This is one of my favorite films of all time. The Thin Man is an American crime film based on the book by the great crime novelist Dashiell Hammett, and mirrors great British crime films such as Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle in terms of structure, humor, and execution – but of course, The Thin Man comes with a celluloid polish and Hollywood panache. Rarely without a drink in their hand, this boozy couple is as funny as they are effective private eyes, and they go off to figure out the motive and suspect in a cold-blooded crime that all leads to a dinner scene that would make Poirot feel jealous and ripped off. Shot over fourteen days, this film (and its sequels, except for the last one maybe) is a slice of Hollywood crime heaven that is sincerely a treat to watch if only for the “snappy banter full of covetable lines between the rich, sophisticated Nora and her sharp lush of a husband.”
Not only do we I watching the chemistry of Loy and Powell, but I fantasize about being Nick. Of course, if you’re a fan and never listened to The Thrilling Adventure Hour‘s sendoff Beyond Belief, in which Frank and Sadie Doyle do Nick and Nora with a paranormal twist, you’re missing out on quite a treat.
I mean, in a world where every sentence seems to drip with witty repartee, and martinis can be guzzled all day long by the gallon without any social, mental, or physiological consequences, enter Nick and Nora and their adorable little dog. They seem to have the best jobs (not really sure how often they have to work, but it isn’t very often), the best wardrobe, the biggest smiles, the best parties, and the lost laid-back lives imaginable… until a body shows up…and then everything even more so.
I watched these for the first time through in my early twenties, and this is the first time that I watched one since. It still holds up as easily being one of the tightest comedy-mysteries ever made. It likely has a lot to do with the execution of the perfect balance of suspense, fun, humor, and strong leading stars. The other thing, and this is my main complaint about Hollywood today, is that the writing is so incredibly strong – almost central to the execution of the film – and that likely has a lot to do with filmmakers wanting to make sure that their pieces can be carried with the strength and intensity of the theater. This piece could easily be set on a stage rather than on film and the audience holds the same level of engagement and attention as the film does, but films today do not necessarily have to hold the audience’s attention with great writing, they just need to exist and have a name that pulls people to the box office.
A big difference was that I decided to pick up Hammett’s book to read after I watched it this time since I had never read the novel. So, the movie is great, but its contents is definitely a movie that has censorship board written all over it. It keeps the witty banter and the sly, excellent characterization, but there is a great deal that is not covered in the film likely because of a variety of cultural mores at the time. This includes a subplot involving heroin (or… laudanum, or something like that) and a complete retelling of the Alfred Packer cannibalism case. Also, the murders are more brutal, the sex more apparent, the women looser, the booze stronger, and language like a sailor. It was an excellent book, told strictly from Nick’s point of view. Where the film is more playful, the novel is more gritty and noir – and a great deal better than I was expecting. While the movie was excellent, after reading the book I recognize how much of a product of the times it is in terms of how they chose to execute it… But both are great works of art on their own legs.
To coincide with their release of a collection of Hammet’s works, The Library Of America published this excellent little essay on the book and film.