Sleuthathon: The Thin Man (1934)

with 16 Comments

The Thin Man is one of cinema’s most enduring and beloved series, stemming from Dashiell Hemmett’s original novel from 1934. The delightful film series would ultimately span six movies, from 1934 to 1947, and starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, and, of course, canine actor Skippy as their dog Asta. Though I could write endless words on Nick and Nora’s witty repartee, this post is written in the context of Movies Silently‘s very clever Sleuthathon blogathon, so I’ll focus specifically on the detective story—and the detective—we see depicted in the first film in the series, The Thin Man.

THIN MAN, THEThe film’s central mystery is already quite knotted by the time we even meet Nick or Nora for the first time. Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), an inventor, announces to his friends, family, and business relations that he plans to disappear for an unspecified amount of time to take care of some unspecified business. All he can do is assure his daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan), that he will certainly be back in town for her wedding, which she has planned for shortly after Christmas. However, when Christmas Eve rolls around several months later, there has still been no word from her father. Dorothy is understandably concerned. She sees Nick , an old family friend, at a bar, and begs him to take on the case.

Having married into Nora’s family money, Nick seems perfectly content living the lifestyle of a man of leisure. When we first see him, he’s instructing the bartenders on how to mix drinks properly to the beats of various dances, and, of course, sampling his handiwork. It’s been four years since he practiced as a detective, which he says is in part because he’s been helping to take care of Nora’s family’s various properties and investments—although he doesn’t seem entirely certain what those all are. So, initially, he turns down the case. In writing terms, this is an entirely commonly used and expected trope: the “refusal of the call.” However, what I love about Nick’s refusal in this film is that his mind isn’t ultimately changed, as often happens, by a sense of curiosity or loyalty or a desire to prove his intelligence or to right wrongs. No, Nick seems primarily motivated to unravel the case because the victims and suspects and witnesses keep showing up at his house, ruining his fancy dinner parties, and it begins to become clear that they’re not going to leave him alone until he figures out a solution to the mystery. Nick’s long-held resistance to picking the trade back up separates him, to a comedic degree, from some other fictional detectives who are driven by duty or pride.

thethinmanThat’s not to say that Nick is a shoddy detective. Far from it, in fact. Nick is intuitive and observant, able to divine sinister intentions and hidden evidence between martinis. And yet, he’s also not a “superhero” detective, an innately exceptional, almost supernatural brain like a Sherlock Holmes or even an Adrian Monk. For all his wealth and affectations, Nick is more of an everyman; in his personal brand of detective work, there’s a sense that, had the other characters just paid attention a bit more, or connected a few more dots, they could have come to the same conclusion. Nick’s ability as a detective doesn’t depend on a great wealth of background knowledge on history, or classics, or biology, or economics—like Powell’s previous detective character, Philo Vance. Nick’s style is much more observational, dependent on paying attention rather than book learning or a super genius intellect. For a country that was just beginning to recover from the effects of the Clutch Plague, this was an important message: the circumstances you’re born into don’t necessarily prescribe your entire future success.

The mystery of this first film culminates in a thrilling and hilarious dinner party scene, in which Nick has invited all the potential suspects to a gathering at his home. I love this scene, in part because, for all the evidence Nick has carefully collected, he still enters this confrontation without quite knowing “who” dun it. He just knows—or at least, announces aloud, as he admits in a private whisper to Nora—how and why the crime was done. Luckily, the real killer panics upon hearing this assumption, and brandishes a gun, thus revealing himself as the true villain. Again, although Nick demonstrates real skill as a detective, this final bit of happenstance emphasizes his status as an attainably imperfect hero, while also winking at the necessity of nicely wrapped conclusions in these types of stories.

I think most fans of these movies will readily admit that the strength and crafting of the mystery story itself is not what makes the The Thin Man films so memorable, but rather the witty dialogue, the chemistry between Powell and Loy, and perhaps the antics of Asta the dog. I find this set up to be entirely charming and refreshing, as so many detective stories rely entirely on a complex network of plot clues and puzzles and breathless exposition, sometimes to the detriment of character development. The Thin Man, alternately, spends just a few moments here explaining the reasoning for the crime; there’s a sense that the villain status could have easily been assigned to any one of a few characters and it would still make complete sense. But that’s part of what makes this movie, and the films following it, so fun—it’s a detective story where the focus is often on the detective’s life outside of the detective story.

