story is entirely fabricated—even though the drinking, the banter and references to Nick as having been a detective are not. MGM merely bought the book—standard practice for studios at the time—with notions of turning it into little more than a high-end B movie. Thanks to a witty screenplay, Van Dyke’s fast-paced direction and the chemistry of Powell and Loy, however, they got a little bit of real-movie magic.
The plot finds retired (he married money) detective Nick Charles and wife Nora on holiday spending Christmas in New York City. There Nick gets dragged into a case involving eccentric inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), whose mistress, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead), was murdered in the first reel. Wynant himself—an old client of Nick’s—has disappeared. The police think he did it. His largely estranged family enlist Nick’s unwilling aid. The mystery is functional enough, but it’s not the reason for the film’s longevity. No, that’s entirely due to the parade of quirky—sometimes weird—characters and the way Nick and Nora react to them, and the way they react to each other. People like to talk about movies you need to see before you die. Well, this is one of them.
And let’s settle something right now—William Powell is not the Thin Man of the title. That’s Clyde Wynant. The confusion on this point starts with the sequel films. In reality, After the Thin Man (1936) actually means that the story is what happened after the first film. Another Thin Man (1939) means another Thin Man movie. From there, the distinction gets blurry and by The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), the series gives in to the misconception and becomes part of it.