“What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” ~ William Powell as Nick Charles
“I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” ~ Myrna Loy as Nora Charles
With The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammet successfully crafted several archetypes that go beyond the basic pulpy film noir standards that he also helped to define. Nick and Nora Charles were a cinematic power couple even before the word was in vogue and as their real life counterparts, William Powell and Myrna Loy were quite the pair in their own right being matched in a mind-boggling 14 films together.
The Thin Man became one of the most beloved pairings, helmed by W.S. Van Dyke and spawning a wildly popular series of sequels that continued throughout the 30s and 40s. At the very least it suggested that it was not so much the story lines but more so the characters that resonated with the general public.
It’s true that casting William Powell as Nick Charles was one of the hand in glove situations. He had a certain dashing even debonair quality with his pencil mustache perfectly thrown askew by the scenarios he gets himself into. Above all, he has a witticism or lithe quip handy for any given situation. He’s a real riot at dinner parties. One of those men who has a perpetual smirk on his face.
But Myrna Loy is just as impeccably cast as his fun-loving wife who is as game as he is to have a rip-roaring good time. She’s constantly keeping up with his droll wit while continually chiding him good-naturedly to get back into the amateur detective game.
For the time, with no children to speak of, their beloved wire terrier Asta (the famed Skippy who was also featured in other such classics as The Awful Truth and Bringing up Baby) rounds out their happy clan.
It really is a strategic depiction of marriage and family circa 1934. The Great Depression still had a fresh imprint on the nation and yet in Nick and Nora you see no indication of any such malaise. Their days are spent drinking martinis and gallivanting around town while their nights are filled with fancy dinner parties and the occasional crime caper.
These forms have been so often parodied to this day but at the time it seems obvious that The Thin Man whether subconsciously or not was an escapist fantasy that indulged the desires of those less fortunate. Because if nothing else, they could at least spend some fun taking a load off and joining the Charles for an enjoyable evening. Everyone laughs. Cops and citizens have close knit connections. Excessive drinking is only a delightful diversion. The only ones who were in need were the slothful and the greedy.
Although The Thin Man employs admittedly incomprehensible plotting at times it’s hardly a knock. So many characters get thrown in and chatted about it becomes difficult to keep them all straight much less figure out what their bearing on the plot is. And it is the oddest cross section of individuals to be sure.
Much like The Third Man, this precursor, The Thin Man acts as a nifty MacGuffin in a pinch, driving the plot forward with his spectral presence. The fact he’s hardly on screen does not detract from his overall importance in this film. Meanwhile, his invested daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan), wife, mistress, and various other involved parties all get tossed around as culprits and accomplices including Porter Hall and Cesar Romero.
While not noir in the typical sense James Wong Howe’s photography does give the film certain dark sensibilities at times to contrast with the plethora of more comic moments in drawing rooms and the like. It also shares in the tradition of Agatha Christie and other such detective fiction narratives with bits of amateur sleuthing and all the subjects rounded up for a dinner party so the culprit might be revealed.
But what The Thin Man truly explored was the capabilities of crime when paired with comedy. In some sense here is a film where you have certain screwball aspects but I hesitate to call this film a true screwball just as I hesitate to call this a gangster picture though there are cops and thugs.
It’s that immaculate blending of comedy and crime that makes The Thin Man go down like a perfectly mixed martini. It was the charisma of Powell and Loy that allowed the series to exist well beyond the parameters of a one hit wonder.