The Thin Man (1934)

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Would you mind putting that gun away?  My wife doesn’t care, but I’m a *very* timid fellow!

I had every intention of writing about 1936’s Satan Met a Lady this week, mainly because I wanted to do a three part series about Golden Age productions of The Maltese FalconSatan Met a Lady is the middle child of these efforts, and also the only one to deviate from a strictly dramatic treatment.  As a comedy/crime hybrid, I was intrigued and willing to give the film a far greater latitude than I usually would when regarding incarnations of a famous work.  However, despite the best efforts of one, Bette Davis, the entire film was so haphazardly put together that I barely made it through the modest 74 minute running time.

While I certainly do not think that only “good” films are worthy of deconstruction, sometimes it only takes a single fatal flaw to kill a picture.  When that happens, there’s only so much you can say.  In this case, the failure had less to do with reconceptualizing Dashiell Hammett’s classic tale of murder most foul, and more to do with someone’s insistence that Satan Met a Lady follow in the footsteps of another Hammett property:  the wildly successful cinematic rendering of The Thin Man.  Unfortunately, the dialogue is so turgid and the laughs so forced, that instead of enhancing the criminal aspect of the plot, they create a schizophrenic effect which in turn renders both elements impotent.

Certainly Satan Met Lady was not the first, nor the last, attempt to capitalize on the success of the crime turned comedy procedural.  A whole slew of debonair detective themed pictures cropped up around the same time, indeed William Powell himself was involved in the Philo Vance pictures, a series which predates The Thin Man by a few years.  Then, of course, there is the “Fast” series that revolves around Harry Kurnitz’s novels about Joel Sloan, a rare-book dealer moonlighting as a detective.  Yet I am hard pressed to think of any effort that out performs, or even pulls fair with The Thin Man. So that, dear readers, leads us to the topic at hand. . .

Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), are a wealthy, wise-cracking couple who live a life of leisure with their wire-haired terrier companion, Asta.  When not draining the local bars of their liquor supply, the Charles’ chief concerns are throwing parties, engaging in witty banter, and buying expensive gifts for one and other.  However for Nick, things were not always this mundane.  At one time he was a much vaunted private detective, celebrated for his cool equilibrium and gentlemanly manners.  So affable a fellow is he, that even criminals Nick has “sent up the river,” hold him in high regard.

After marrying Nora, a rich society girl who inherited the bulk of her deceased father’s estate, Nick retired in favor of looking after his new bride’s investments.  The enormous wealth of the Charles’ make their tale a very anti-Depression sort of dream world, one wherein viewers can fetishize their possessions and actions without begrudging them an iota of it, merely because the couple remain so essentially above it all, i.e. likeable.

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Effortlessly beautiful and likeable.

There lies the key element to this dramatization.  On paper, it is entirely possible to envision the script as a farce concerning two ne’er do well snobs with no other outlet for their energy than meddling in the affairs of others.  But Powell and Loy’s chemistry is so intense, that their coupling is like catching lighting in a bottle.  When Nick and Nora laugh, so do we, and where they go, so does our interest follow.  Without such an imperishable bond, it’s hard to imagine just how Hammett’s one book ending up providing the fodder for no less than six pictures.

As is the case in all The Thin Man movies, crime is merely a plot device to showcase the charm and talent of the film’s stars.  In this first offering, a rash of murders follows the mysterious disappearance of wealthy businessman Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis).  Having once done a bit of detective work for Wynant, Nick finds himself drawn into the mystery at the behest of the missing man’s daughter, Dorothy (a young Maureen O’Sullivan).  Against his will, he allows himself to become further involved, not only out of obligation to Dorothy, but because Nora believes it would be an interesting and entertaining exercise to watch her husband solve a crime.  Much like Michael Corleone, just when Nick thinks he’s out, they drag him back in!

