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Review: The Thin Man

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The recent DVD release of the Thin Man box set has given me the opportunity to begin filling in a sorely lacking area of my movie knowledge. I’d never seen a Thin Man movie before, and I was happy to see that my local video store had the entire set available for rental. I’ve only watched the original film so far, 1934’s The Thin Man, but I can already tell that I’ll be enjoying the entire series (there are five more to go!).

First, a nerdy observation: the phrase “the Thin Man” doesn’t actually refer to the main character, Nick Charles, does it? In this first film, it’s clearly a phrase applied to the character Clyde Wynant, who goes missing early on. (In fact, the IMDb page names the character “Clyde Wynant, the thin man”.) So why name all the sequels after a non-recurring character? I could ask the same of the later Pink Panther sequels, I guess, which are named after a diamond that doesn’t appear in them, and probably get the same answer: who cares? Hey, no need to get defensive! Just making an observation.

Not only is this the first Thin Man film I’ve seen, I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen either William Powell (as Nick Charles) or his partner, Myrna Loy (as Nora Charles). (No, wait, I’ve seen Powell in Mister Roberts.) Powell is very funny and charming as the wise-cracking, reluctant detective, and Loy matches him quip for quip (and drink for drink), plus: my goodness, she’s lovely, isn’t she? They have ridiculously easy, believable, well-developed chemistry, and play off one another perfectly; it’s no wonder audiences were charmed enough with the pair to demand five sequels.

The mystery itself isn’t very interesting. I figured out whodunnit almost instantly (in these early detective movies, it’s almost always the nicest, least suspectable of the suspects); but it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. The entertainment comes from the way Nick and Nora Charles approach the case and life: with carefree abandonment, always light-hearted, always inebriated (these two drink more than Hemingway and Bukowski put together), always with a one-liner at the ready. My favorite bit, and probably the most quoted line in the movie, comes the night after Nick has been grazed by a bullet. He and Nora read the papers, and he says, “I’m a hero, I was shot two times in the Tribune.” “I saw where you were shot five times in the tabloids,” Nora observes. “It’s not true,” Nick replies with a sly grin, “he never came near my tabloids.”

There’s maybe a little too much plot getting in the way of the action (as Joe Bob would say); the mystery is convoluted, and I was puzzled by one character, Nunheim, whom the other characters seem to be aware of before they let the audience in on it. But that doesn’t diminish the fun of seeing Nick demonstrate how a martini should be shaken to a fox-trot beat, or watching Nora, catching Nick in the middle of a bender, ordering five martinis at once to catch up, or seeing the cute faces the two make at one another throughout. Powell and Loy are an electric screen couple, and I can’t wait to watch the first sequel, 1936’s After the Thin Man. Bonus: Jimmy Stewart co-stars in that one!

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About Tom the Dog

  • All of the Thin Man films I’ve seen have been pure joy, but the first one is a real gem.

    You should read the Hammett novel as well. Its not quite as breezy and hilarious, but it’t a terrific piece of work, as is pretty much everything Hammett wrote.

    Thanks for the review of one of my old favorites. Hope you continue reviewing the whole series.