This year, for the second time since movie night started, it fell on my birthday. And since I hadn’t presented in quite some time it seemed only natural to grab a couple of slots and present! I even decided to go with a theme (“great chemistry”) connecting my two films (this one and the one upcoming next time)…though that only came about after I had picked this one. It’s an oldie, but I can’t think of any movie from the 1930s that I like more (not even The Wizard Of Oz…sorry Toto!)
And what an alternative! It starts out in the vein of a cheesy ’80s sitcom theme song, becomes an overly-long cheesy ’80s sitcom theme song, and then goes…places. Dark places. Mr. Kelly probably needs psychotherapy, but if he can put it off until he unleashes his evil genius a few more times, that would be cool.
But of course, the real attraction was the film: The Thin Man, adapted from a Dashiell Hammett novel and directed by W.S. Van Dyke back in the good old days of 1934. This movie is so old that it’s plausible that my grandfather snuck into the balcony for a showing and spent the film throwing whatever snacks they had before the invention of popcorn down onto the paying audience below. Wanna hear about the movie?
The movie starts out a bit slowly (we aren’t introduced to our protagonistic detective for well over ten minutes) but the exposition is pretty important. It all involves Claude Wynant, a rich New York City inventor and the eponymous “thin man” of the film. Funnily enough, while in the book the detective is a bit of a pudgy man, the studio decided on the skinny William Powell for the role and people began to automatically assume that the protagonist was intended to be “the thin man”. This impression was only encouraged by the fact that several sequels were forthcoming using the “Thin Man” title like the studio didn’t even care. THE THIN MAN IS WYNANT! THIS IS A PLOT POINT!
At any rate, Wynant, whose daughter has just announced that she will be married shortly after Christmas, is planning on taking a secretive trip to an undisclosed location (even to his lawyer) in order to get some uninterrupted work done. But before he leaves, he intends to cash out some bonds that he keeps in the company safe which were earmarked for his daughter’s wedding gift. Problem is, they’re gone. And the only other person with the combo is his secretary and probably not coincidentally the woman who broke up his marriage. He confronts her at her home about it (discovering her in the company of a former flame, no less) and storms out in a threatening huff. So much for prologue.
Fast-forward to just before Christmas, and we finally get to meet Nick Charles – the hard-drinking former private eye and current curator of his heiress wife Nora’s fortune. They live out in California but are visiting NYC for the holidays. Nick and Nora have one of the most amazing chemistries in moviedom. The lighthearted sarcastic insults that they trade back and forth are really one of the reasons to watch the film. But to return to the plot, Wynant’s daughter happens to run into him at a bar, and as Nick is an old family friend she confides in him that she’s concerned about her father’s continued absence – he had promised to return from isolation before her wedding but is nowhere to be found. Nick steadfastly refuses to take the case, insisting on extending his retirement.
Meanwhile, Wynant’s ex wife, in a desperate attempt to extort yet more badly needed cash from the absent inventor, finally decides to contact the secretary-mistress in an attempt to get in touch with him. She arranges a meeting at the secretary’s place, but when she arrives, she finds the mistress shot dead clutching a chain that had belonged to Wynant in her hand. We’ve got ourselves a murder, and Wynant is the now-assumed-fugitive prime suspect.
Nick is still reluctant to take the case as he’s got a drinking problem to maintain. In fact, so many of the film’s best lines revolve around drinking that I feel no reluctance to interrupt this review to present the top five lines about alcohol in The Thin Man.
Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?
Nora Charles: Yes, he is.
Reporter: What case?
Nora Charles: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.
Nora Charles: How many drinks have you had?
Nick Charles: This will make six Martinis.
Nora Charles: [to the waiter] All right. Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.
Nick Charles: [inviting MacCaulay in] What are you drinking?
Herbert MacCaulay: Oh, nothing, thanks. Nothing.
Nick Charles: Oh, that’s a mistake.
Nora Charles: Is that my drink over there?
Nick Charles: What were you drinking?
Nora Charles: Rye.
Nick Charles: [finishes her drink in one gulp and hands her the empty glass] Yes, that’s yours.
Reporter: Well, can’t you tell us anything about the case?
Nick Charles: Yes, it’s putting me way behind in my drinking.
Still, after the press (and even a peripherally-involved gangster) continually assumes that Nick is on the case, and after some coaxing by Nora he eventually decides to take on the case, convinced for no apparently good reason that the missing Wynant is innocent. To dig into the case he takes a midnight trip to Wynant’s workshop to sleuth around a bit and his dog Asta (you know exactly who Asta is if you’ve ever done the New York Times crossword puzzle) discovers some less-than-dry concrete as part of the shop floor. And underneath the concrete? A degraded skeleton dressed in the clothes of a fat man. This is now the third death (I skipped the second, that of a stool pigeon) attributed by the authorities to Wynant but our hero knows better. Down at the morgue he and the medical examiner discover a piece of shrapnel in the skeleton’s leg that Nick knows to correspond to an old war wound of Wynant’s – the THIN MAN was in fact murdered first and the fat clothes were a cover up.
Nick neglects to tell the authorities about this, and having no idea who the real murderer is he invites all of the suspects out to what is perhaps the first in a long line of cliché dinner-parties-where-the-detective-reveals-the-murderer. (If there’s an earlier example of this trope, I’d be interested in hearing about it.) Through an irritating bit of prodding and a bit of deception suggesting he knows who did it, Nick reveals the death of Wynant and gets the murderer to reveal himself – it’s Wynant’s lawyer (it was a money thing – naturally he planted the chain on the mistress after killing her to throw the police off the scent).
After all of the excitement has died down, Nick and Nora hop a train back to California – probably not coincidentally the same train the Wynant daughter and her new husband are beginning their honeymoon on – and seeing as those kids are getting ready for some hanky-panky, Nick banishes Asta to the top bunk of the sleeper car by himself. Nick and Nora are going to sleep in the same bunk. Asta is appropriately mortified. The End.
Anyway, it’s a great movie, and somewhat surprisingly (in contrast to say, the Marx Brothers, where a good percentage of the humor comes from references that are now broken) the jokes remain completely fresh. It’s all amazing on-screen chemistry between Powell and Loy, and while the plot is pretty good and the script is top-notch, that chemistry is almost certainly the reason that The Thin Man is still watched today, and will be for at least another 80 years.