“The Thin Man” (1934) brings to life the urbane detective in Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, but also brought to life the remarkable partnership of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Their chemistry, more than anything, carries this film.
It is first and foremost, a mystery with a murder, and suspects, and a dogged detective on the trail. It is also a comedy, where Nick and Nora Charles have a collection of eccentric characters at a cocktail party that beats the nuts at Audrey Hepburn’s party in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by nearly 30 years.
The charm of the relationship between Nick and Nora, played by Powell and Loy, can probably be best exemplified by one particular scene. Nick interviews one of the suspects of the murder, a ditzy and selfish society woman whose distress causes her to seek comfort in Nick’s embrace. At that moment, his wife Nora enters the room. In any other movie, particularly a comedy, there would be that moment of misunderstanding, where the wife thinks the husband has been unfaithful, and he must awkwardly explain himself.
Not for Nick and Nora. After an expectant moment for the audience, Miss Loy playfully makes a disgusted face at Mr. Powell, who playfully returns her disdainful smirk with a nasty taunting face of his own. We see instantly that this is a couple whose trust in each other is as great as their desire for one another.
The film is riddled with funny, sexy lines which skirt the edge of double entendres and show the creativity of talented writers in the days when the Code made flirtatiousness a witty art form. Mr. Powell makes these lines all the more potent by reacting to them when said by the other actors, and not having to awkwardly blunder through them himself. Nick really demonstrates his sophistication not by his evening clothes or his money, but by his ability to pick out the naughty side of everything with a bemused smile.
“What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Nora demands when a police detective searches their apartment, and Nick reacts. When she shows the newspaper headlines to Nick after an altercation with a suspect, she exclaims “You were shot two times in the tabloids.”
He replies, ‘He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
There is copious drinking in the film, some white telephones and blond furniture, and a fluoroscope. Pretty much everything that screams 1930s escapist screwball comedy of the society people. Well, maybe not the fluoroscope, but it’s a kick to see this antiquated version of the modern apparatus figures into solving the crime. A few serious scenes with seamy characters and fine, tense acting keep the film on course with the murder plot, but the climax where Nick and Nora invite all the suspects to a formal dinner party to ferret out and murderer and just for the fun of it, is classic.
It’s easy to see why William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed up again for more Thin Man films. Their easy, sexy chemistry did more to make these two characters and their marriage as important to the film as the mystery to be solved. Neither could be taken for granted.
That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.