Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Thin Man directed by W.S. Van Dyke (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Thin Man (1934). Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich from the novel The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.

This first in the series — the only one actually adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel — set the stage for the five sequels that followed. In The Thin Man we are quickly introduced to Nick and Nora Charles and their dog Asta (who became a star in his own right and is still a favorite of crossword puzzle creators) in a scene that typifies their relationship: the opening club scene.

From there on, William Powell and Myrna Loy are the best things on the screen. Their banter floats The Thin Man from being a normal sleuth picture to another level. I really believed that these two are a married couple. Or, rather, I realized that this was my idea of the perfect married couple.

The wordplay in The Thin Man gives a welcome break from the detection. For example, there is a particularly tense shootout in their apartment. The next morning they are reading about it in the papers:

Nick: "I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune."
Nora: "I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids."
Nick: "It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."

That is not to say that the crime doesn't matter. In fact, The Thin Man is the only one in the series that treats the murder inspection equally with the banter between the two main characters. It is therefore much darker than its successors. But a balance is struck by director W.S. Van Dyke between light and heavy that is perfect, whereas in the sequels the focus was placed more on Nick and Nora and barely gave lip service to the crimes.

The sequels are all fun, though, and I recommend the entire series without reservation. Although the quality does decline steadily throughout, Powell and Loy make these characters so enjoyable that you hardly notice.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director [W.S. Van Dyke], Best Actor [Powell], and Best Screenplay Adaptation [Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett]), but won none, losing all those awards to It Happened One Night.

(Incidentally, contrary to what the titles of the sequels would suggest, Nick Charles is not the Thin Man. It was how the character Clyde Wynant in this film was described in a police bulletin.)

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