Synopsis: Nick and Nora Charles cordially invite you to bring your own alibi to The Thin Man, the jaunty whodunit that made William Powell and Myrna Loy the champagne elite of sleuthing. Bantering in the boudoir, enjoying walks with beloved dog Asta or matching each other highball for highball and clue for clue, they combined screwball romance with mystery. The resulting triumph nabbed four Academy Award® nominations (including Best Picture) and spawned five sequels. Credit W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke for recognizing that Powell and Loy were ideal together and for getting the studios okay by promising to shoot this splendid adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel in three weeks. He took 12 days. They didn’t call him “One-Take Woody” for nothing.
The Thin Man 8.25
Nick Charles: “The murderer is right in this room. Sitting at this table. You may serve the fish.”
My first exposure to ‘The Thin Man’ series was at the local library. Back in the day, they had the city’s best collection of laserdiscs, the grandfather of the DVD. And rentals were free. I eventually got myself a cheap laserdisc player just so as to take advantage of this opportunity – I mean, they probably had more variety than the local video store!
And that’s how I got really addicted to cinema, discovering all sorts of motion pictures, directors, actors and genres. Between this and the local art house cinema, I broadened my appreciation of cinema tremendously during those years. I saw my first Bergman and Pasolinis there, discovered early Kubrick, explored Cronenberg, and even picked up some cult classic TV shows (like ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and ‘The Prisoner’) there.
Some things remained at the back of my mind, however. I remembered ‘The Thin Man’ series quite vividly, even though I had never gotten around to it: it looked critically old-fashioned, the title was bland, and the covers were unassuming. It had left me so disinterested that, while many of them were consistently available, I just couldn’t be bothered with any of them.
But, many years later, after purging their shelves of these humongous digital discs, they picked up the ‘Thin Man’ collection on DVD. At one point, after getting a library card again, I got into a sickening mode of grabbing everything I could and cramming as much cinema as I could fit into each day. I picked up the boxed set, backed up the complete collection and, after going through my priority titles first, finally proceeded to explore ‘The Thin Man’.
I was spellbound by the first film and gobbled up the rest of the series in quick succession. I was a fan: I’ve since seen the whole series three or four times. After much searching, I recently bought the boxed set (it’s been out of print for a short while) and decided to revisit all of them – spreading the joy to one of my friends in the process, converting yet another to Nick and Nora’s charms.
What makes the film such a gas are William Powell and Myrna Loy’s interpretations of the leads. While they only show up a little later into the film, after the whole mystery has been set up, ‘The Thin Man’ would be barren if not for their turns as the retired detective and his rich spouse. Both are congenial and amusing, but they also throw an air of intelligence and class into the mix, making the characters especially appealing, disarming.
One couldn’t possibly ask for better casting. Powell is pitch-perfect as Nick: blasé, cynical and yet retaining a sparkle in his eye, remaining intrigued by the curious things taking place around him – he may be retired, but he can’t fight his instincts. Loy is absolutely terrific as Nora: she made her alluring, funny, worldly and smart. Loy invests Nora with a sparkle that is rare even today, and surely must have been standout in the mid-’30s.
Nora Charles: “Pretty girl.”
Nick Charles: “Yes. She’s a very nice type.”
Nora Charles: “You got types?”
Nick Charles: “Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
While the film revolves around a murder mystery, it’s firmly rooted in the dialogue – especially in Nick and Nora’s banter. The exchanges between the Charles are loads of fun, even if many of quips are now quite corny (I can only imagine just how hilarious this must have been was back when ). In fact, it’s one of the greatest strengths of the film, and it would eventually become a larger part of the series, no doubt based on its appeal.
I really have no clue if the original novel is anything like this, or if the humour was introduced in the adaptation process, but the end result is superior silver screen entertainment that gravitates around two equally powerful elements: the plot and its characters. ‘The Thin Man’ provides audiences with more than its peers usually tend to do, so it’s no wonder that it was as popular as it was then and is now considered a classic.
This mix was so popular, in fact, that it spawned FIVE sequels, a radio adaptation and a TV series featuring Peter Lawford. In recent years, there has even been talk of reviving the series with Johnny Depp in the lead. I could totally see him play the role – he has the look, the right age and the perfect twinkle in his eye to pull it off. And I would love to see Manon Cotillard join him as Nora; I think that they would make a fine duo.
Which leads me to the only thing that dampens the proceedings, if only slightly: the unbelievable amount of drinking that Nick and Nora do.
Nora Charles: “How many drinks have you had?”
Nick Charles: “This will make six Martinis.”
Nora Charles (to the waiter): “All right. Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.”
Nowadays, Nick and Nora would be considered alcoholics. And rightly so: they’re never fall-on-the-floor drunk, but they’re always drinking alcohol and sometimes appear tipsy – if only slightly.
It amazes me just how so much of the humour relies on the Charles’ drinking habits. I suppose that we still find vices funny to this day, but I guess it was likely more acceptable then, before public campaigns against drinking and driving took hold, before we, as a society, took on more responsibility with regards to the impact of alcoholism. It’s not nearly as funny now when we’re so aware of the damage that it can cause, that’s for sure.
And yet, ‘The Thin Man’ manages to elicit chuckles out of even a die-hard teetotaler such as myself. If taken in context, if one understands the era in which it was made, it still goes down quite smoothly; context is everything. One can’t help but wonder how it would fly today if, for instance, Johnny Depp does manage to get a remake greenlit. Would they have to whitewash this side of the characters for mass audience acceptance? Or would Depp’s star power prevent it from being Disney-fied?
Either way, I’m very keen on seeing ‘The Thin Man’ returned to the masses, if done properly; not only could it make for a terrific film, but I’d love to see the original (and its sequels) get more exposure – I think that they deserve it. In the meantime, however, I will gladly revisit ‘The Thin Man’ from time to time, either introducing it to friends or just watching it solo, late at night, relishing every line uttered by Nick and Nora Charles.
Nick Charles: “Now my friends, if I may propose a little toast. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Nora Charles: “You give such charming parties, Mr. Charles.”
Nick Charles: “Thank you, Mrs. Charles.”