Along the way, the two are introduced to a host of unsavory, yet endearingly wacky characters.  There’s the former Mrs. Wynant  (Minna Gombell.  You’ll note she was the prostitute Aunt in Wild Boys of the Road), an aging spendthrift desperate to keep her hooks into a much younger husband (Cesar Romero in one of his first film appearances!).  Dorothy’s younger brother, Gilbert (William Henry), is a morbid youth who quotes Freud, gazes into crystals, and has an unnatural obsession with sociopathy.  Then there’s Morelli  (Edward Brophy) and Nunheim (Harold Huber), requisite numskull underworlders, who, due to their wrap sheets, are that much more concerned they’ll be left holding the bag.  And off course Wynant has a mistress, Julia (Natalie Moorhead), what rich missing man doesn’t?  Holding court over this parade of reprobates is Wynant’s ever present lawyer, MacCauley (Porter Hall), who continues to act at the behest of his client in absentia.

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Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

As the body count stacks up, and Wynant remains at large, the local police draw the most obvious conclusion:  Wynant is the murderer.  However Nick knows better!  Soon, his begrudging assistance in the investigation turns into dogged determination as he sets out in search of the truth.

Normally I would give a run down of all subsequent plot points, however since the solving of the crime is so secondary to what makes The Thin Man special, I will refrain from revealing the ending in deference to anyone who has not yet seen the film.  Crime capers are a special sort of genre, and although I believe most film criticism can operate under the auspices of full disclosure, this is one instance in which I must demur.

Instead, let me turn your attention to the style and manner in which the picture was filmed.  W.S. Van Dyke, the director, was a protégé of D.W. Griffith and known within the industry for his dependable, if somewhat unremarkable, craftsmanship.  He was nicknamed “One Take Woody,” for the speed at which he moved through projects, a trait which made him a highly prized property at MGM.  The hallmark of Van Dyke’s work is not so much visual as it is visceral;  he believed in letting his actors shine brightest and tried to cultivate a rapport with them in order to deliver, natural, believable performances to his audience.

For a vehicle like The Thin Man, which relies almost entirely on its leads’ star power, this method of direction is unquestionably favorable.  Nick and Nora act, speak, and emote like real people, elevating them above what could have so easily have been mere caricature.

What puts the picture over the line of benign amusement is the work of legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe.  A two-time Oscar winner, Howe began his career with aspirations of becoming a photographer.  Instead, he ended up going to work as a 2nd AC for Cecil B. DeMille.  Ever the innovator, Howe eventually climbed up the ranks and solidified his reputation as a gifted cameraman when he developed a technique that rendered Mary Miles Minter’s (yes, THAT Mary Miles Minter) pale blue eyes several shades darker on celluloid.  It is fitting that so much of his repertoire is therefore a master class on darkness and light.

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Darkness & Light

The very first frame of The Thin Man gives us an ominous shadow, and as the opening scene progresses, Howe’s smooth camera movements silkily navigate the set, until fixing upon Wynant’s fading figure, upward bound in an elevator.  As MacCauley utters a rather prescient line, “I don’t know where you’re going, I don’t know when you’re coming back,” Wynant is followed up to the ground floor by his own shadow.

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Opening shot // Wynant ascends // Followed by his shadow

Interestingly enough, the last time we see Wynant he is also hounded by his shadow.  It is filmed long and lean by Howe in homage to the title.  Many people erroneously attribute the moniker “Thin Man,” to Nick, when in reality, it is Wynant to whom the sobriquet belongs.

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The “Thin Man” // Julia’s Shadow // Chris’s Shadow

Throughout the film, the notion of people following their own shadows encompasses the hidden motives and seedy mores of the cast.  One such instance is a beautiful deep focus shot of Dorothy confronting her mother over a piece of evidence she has absconded with.  With a single lamp lighting the room, the brightness of the foreground mixing with the darkness of the backdrop creates a violently shocking contrast, leaving us to wonder if the object Mrs. Wynant is intent on obscuring might actually be the lynchpin to the entire crime.

