Skip to main content

The murderer is right in this room, sitting at this table. You may serve the fish.

The Thin Man
(1934)

I’ve watched The Thin Man before, but so long ago I’d forgotten much of it. So it was a surprise and delight to see such a consistently irresponsible depiction of consequence-free drinking. Not because I’m particularly prone to excessive indulgence in all things that are bad for one (or because I’m a raging alcoholic) and so identify with William Powell’s tipsy Nick, or because I’m a rep for the alcohol industry. But because it’s so different, confounding expectations of this kind of film from this era (and, let’s face it, no one would present drinking this way today).


This outlandish helps to make the movie the very funny. This isn’t a picture with a kind of teenage “It’s so daring” attitude, and thankfully it’s a far cry from the opposite end of the spectrum’s Leaving Las Vegas. Rather, it possesses a flippantly cheerful outlook, and the party-loving Nick and Nora (Myrna Loy) are wholly functional. I’m also doing it something of an injustice by focussing on this element off the bat; The Thin Man’s greatest attribute is actually the amazing chemistry and repartee between (ex-) private detective (not the titular character, at least not at this point; that’s the missing Wynant) and his wife. The actual mystery is very much second fiddle, which is not to say that it doesn’t have its pleasures.


There are two things to know that help give context to The Thin Man (not that you really need any initiation to enjoy and find it highly amusing, any more than you do a Marx Brothers movie). One is that Prohibition had finally ended its decade-plus rein in the US the previous year, so you’ll have to excuse Nick if he’s in a somewhat unrestrained and jubilant mood. He just can’t put a cap on the bottle. The other factor is the censorious and highly prescriptive Hays Code (although it arguably resulted in the kind of creativity that only comes through limitation in many cases, not that that’s to justify it or anything), which had been introduced in 1930 but was only just receiving proper application in the year The Thin Man came out. Thus it’s a picture that rests on something of a cusp.


There are a lot of bawdy gags and innuendo-laced lines in The Thin Man. They deserve a paragraph or two all to themselves. Sure, Nick and Nora sleep in separate beds (at least until the final scene) but there is otherwise very little that is off limits. Adapted from Dashiel Hammett’s novel by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (a husband and wife writing team, they would deliver several of the sequels, as well as It’s A Wonderful Life; it’s hard not to conclude that something of their own relationship must have finished up in the feisty interplay between the two leads) and solidly if unremarkably directed by W.S. Van Dyke (never bound for great things, his directing career was nearly two decades old when he took this gig; he would also return for a number of the follow-ups), it was shot in a mere 12 days. If that no-frills approach is evident in the stagey set-ups, it’s more than defused by the bubbly bonhomie of the leading duo. Or should I say trio, as their faithful dog Astor (at the time the canine actor was called Skippy; the magnificent mutt would go on to appear in Bringing Up Baby) is an intrinsic part of the sleuthing team. He’s also the likely inspiration for the bow-wow in The Artist.


It’s a sign of the secondary nature of the titular type that we probably don’t recall exactly what he is up to before he goes missing; he’s an inventor, and he has his fingers on a new smelting process. He’s also, all evidence to the contrary, something of a flighty fellow. He has an ex-wife, a floozy, and hangers-on attempting to make a dime off him left right and centre. It’s also snowing, as it three months later (Christmas) when the majority of the movie is set. Which makes it something of a period of prolonged chills. All the more need for a beer (or gin) jacket.


Nick used to be a detective, but since he married he’s given up the trade. He was also once engaged by Wynant (William Henry) on a case, making him an obvious choice for a request for help when Wynant’s daughter (engaged to be married) bumps into him. What follows is a succession of semi-sloshed encounters with gold-digging ex-wives and their fancy men, less than brilliant police officers and an assortment of lowlifes. None of whom Nick treats with any more or less respect than the other. His lopsided outlook on the world is – and this is the precious thing in an industry generally reproved for its less than stellar female roles – matched pound for pound and witticism for witticism by his better half. The one big concern over the prospective Johnny Depp version is not Depp (I’m afraid I’m a defender, even at his most indulgently Burtonesque), or the involvement of Rob Marshall, or that they’re remaking it at all (well, why not?), but that if they don’t nail the female lead the whole thing unravels. Johnny can do the incorrigible drunk act in his sleep, but it’s the chemistry and trading of quips and adoring rebukes that will see it sink or swim in a fountain of champagne.


Nora: What hit me?
Nick: The last martini.

And they must be one of the big screen’s most adorable couples ever. Any trace of sentiment is bathed in a glow of badinage, so as not to seem overly concerned or invested. “I don’t care. It’s just that I’m used to you, that’s all,” says Nora, of Nick’s possibly dangerous excursion. She expresses her affection through faux-shallowness (“Oh Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people”) but their every exchange reeks of genuine delight in each other. Nick jokes openly that he can’t possibly take the case (“I’m much too busy seeing that you don’t lose any of the money I married you for”, which includes the narrow gauge railway, lumber mill “and oh several other things”). They engage in pretend violence, trade presents like they’re big kids (Nick has a BB gun and proceeds to shoot all the balloons of the Christmas tree) and joke about how one or other might run off with someone else. Indeed, Nora is so assured of her husband’s fidelity that her nominally reactive lines are some of the best in the movie. Instead of being outraged at finding a girl in her husband’s arms she offers her a drink. And Nick’s gesture of how besotted he is with her is the absolutely marvellous description of his preferred type; “Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws”. When Nora discovers Nick is way ahead of her getting soused, she orders “Five more Martinis” to get up to speed and, after he has (bizarrely) punched her out to remove her from the line of fire, she merely complains that she didn’t get to see the action. (“There’s a girl with hair on her chest” utter the admiring cops). 


