Cinematic Century

1934 – The Thin Man

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We’re going to be talking about something very near and dear to my heart this week on Cinematic Century, folks. So far during this project I’ve talked about comedies, dramas, horror stories, and most genres in between. But there’s one genre that holds a special place in my heart that we just haven’t tackled yet. Film noir. If you’re at all familiar with my taste in movies from my other articles on this site you’ll know that I’m a huge sucker for noir, so it was just a matter of time before one of these wonderful movies would earn the honor of being my pick for favorite film of the year. And it’s certainly nice that the first entry in the genre is going to be a film based on a novel from one of the defining figures in noir’s literary world, the incomparable Dashiell Hammett. I’ve always been more of a Raymond Chandler man myself, but it’s impossible to deny the influence that Hammett has had on the noir hardboiled detective. That knowledge certainly was enough to convince me that The Thin Man deserved to be highlighted this week on Cinematic Century. But, besides that, it wasn’t a very competitive year. The only other film from 1934 I’ve seen is Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but while that film certainly shows the promise that Hitchcock had as a storyteller, there’s just something about it that’s never connected with me. Don’t worry, Hitchcock is going to be featured on this project quite a few times, but his earlier works can often feel rather glacial, not quite reaching the heights that his career would reach rather quickly. I know that It Happened One Night holds a pretty esteemed place in cinematic history, what with being the first film to sweep all the prestigious Oscars, but screwball comedies are kind of a mixed bag for me, and I’ve never been interested enough in the film to give it a shot. That’ll change someday, but I can’t imagine that the wackiness of that film can compete with the charming goofiness of the Thin Man.

Like I said earlier, the Thin Man is based off of the final full-length novel that Dashiell Hammett ever wrote. Hammett is an interesting figure, having actually worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency for several years before taking his real-life experiences to the pages of the pulps, crafting some of the most memorable and long-lasting bits of detective fiction of all time. He’s a towering figure in the hardboiled detective genre, but with his final novel he did things a little differently. Instead of gruff detectives working their way through dark and twisted reflections of the criminal underworlds of their times, Hammett decided to go a little lighter. Pulling from his often tumultuous and quick-witted romance with playwright Lillian Hellman, Hammett created two new protagonists, Nick and Nora Charles, a married couple who were thrown into a murder case, and remained blissfully drunk and full of quips the entire time. It’s certainly the lightest of Hammett’s novels, and it was translated wonderfully, and quickly, to the silver screen. Director WS Van Dyke and real-life screenwriting couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich worked together to bring Hammett’s vision to life, and it seemed like everyone involved knew that the key to making this film work was to keep the wit and levity intact. Van Dyke insisted on a loose set, encouraging improv and letting the actors play with the roles, making the film as quick-paced and fun as it possibly could be, while also paying careful attention to the mystery. And it paid off. The Thin Man was a massive success, both critically and commercially, and even got nominated for the Best Picture award that It Happened One Night scooped up. It’s then gone on to become a defining film in the noir genre, spinning off into a franchise of sequels and even a television show. And it’s easy to understand why, because this film is an absolute delight.

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The Thin Man begins with a newly engaged woman named Dorothy Wynant stopping by the laboratory of her scientist father, Clyde Wynant, to introduce him to her fiance. Clyde is thrilled at the news, and promised to be at her wedding, despite the tense relationship that he has with Dorothy’s mother, his ex-wife Mimi. And, once he’s done talking with Dorothy, he begins plans for a secret business trip. But that’s derailed when Wynant realizes that a significant amount of money of his has been stolen by his mistress, Julia Wolff. Wynant discusses things with his lawyer, MacCaulay, and goes to confront Julia. He does his best to scare her, telling her that it’s all over between them, and then seems to vanish without a trace. Later that year, around Christmas, Dorothy has become worried, because her wedding is rapidly approaching and Clyde hasn’t been seen in months. She has no idea what to do, and no one else in her life seems particularly concerned about Clyde Wynant’s disappearance. But, fortune shines on her when she notices a familiar face in a hotel bar. It’s Nick Charles, a famous detective who once helped her father. Nick is retired now, living a life of leisure with his socialite wife Nora, but Dorothy does her best to convince him to look into Clyde’s disappearance. He tries to tell her that it’s all just a coincidence, and that she should just keep faith that Clyde will return in time for the wedding.

