Thursday 4 February 2010

The Thin Man (1934)

Director: W S Van Dyke
Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendleton and Minna Gombell
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

W S Van Dyke II, better known within the industry as 'One-Take Woody' because of the speed at which he worked, was given three weeks by MGM to shoot The Thin Man but he only needed twelve days. After all the studio weren't expecting a lot from the project, merely another picture, nothing special. Hollywood studios churned films out in 1934 and most of them were only expected to break even and maybe make a little profit, before being forgotten in favour of the next week's picture. This one did far more than expected, however, not least at the box office where the $231,000 it cost to make turned into $1.4m in ticket receipts. Originally a B movie, it was nonetheless nominated for four Oscars, including one for Best Picture. It spawned five sequels of surprisingly high quality and even began a trend in dog ownership, it suddenly becoming the height of fashion to own a wire haired fox terrier like Asta, the dog in this film.

In 2004 I didn't know what to expect from The Thin Man, knowing only that it was a detective story, though presumably a good one, given that it's an IMDb Top 250 movie and the script was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, the virtual creator of the hardboiled detective genre in literature. A former private dick himself, he turned his experience into such successful novels as The Maltese Falcon, another literary classic that became a cinematic classic, albeit on the third attempt, Hollywood remakes not being a modern phenomenon. However The Thin Man is far from being a hardboiled tale and its hero, retired detective Nick Charles, is just as far from being Sam Spade, the tough hero of The Maltese Falcon.

Charles would feel far more at home shelved next to those amateur detectives from the English upper classes that crop up throughout Victorian literature than with Sam Spade and his ilk. To see the difference between the two types, watch Neil Simon's masterful parody Murder By Death which spoofs both Sam Spade (as Sam Diamond) and Nick and Nora Charles (as Dick and Dora Charleston). Simon has Dick Charleston avoid death by virtue of his incredibly good breeding while Sam Diamond is just brutally honest, working the streets tirelessly for his forty bucks a day plus expenses. It's testament to Hammett's reach that he defined both styles.

I should point out that Nick Charles is not the Thin Man of the title, though that would be an easy mistake to make, especially given that all five sequels to this film also included the Thin Man in their titles too. This is utterly misleading because the real Thin Man only appears in this first entry in the series, and then not for long. He's Clyde Wynant, some sort of scientist who invents smelting processes and such, but he quickly disappears from the story, apparently closing up his shop and leaving for parts unknown. He's an absent-minded sort, but not enough to forget his daughter Dorothy's imminent marriage, so she's more than a little worried about his conspicuous absence.

Wynant is divorced, having embarked on an affair with his secretary, Julia Wolf, but she's been taking him for a ride, one that he discovers at the beginning of this film when he realises that $50,000 of government bonds are missing from his safe, to which only he and Julia knew the combination. To make matters worse, when he goes to confront her about it and demand their return, he finds her with a mobster by the name of Morelli, who she's been carrying on with. And that's the end of him. As Julia is such a bad sort, we wonder if he should have stayed with his wife, Mimi, but she turns out to be worth little more.

She's now Mrs Jorgensen, married to a gigolo called Chris who has no money. He wants his wife to get it, preferably from her ex-husband, but of course he's nowhere to be found, merely wiring for cash every now and again through his secretary. His accountant dutifully sends it but can't help but worry himself. And all these shenanigans eventually progress to murder, as you might expect. The first victim is Julia Wolf, and given that she's left clutching Wynant's distinctive watch chain, he becomes the lead suspect. Fortunately for young Dorothy, who is merely trying to get married while this tangle of murder and intrigue unfolds around her, she recognises Nick Charles in a bar.
And here the story really begins, because while the mystery is a capable one, what really sets this film apart from all others is the amazing pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, one of the great screen couples of all time, which to my mind trumps others like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, or to more modern audiences, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. The husband and wife banter, apparently based on Hammett's own relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, is a joy to behold, and the way in which Powell and Loy bring that dialogue to life is the primary reason that this film was so successful.

Powell was a major name already in 1934, having debuted in the silents twelve years earlier and successfully transitioned to sound, becoming in the process a genuine recognisable star for his portrayals of detective Philo Vance. Myrna Loy had followed a similar path, though she arrived three years later than Powell. Memorable for many exotic roles, she found herself typecast in that sort of character and urgently needed something different to progress in the business. She found it in a screen partnership with Powell that spanned fourteen films, most notably this one, their second together after Manhattan Melodrama, which they made earlier the same year with Clark Gable. Two years later she would literally be crowned Queen of Hollywood, with Gable her King.