Reporter: Can’t you tell us anything about the case?
Nick: Yes, it’s putting me way behind on my drinking.

Which kind of sums up Nick’s approach to the case; it’s a distraction from the job in hand. You can see a glimmer of the Coen Brothers’ inspiration for the permanently stoned Dude in The Big Lebowski. It’s his intoxication that lends the plot its unique momentum. Any given reference to detective work yields consequent references to boozing (“Say, is he working on a case?”; “Yes, a case of Scotch” replies Nora). Asked why he’s in town, Nick replies “My wife’s on a bender. I’m trying to sober her up”. He greets guests in the morning with a drink, and suggests it for those who cant get to sleep. It’s also an excellent curative when afflicted by a bullet wound. He’s the kind of guy has no qualms about trying strange drinks in strange houses.


Nora: I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

The super-quick banter has something of the Marx Brothers about it, by way of screwball comedies. But it’s the gleeful innuendo that most puts one in mind of Groucho. When Nora asks about Nick’s relationship with Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan), he joshes that she is his daughter (“It was spring in Venice”). Some of the lines are even more overt; Gilbertt comments that his father was a sexagenarian, to which a reporter responds that they can’t put that in the papers;  You know how they are”. Nick spits out his drink when Nora exclaims “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” and the train tooting by, after Astor has been informed he will be occupying the top bunk, must certainly have tickled Alfred Hitchcock. This is all right on the edge, and its difficult to think The Hays Code would have accepted it a year or two later.


Astor the dog, the wirehaired fox terrier, is intrinsic to Nick and Nora’s relationship, the child they can dote over without (again, very much a no-no) becoming all gooey and sentimental. Nick even introduces him before Nora to the waiter at the “gin mill” he is frequenting (“Well, you might have mentioned me first on the bill”) and Nora lets slip her concern to the paltry pooch (“If you let anything happen to him, you’ll never wag that tail again”). Wonderfully, he is given a fire hydrant as a Christmas present (It’s implied he pees all over the tree) and crucially he leads Nick to the spot where crucial evidence lies. He also makes an unlikely vicious beast (“Don’t make a move or that dog will tear you to shreds”). As susceptible as we all are to very cute animals, it appears that the popularity of the pooch (and hounds of the same variety) led to over-breeding.


The rest of the cast is interesting varied. O’Sullivan is your standard winsome love interest of your standard rugged hero (Henry Wadsworth), neither of whom have much to do after the first 10 minutes at which point Nick enters the picture. But later there’s another interesting pre-Hays story beat where Dorothy decides to fall into the ways of sin and degradation; she arrives at the climactic dinner party with some guy she’s just picked up at the station. O’Sullivan went on to play Johnny Weissmuller’s Jane, and mother Mia Farrow. William Henry makes the most of his slightly creepy role as Dorothy’s brother, an ardent Freudian (“I know I have a mother fixation”) and given to unlikely theories regarding his father’s disappearance. Mina Gombell, who doesn’t seem nearly old enough to be the mother of this brood, has the kind of striking features that wouldn’t look out of place in a Universal Horror. Cesar Romero, Burt West’s Batman’s Joker, is her fancy man. And Nat Pendleton, well-meaning blockheaded Lieutenant Guild, makes a virtue of being always several steps behind Nick. Bursting in on a confrontation between Nick and a hood that results in a gun going off, Guild comments that it’s very lucky they arrived when they did. “Yes, I might not have been shot”, replies Nick.


Nick: The murderer is right in this room, sitting at this table. You may serve the fish.

Also much like a Marx Brothers film, we’re given a couple of comic set pieces that throw everything into the mix. An escalating party thrown by Nick finds ever more of Wynant’s family arriving to seek an audience with the ex-detective, necessitating various meeting places in the few unoccupied spots left in the apartment. Most memorable is the Agatha Christie-but-pissed dinner feast, where Nick assembles his cast of suspects and gets to the heart of the case. In a sense The Thin Man’s a good whodunnit as there are plenty of suspects and it really isn’t clear until the end who did what; it’s only quite obvious that the hubby is probably kaput, as the messages and phone calls from him all occur off-screen. So the only real problem with the mystery is, when you find out who it is, there’s no real impact; his simply isn’t a very interesting character or performance. Of course, for the mystery to be strong too would merely be the icing on the cake.


Nora: Is this true?
Nick: I don’t know.
Nora: Then why are you saying it?
Nick: It’s the only way it makes sense.

Nick’s run of witty one-liners and chipper disrespect for his guests is magnificent. Nothing that occurs throws him (“Er waiter, will you kindly remove that” he asks in relation to the unconscious body just laid out by Dorothy’s fiancé) and potential threats are wisecracked off (“If that knife’s missing, I’ll look for it in my back”). Neil Simon’s postmodern deconstruction of detective fiction in Murder by Death is redundant when The Thin Man is so self-aware (Simon even has a couple of Nick and Nora substitutes). And, as might be expected, Nick hogs the limelight but Nora walks off with the classic line (“Best dinner I ever listened to”).


Those who bemoan Hollywood’s sequel affliction (and for remakes! You go Johnny!) should take note that there were five follow-ups over a span of thirteen years. Admittedly, this was a time when such behaviour was expected of B-movies; now the B-movies are A-movies. I’ll hopefully get round to visiting them all over the next few months (I think the original’s the only one I’ve seen before). Whatever my take on the series’ (invariably and inevitably) declining quality, I heartily recommend the slightly rough around the edges ribaldry of this first escapade.






Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…