But, things get a little stranger when Mimi decides to look into Julie Wolff herself. Not out of any altruistic feelings, or curiosity about her ex-husband’s fate, but because she wants the money that Wolff stole. When she gets to Wolff’s apartment though, Mimi finds her dead, stabbed to death, and with all signs pointing to Clyde being the murderer. The story becomes a bit of a tabloid sensation at that point, and the entire town begins talking about the murder of Julia Wolff and the possible location of Clyde Wynant. And that story ends up getting the attention of Nick Charles, who just can’t believe that Wynant could be a killer. However, he doesn’t really care enough to actually begin investigating, choosing instead to continue his debaucherous lifestyle with Nora and their dog Asta. This doesn’t stop countless people from assuming he’s involved in the case though. Everyone from a police lieutenant, the press, Dorothy, Julia, and Julia’s new husband Chris Jorgenson all are convinced that Nick is secretly on the case. And, since everyone who could possibly be involved in the case keep showing up to talk to him, he decides to take advantage of that, and actually begins investigating. This is prodded along by Nora, who finds the whole thing fascinating, and really wants to watch her husband solve a murder mystery.

Nick and Nora then begin travelling all around the city, looking for some clue that will finally make some sense of the case. No one has been able to find Clyde Wynant, and Nick is still convinced that he had nothing to do with it. Every person in Julia and Wynant’s life seems to be suspicious, but none of it is adding up. And, to make matters even stranger, when Nick goes poking around in Wynant’s old laboratory he ends up stumbling on Wynant’s ex-partner being sketchy and hiding things, and a dead body! The body is a skeleton, but the clothes around it indicate a large man, possibly a man who previously tried to kill Wynant and who vanished. Now everyone thinks that Wynant has killed two people, and the story is spinning wildly out of control. But Nick is still convinced that Wynant is innocent, and he now thinks he knows what’s going on. So, Nick and Nora call a dinner party, with the help of the police, and bring every person involved in the Wolff killing into one room to work through it. Nick begins throwing around deductions, solving a lot of loose ends. He shows that Wynant’s ex-partner had been having an affair with Julia, he explains that Mimi’s new husband is actually already married and just trying to con her, and most importantly he tells them that Wynant wasn’t the one who killed Julia Wolff. And how does he know that? Why, because the dissolved corpse they found in Wynant’s laboratory was in fact Wynant. Some shrapnel in his knee confirmed that for Nick. It turns out that Wynant had stumbled upon an invention that could make him very wealthy, and the way that his marital status was, and the way his will was created, the person who would have benefited from that the most was his lawyer, MacCaulay. Nick reveals that McCaulay was the killer, and wraps everything up, giving Nora a hell of an adventure.

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This film is an absolute delight. It’s the kind of movie that you watch with a grin plastered on your face for the entire run-time, getting carried up in its story and characters. Watching this film and I can instantly understand how this became a six-film franchise, and it kind of blows my mind that people haven’t tried to remake this film. We get a fun murder mystery solved by a boozy and lovable couple in between rapid-fire quips. What’s not to love about that? It’s a very tightly paced noir narrative on top of all of that, very closely adapted from Hammett’s novel. Plus, we get one of those classic endings where we all get to sit around a room while the brilliant detective show off what he has figured out. Everyone in the story is sufficiently suspicious, and it’s a mystery that keeps you guessing to the very end. Not all of the acting has aged particularly well, some of it saturated in that early-Talkie awkwardness where they’re all just talking too fast and in very strange accents. But, the film is certainly carried by the delightful performances from William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Their chemistry and charisma coupled with a really fun an thrilling detective plot were enough to make this film an absolute treasure, leading to a whole franchise following these characters.

Which is a hard needle to thread. I’ve seen a handful of films from the thirties and forties that seem related to this film, a subgenre that really doesn’t exist anymore. The fast-paced romantic comedy. It’s a very complicated genre to master, and really only people like Cary Grant seem to consistently make it work for me. But, in this case, I found that the screwball nature of this genre meshed very nicely with the hardboiled genre, becoming a bit of synthesis that ended up working out beautifully. In the coming months of this project we’ll dip time and time again into the noir well, and it’ll become very evident that while I enjoy a straight-forward noir, my personal favorite type of hardboiled story is one that subverts the tropes a tad, and tries to add in something special. And the idea of having a charming couple in the place of the gruff and grizzled gumshoe is one idea that worked very well for me. Hammett’s novel is quite fun too, but there’s something about this film that takes the boozy repartee of the Charles’ and amps it up to eleven. Honestly, a big part of that could be the idea that Van Dyke encouraged improv on the set, letting Powell and Loy act as natural as possible. If I have one criticism of noir it’s that often the protagonists don’t seem to recognize how ridiculous the series of events that they’ve been tossed into truly are. But not here. No, here we have two people who are equipped to solve the case, but have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it, because they know just how strange and convoluted the whole thing will be. It’s a movie that winks and nods to the audience, letting us know that everything happening on screen is outlandish, so why not keep your tongue firmly rooted in cheek? It helps with the insanity.

The Thin Man was written by Albert Hacket & Frances Goodrich, directed by W. S. Van Dyke, and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934.

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