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Dashiell Hammett
author

The Thin Man
novel

The Maltese Falcon
novel

The Maltese Falcon
movies

 

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The Thin Man (1934 DVD) Buy in Canada
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The Complete Thin Man Collection (1934-47, DVD)
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The Thin Man (1934 VHS)
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After the
Thin Man
(1936 VHS)
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Another Thin Man (1939 VHS)
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Shadow of
the Thin Man
(1941 VHS)
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  1934 The Thin Man
dir. W.S. Van Dyke, writ. Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy
  1936 After the Thin Man
dir. W.S. Van Dyke, writ. Dashiell Hammett, Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart
  1939 Another Thin Man
dir. W.S. Van Dyke, writ. Dashiell Hammett, Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy
  1941 Shadow of the Thin Man
dir. W.S. Van Dyke, writ. Harry Kurnitz, Irving Brecher, featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy
  1945 The Thin Man Goes Home
dir. Richard Thorpe, writ. Robert Riskin, Harry Kurnitz, Dwight Taylor, featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy
  1947 Song of the Thin Man
dir. Edward Buzzell, writ. Stanley Roberts, Steve Fisher, Nat Perrin, featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Keenan Wynn
  1957
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The Thin Man
television series featuring Peter Lawford, Phyllis Kirk
     

The Thin Man

I think someone should try to make another film of Hammett's The Thin Man. Though I can understand why they don't. The existing black-and-white movie of The Thin Man is wonderful. Chances are Hollywood would screw up any remake. The chemistry that occurred in 1934 with a great mystery novel for the story, a witty script and, most importantly, the interplay of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles—it could never be replicated.

So why do I think there's room for a new adaptation? Because a harder story is available in the novel. The film knocks off the book's roughest edges and plays up the comedy. Admittedly it is based on Hammett's most light-hearted novel, and the film is about as adult and sophisticated as a popular film could be in the 1930s, given the morality code imposed on Hollywood then. But I'd like to see a grittier effort in which I could believe Nick Charles mixed it up with real underworld characters, who aren't all good-hearted under their gruff veneers. His high-class wife could still love him despite—be drawn to him because of—his unsavoury connections, but there would be more of a pathological feel to it. And it could still be a comedy, perhaps in the vein of Get Shorty or some other screwball crime film of the type popular in the 1990s.

Okay, maybe it's a bad idea. The Powell-Loy flick is a delight I can easily live with as the only Nick-and-Nora screen presentation, and for more realistic stories I'll stick to adaptations of Elmore Leonard.

Despite being a throwback to a more innocent age, The Thin Man still holds up as great entertainment. It's fast-paced, almost breathtakingly so for the first half as characters are quickly introduced, killed off and suspected. The Charles's life is dissolutely madcap as they race from gin-joints to alcoholic parties to murder scenes, cracking jokes all the way. Some of the jokes are corny now, as when Nick does a spit take over Nora complaining about a cop looking "in my drawers", but most of the repartee is as quick and clever as you'll ever hear on screen. Powell seems to be having a ball, slurring and tottering his way through the script with martini in one hand and highball in the other, and then immediately turning razor-sharp whenever his detecting skills are needed. Loy rolls with the punches (sometimes literally), her tart wit putting him down lovingly. One incredible scene sums it up: she walks into a room to find her hubby with his arms around a beautiful young woman. In any other Hollywood film, she'd be shocked and walk out, slamming the door, as part of a—ha ha—humourous misunderstanding. But Nora sticks her tongue out at Nick as he makes a face back at her over the young woman's shoulder. She knew he was just getting information. It's never referred to again. This is a couple supremely sure of each other despite their continual barbs.

Incredibly the film is said to have been made in fourteen days. MGM gave it a tiny budget and direction in the person of W.S. "One-Take-Woody" Van Dyke, a veteran from the silent-movie days known for his speed. (Maybe that's why the scenes move so quickly.) But it garnered four Academy Awards nominations: for actor Powell, director Van Dyke, writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and best picture.

It was such a box-office smash that it gave rise to five sequels: After the Thin Man (1936, costarring a young Jimmy Stewart), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947, costarring Jayne Meadows, Keenan Wynn and a very, very young Dean Stockwell). The films are progressively weaker but only slightly so and still diverting—at least until about 1945 when Nick starts uncovering Nazi plots. Van Dyke had died in 1943, leaving direction to others.

Following the first film, Hammett wrote the stories for After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man. After that the films are said to be "based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett". The later films show the Charleses becoming more respectable. They feature less of their boozing, flirting and other misbehaving that had provided much of the hilarity in the novel and earlier films.

A minor complaint about the sequels is that their titles give the impression that Nick is the "thin man". The "thin man" is in fact a suspect in the first mystery and does not reappear in later stories.

Great series overall though. Hey, it took The Matrix only one sequel before it began to seriously suck. The Thin Man series goes from terrific to very good to okay over a period of six films.

Powell and Loy had such screen magic between them that they made several other successful films together, mainly comedies but sometimes involving mystery as well. They're probably the most prolific, big-name, movie couple ever, beating out even Tracy and Hepburn.

Although Hammett's characters have never been resurrected on celluloid, they have appeared in other media. A popular Thin Man series ran on radio from 1941 to 1950, with some early scripts written by Hammett. There was also The Thin Man television program in the late 1950s with Peter Lawford as Nick and Phyllis Kirk as Nora. The seventy half-hour episodes were light stuff but sported engaging banter between the leads.

And let's not forget all the male-female detective teams on later television shows who tried to recapture the Charles magic: Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting.... They never quite got it though. Never drank enough in my opinion.

In the movies, Hammett's sleuthing duo were parodied along with other famous detectives in Neil Simon's Murder By Death (1976). David Niven and Maggie Smith played "Dick and Dora Charleston". Good for one or two more laughs.

— Eric

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© Copyright 2002–2004 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.

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