Far from being just a detective story, The Thin Man is also a comedy, something of a screwball comedy too or perhaps a highball comedy, given just how much drinking is going on. When we meet Nick Charles, he's been retired for four years so as to be able to devote his time to being equal parts husband and drunken sot, and he's more than a little devoted to each. We first find him teaching bartenders how to shake martinis and every time he's introduced to someone in this initial scene, he immediately calls for another glass. Much of his dialogue, at least that doesn't tie specifically to the investigation he doesn't want to get involved with, is related to drink and much of it is hilarious. In fact, as his wife points out to the increasingly disbelieving press, the only case he wants to be involved with is a case of scotch.

More alcohol is consumed during the 91 minute running time of this film than in any W C Fields movie I've seen thus far, perhaps in all of them put together. Nick is so dedicated to the art of drinking that we can't help but wonder how his wife puts up with him, but she soon arrives to show us that she's of the same mind. When she finds out that he's already on his sixth martini, she orders five more to accompany the one he's already called for, just so she can catch up. Prohibition ended in the US in 1933 but we're given the impression that Nick and Nora are still celebrating its demise over a year later and sure enough they'd still be celebrating it thirteen years on in Song of the Thin Man, the last of the series.
It's hard to imagine it now, given that Myrna Loy has become one of my favourite actresses and I'm over fifty films into her career, but this was my first experience of her work. Juliette Lewis, in a segment for Turner Classic Movies, called Loy a chameleon, an actress who instinctively altered her entire style to balance her leading man. I can buy into that with hindsight, given how different she was in her exotic era and how different she became later. She's far more physical when playing opposite William Powell than in many of her later movies, which often saw her act with her face rather than her body. Here, from her initial entrance which sees her sprawled out on the barroom floor, Christmas presents sent akimbo, she gives us a lot of body acting too.

If Loy is superb, Powell is even better. One of those four Oscar nominations was for him and it was justly deserved, though he lost out to Clark Gable for It Happened One Night. His dialogue is sheer genius, not just how it's written but how it's delivered, so much of it not just the words but the subtle pauses too. He could always switch from genre to genre without apparently blinking and here he gets to do that in the very same movie, moving seamlessly from drunken parties to serious investigations. Myrna Loy gets serious moments too but is kept away from the dangerous side of things by her husband as much as is humanly possible. At one point he even locks her in a cab and asks the driver to take her to Grant's tomb, just to keep her out of the way.

There are plenty of names to back here them up, some of whom are far more successful than others, Natalie Moorhead and Minna Gombell hamming it up something rotten as Julia Wolf and Mimi Jorgenson respectively. The biggest supporting name at the time was Maureen O'Sullivan, who plays Dorothy. She was still relatively new in 1934 but had already made quite a stir as Jane in the first two Tarzan movies, the first of which was also directed by Woody Van Dyke. She'd marry director John Farrow two years later and provide him with seven children, including Mia Farrow. Lt John Guild is Nat Pendleton, not the sharpest copper in the book but a couple of leagues above the usual level he got to play at. Harold Huber, Cesar Romero and Edward Brophy are recognisable faces too who, like Pendleton, just keep turning up in seemingly no end of thirties movies. Everyone was more prolific then, it seems, especially when they were supporting actors by trade.

Each of them seems to play someone who ends up on the barbed end of one of Nick's witticisms, which are so rapid fire here that you'll need to watch the film twice just to keep up with them. To be fair Nora gets plenty of gems too, possibly even more than Nick given that she has to ground everything he says. When Nick asks her 'How'd you like Grant's tomb?' she replies, 'It's lovely, I'm having a copy made for you.' 'What's that man doing in my drawers?' she asks him as the police search their hotel room. 'Will you serve the nuts,' she prompts the waiter at the dinner party that provides our finale, only to realise that she needs to clarify, 'I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts.'

This dinner party is the sophisticated way in which Nick gets to unmask the killer. Instead of the traditional English drawing room, in which all the suspects are gathered for the denouement, he has the police summon or haul them all to a civilised dinner to begin unravelling the case over oysters. Powell in particular shines throughout this scene of explanations, keeping everyone on their toes, including us. Just watching this scene, with Powell's mastery of cleverly timed delivery, it's patently obvious that the sequels were going to come. In fact we almost don't care that there's a murder mystery going on and we're watching the killer be cleverly exposed, because we're just caught up in the joy of the dialogue.

Massively impressed with this film in 2004, I returned to it in 2006 and again in 2010, and it still stands up just as well as ever. By the time the dinner scene arrived, let alone by the time it finished, I couldn't help but wish I had the five sequels lined up and ready to go, followed by the other eight movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together. Every time I see them play opposite each other I feel more than entertained, I feel enriched. They're like old friends, with whom life can only be a joy, and they were never better together than here.

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