#174 The Thin Man

(1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

“Can you tell us anything about the case?”
“Yes, it’s putting me way behind on my drinking”

I’d never heard of The Thin Man franchise before. Research tells me that this was a particularly big series of detective movies starring the married couple of Nick and Nora Charles. The names sounded familiar, although I didn’t know why. So I came into this first movie in the series completely unaware of the success the series had, so let’s see if it lives up to the hype it received in the 1930s.

Nick Charles (William Powell) is a retired detective who recently married Nora (Myrna Loy), an heiress, and is trying to settle into a simple life. However, an acquaintance of his, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), has gone missing, and Clyde’s secretary and mistress, Julia Wolf, has been found dead. This drags Nick back into action by those around him, much to the amusement of Nora.

Now, that plot sounds fairly clear-cut, but in reality it wasn’t. The movie didn’t start off in the best way, starting with Wynant at his workshop talking to employees and members of his family before he goes to visit Julia before SUDDENLY, it’s several months later and we’re with Nick and Nora at a party. What’s more, all of these introductions were surrounded by support characters popping their heads in and saying hi, so it became difficult to know who everybody was at first, and who exactly we should be focused on.

Once it was established that Nick and Nora were the real leads, I enjoyed the movie a little more. The way Powell and Loy interacted with each other was fantastic, feeling very much like a couple who enjoyed each other’s company and loved each other. Their sarcastic jabs at each other were amusing, and there were even a few touching moments such as Nora showing concern for Nick doing further investigation but trying to hide it. Their interactions really held the movie together.

Which is good, but little else held together. Due to the rush of characters jumping in our face early on, I lost track of them all. There were moments where I genuinely confused Wynant’s ex-wife and mistress due to similar dress styles, and other times when I confused his daughter’s husband and stepfather with each other too. The only characters that stood out were the aforementioned daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan), and her quirky brother Gilbert (William Henry). Everyone else kind of blended together, and made it difficult to accurately follow the plot.

But it’s a detective movie, right? So I must have enjoyed the investigation side of things, surely? The answer is, sadly, no. In fact, it was pretty difficult to tell why Nick was considered such an excellent detective, since he’s barely seen doing any actual detective work. He spends half the movie refusing to get involved in the case at all, with progress being made by the police behind the scenes before being revealed to him.

There are also some bizarre leaps of logic going on throughout the movie, with Nick suddenly revealing things to support characters without really backing up how he figured out those conclusions. The most jarring example of this was the ultimate reveal of the perpetrator right at the end of the movie, which is sudden and seemingly accidental on Nick’s part. It all adds up to create a detective who just seems to be really lucky at solving cases rather than a character who’s actually good at what he does.

That said, on the rare occasion that we do actually see him doing some actual detective work, the movie does get interesting. His investigation of Wynant’s workshop is a good blend of tense detective work and good humour (his “attack dog” hiding under a table is particularly funny), and I enjoyed it immensely. Sadly, it was too little, too late.

Another major criticism I had is that the film was touted as the story of a married couple who solve cases, which is odd because Nick was the detective while Nora just stood on the side-lines. I would have liked to see Nora more involved in the actual detective work as his partner, but I suppose that may be expecting too much of 1930s cinema.

Overall, The Thin Man was a reasonably entertaining, if very muddled, detective comedy. I would love to say that I enjoyed it, but I was pretty indifferent to it if I’m honest.

Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy
Written by Dashiell Hammett (novel) and Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Music by William Axt
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Edited by Robert Kern

Favourite Scene: “This dog will rip you to shreds” The dog immediately hides.
Scene That Bugged Me: The conclusion, which felt pretty rushed.

Watch it if: You want to get into a major franchise of the 1930s
Avoid it if: You like to see more actual detective work

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Posted on April 12, 2013, in 1930s, Comedy, Mystery and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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