If there’s one murder mystery where nobody cares whodunit, it has to be The Thin Man. Why waste time puzzling over clues when you could be enjoying William Powell and Myrna Loy, and their portrayal of glamorous detectives Nick and Nora Charles? The scenes everybody remembers from this sparkling pre-Code comedy-drama are all about Nick and Nora – and, of course, their wire-haired terrier, Asta.
For the uninitiated, the film centres on supposedly retired private detective Nick Charles, who has given up the day job to concentrate on enjoying life with his rich wife. Or so he thinks – but, inevitably, when the couple leave their San Francisco home and visit his native New York to stay in a grand hotel suite there over Christmas, the festivities get mixed up with solving one last crime. Which will lead to plenty more “last crimes” in a series of sequels. There is a fine supporting cast, including Maureen O’Sullivan as a lovelorn young girl and Nat Pendleton as a comic detective, and the murder mystery is well done in itself, leading up to a scene round the dinner table where Nick brings all the suspects together before revealing the killer. However, it isn’t what anybody remembers the film for. Few people even remember that the phrase “The Thin Man” is actually supposed to refer to a character involved in the murder mystery, a complicated tangle about an eccentric scientist suspected of killing his ex-lover, and not to William Powell.
Nick and Nora’s whole relationship is conjured up in their first scene together (not the opening of the film, as the mystery has already started). Nick is drinking lazily in a bar, demonstrating how to shake the perfect Martini, when Nora bursts in, dragged by Asta the dog on his lead, scattering packages from her Christmas shopping trip and landing up on the floor. He introduces her: “Oh, it’s all right, Joe. It’s all right. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife. ” Nora retorts: “Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing. ” Their dry humour and enjoyment of one another’s quirks are all there in that moment. This scene also hints at the couple’s chalk-and-cheese quality – her rich background, his streetwise knowledge of the sleazier side of life. The Thin Man is regarded as one of the first screwball comedies, and you can imagine Nick and Nora as one of the unlikely couples thrown together by events in a film like Capra’s great It Happened One Night, released the same year. The private eye and the heiress. However, where most romantic comedies up to this point had ended with the wedding, The Thin Man begins with the couple comfortably married – and no need for any unlikely comic misunderstandings, either. This couple understand each other perfectly.
The film is adapted from Dashiel Hammett’s hardboiled mystery novel – he is said to have based the central couple on his own on-off relationship with Lillian Hellman. However, the book and film have very different flavours. Hammett’s book was actually his last novel and there is a bitter flavour at times to his taut prose, especially in the final pages where his world-weary Nick explains that solving a case doesn’t really solve anything: “Murder doesn’t round out anybody’s life except the murdered’s and sometimes the murderer’s.” “That may be,” Nora said, “but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.”
Some of the seamier aspects of the novel’s plot are ironed out/skated over in the film, and, above all, Nick and Nora’s relationship is made steadier and sweeter. In the book, there are suggestions that Nick has a complicated sexual past and indeed it might even be impinging on the present. (Nora jokes about him going off with a redhead at a party the previous night.) In the film there is no glimpse of this – despite and above all the dry humour at one another’s expense, their marriage is rock-solid. Much of this is down to director WS “Woody” Van Dyke, who took the decision to concentrate on the Nick/Nora relationship rather than the mystery plot, and brought in husband-and-wife writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to do so, instructing them to add in more comic scenes for the couple. They drew on their own married life to do so. (Van Dyke had already worked with the same writers on the previous year’s Penthouse, also starring Myrna Loy, which is a similar blend of detective story and comedy-romance and definitely worth a look for fans of The Thin Man films.)
Van Dyke was also the one who decided to cast William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora – he had worked with the two on Manhattan Melodrama earlier in the year and had noticed that they had a great chemistry together and enjoyed a witty banter with one another in between takes. However, MGM bosses were not keen on this casting, and eventually only agreed to free Loy up for the part if the film was made in double-quick time (according to TCM’s article on the movie, in the end it is said to have taken between 12 and 18 days) so that she could go on to her next role. Fortunately, Van Dyke was known as “One-take” – pretty much the opposite of Wyler with all his famous retakes – and was able to complete the film within that tight framework. It’s said he felt actors often had greater freshness on the first take and on occasion he even printed a rehearsal if he felt the actor had got it right. Watching The Thin Man, you would never know that it was made at such speed. It’s all very stylish, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe and art direction by Cedric Gibbons, and creates a world that you can easily dream of living in, leaning at the bar in one of those speakeasies and shaking up a cocktail.
Which brings me on to the drinking. In Hammett’s novel, Nick drinks in the style of other hardboiled detectives like Hammett’s own Sam Spade, and, however wittily the drinking bouts are portrayed, he is clearly an alcoholic, knocking back whisky for breakfast. Nick – and Nora too – also drink with abandon in the film, but you never feel there is a real problem; the free-flowing booze is all part of their seductive lifestyle and, coming soon after the repeal of Prohibition, one of the things which makes them modern and daring. What’s more, it helps to stop them being too perfect – a couple who knock back the Martinis like that can hardly fall into the trap of smugness. As they are staying in a hotel and it is Christmas, there is no need really to worry about hangovers, addiction and everyday life; the couple and the audience can just enjoy it all.
The movie came out during the Great Depression, so there was a danger that people with no money could be turned off by this rich couple with their hotel suite and Nora’s fur coat – but their dry humour, often at their own expense, guarded against this reaction and meant most people would end up loving rather than envying them. OK, maybe a bit of both. One thing which many people did envy them was the dog, adorable wire-haired terrier Asta – who adds to the couple’s appeal without giving them all the trappings of domesticity that go with children. (A child did come along in a later film, and slowed them down, but not yet.) The same pet went on to star in other films like The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby, and the terriers became highly popular pets in real life. The classic final scene, with Nick and Nora on a long-distance train and Asta hiding his eyes on the top bunk, was so popular that it was reprised in the trailer for the second film, After the Thin Man, which started just where the first one left off. It was plain that the viewing public couldn’t get enough of Nick and Nora, and a whole series of films was born – as well as the seeds being sown for many more film and TV detective couples in the future.
This piece first appeared during the Comedy Countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website. Most of the pictures are gratefully taken from Doctor Macro.