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The Thin Man

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
1932

Literature form
Novel

Genres
Crime, mystery

Writing language
English

Author's country
United States

Length
Approx. 62,500 words

The Thin Man scene
Laid-back detective Nick Charles (William Powell) displays his skills for his wife Nora (Myrna Loy).

The Thin Man

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1934, 1936–1947

Soft-boiled romp

The Thin Man (1934): Director W.S. Van Dyke; writers Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich; featuring William Powell, Myrna Loy

I think someone should try to make another film of Dashiell 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 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.


Nick Charles talks to himself in charming trailer for 1936's The Thin Man.

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 humorous 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 the thrown-together film garnered four Academy Awards nominations: for actor Powell, director Van Dyke, writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and best picture.

— Eric McMillan

THE NOVEL | THE TEXT | THE MOVIES

1934, 1936–1947

See also:

Movies
The Maltese Falcon

Movies
The Big Sleep

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