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Hiding In Plain View

Camera placement and movement also play a crucial role in creating atmosphere.  More often than not, a shot begins from around a corner, skulking like an eavesdropper, before gently coming around into plain view and ultimately focusing on the pertinent subjects.  This subtle fluidity allows viewers to occupy the vantage point of unseen spectator.  It is as if we are there, unbeknownst to all involved, tracking these suspects for ourselves.

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Camera begins hidden behind the flowers // Moves out // Tracks the motion

Of course, it’s not only the criminal elements of the film that are shot with such finesse.  The lighter, comedic scenes are also given a similar treatment by Howe.  Take, for example, the introduction of Nora into the narrative.  She comes bursting into a hotel bar to meet her husband, her arms spilling over with packages, Asta yanking her thin frame from the tether of his leash.  The camera follows this chaos from behind.  Next, we cut to the camera following her from the front, tracking back slowly as if it were another patron, amusedly moving out of Nora’s trajectory.  All camera movement ceases as she finally falls to the floor.

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Behind // In Front // Below

Due to the industrious nature of Van Dyke and Howe, The Thin Man was shot in just 18 days.  One speculates that the money saved through their mutual effort must surely have been reinvested in Myrna Loy’s wardrobe.  For even to a modern viewer, her ensembles are impeccably put together with an eye toward forward, yet elegant, design.

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Fashion is a many splendored thing

The Thin Man was released in May of 1934, a scant two months before the Production Code Administration began demanding that all motion pictures obtain a certificate of approval in advance of their release.  Although not quite as bold as earlier pre-code films, there is still a great amount of material here that would soon come to be considered objectionable.  For instance, we can consider the drinking habits of the Charles’.  While in later installments of the series, the allusion of constant inebriation is discussed, here it is seen.  Up close and personal.  Nick and Nora drink so much, it’s a miracle they can even stand up, let alone solve crimes.

Secondly, the general dissipation of all the characters, Nick and Nora included, is never apologized for.  In the world of The Thin Man, people take lovers, people murder without impunity, everyone is money hungry, and the pursuit of pleasure is modus operandi numero uno.  One wonders if much of this behavior cut muster with censors due to the light, comedic touch of the script.  In a scene from Nick and Nora’s Christmas party, the festivities dissolve into drunken debauchery, with the weeping, stumbling masses warbling a grotesque, off-key version of “O Christmas Tree,” while the host and hostess look on helplessly.  Idle irresponsibility never seemed quite as amusing as when framed by the Charles’ hospitality.

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Weeping // Stumbling // Warbling

Although the Charles’ sleep in separate beds, the finale slyly subverts this convention by having Nick toss Asta into the upper berth of their train cabin.  The implication that he will join Nora for the night is all but confirmed by the parting shot of Asta, cheekily covering his face with his paw.

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Good-night, indeed!

William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in a mind-boggling 14 films together after making The Thin Man. Their representations of worldly, yet wry, sophisticates brought them fame, yet sadly also doomed them to typecasting.  Nevertheless, through Nick and Nora, they managed to create one of the most enduring marital images the screen has ever seen.  The charming husband, the perfect wife.  Incidentally, Myrna Loy was voted that exact title in 1946, and anyone who’s ever watched The Thin Man could hardly disagree.  Her Nora is devoid of jealously, quick with a quip, and able to match a man martini for martini.

I own the Thin Man box set, which contains all 6 films plus a documentary on Powell and Loy.  I think it’s a marvelous item for anyone’s film collection, and lest you begin to suspect that I’m a paid shill for Warner Bros (who now owns part of what used to be MGM’s catalogue), I will simply say that for me, the effect of a Thin Man film is like that of chicken soup.  Restorative, comforting powers are contained within.  True, the series grows weary towards its end.  Much like a classic version of the Law & Order franchise, it could be argued that the tree might have fared better with a bit of pruning.  Yet the spark of Powell, Loy, and their furry friend Asta, is enough to warm even the most tepid of its incarnations.  For that alone, I watch.  Like I said, lightening in a bottle.

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