For more great entries about all things sleuthy, check out the rest of the Movies Silently’s Sleuthathon over here!

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16 Responses

  1. Movies, Silently
    | Reply

    Thanks for the fabulous contribution. I know I always enjoy detective shows and movies that show a bit of the detective’s life outside of the job. Powell and Loy were truly a screen team for the ages!

    • Emily
      | Reply

      Thanks for hosting! Always a pleasure to revisit old friends like these two :)

  2. carygrantwonteatyou
    | Reply

    I hadn’t thought about how Charles is such an everyday detective, rather than one with mad talents, but I think that makes sense given Hammett’s experience as a Pinkerton detective. He must have been even more anxious than Raymond Chandler to puncture that picture of a detective as some kind of walking encyclopedia rather than a man using his wits to solve a crime. (Since this is a sleuthathon, I can’t help thinking of Encyclopedia Brown:)) Thank you for this thoughtful review…Always fun to be in the Charles’ company:) Leah

    • Emily
      | Reply

      Yes, I think that would definitely make sense. Encyclopedic knowledge is definitely helpful, but as we see with some of these detectives, having the right instincts is often much more important!

  3. Hammett gave us a Nick Charles to enjoy, but it William Powell gave us a Nick Charles to love. In the film, he makes us feel as if we could have solved the crime ourselves if we just kept our eyes open. Grand focus on the grandest movie of them all.

    • Emily
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      Powell is just so darn charming! So hard to imagine anyone else ever being able to do halfway justice to the role.

  4. Joe Thompson
    | Reply

    Excellent choice for a movie to review. You are right, the mystery is ok, but the dialogue is what makes the movie. The exchange about Grant’s Tomb is my favorite of many exchanges. Thank you for sharing with us all.

    • Emily
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      Yes—my favorite moments are the little exchanges where it takes me a moment to realize what they’re *actually* saying, beyond just what the spoken dialogue actually was!

  5. silverscreenings
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    Fantastic post! The dialogue is superb, as are the costumes and sets, but it’s the casting that makes this movie unbeatable. Loy and Powell are perfect and both so witty.

    • Emily
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      I know… I love Ebert’s quote that Powell “is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance”—so true.

  6. Jeff Flugel
    | Reply

    Spot on post about a wonderful film! I think you nailed all the important things that make this movie so beloved – especially the great chemistry between Powell and Loy, and the sparkling dialogue. I enjoy AFTER THE THIN MAN almost as much as the first one, but none of the rest come up to its level, despite their charms. The original also has the benefit of a good plot lifted from Hammet’s novel, but what one walks away with after watching the movie is the sheer joy in watching pros Powell and Loy work their magic.

    • Emily
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      Yes, I haven’t seen all of the films in the series, but figure I should at least finish it up for completion’s sake! Powell and Loy are such a delight.

  7. girlsdofilm
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    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of Nick, there was always a sense that you could be him – if you looked a little more closely or thought a little bit harder. sadly, detective work is not my forte so I never manage to solve the mystery, but I like to believe I could! And the dialogue in The Thin Man is perfect – that dinner party scene is one of my all time favourites I think.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Emily
      | Reply

      Ha, yes—for all my points about the sometimes lackluster mysteries in the films, I don’t often guess them correct… or, at least, I accuse everyone on screen and sometimes end up right :)

  8. Judy
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    Nick and Nora are a delight, as is Asta! Very interesting to read a review focusing on the detection angle of this film, and on Nick as a detective – you make some great points about him being a contrast to Holmes, and the way the killer is finally unmasked, which I suppose shows Nick’s daring rather than his brilliance. Great review, Emily.

  9. Le
    | Reply

    Oh, how much I love these two! verybody dreams with having a relationship like theirs, even without so much danger, right?
    The witty lines are my favorite thing in the series. My favorite scene is when Nora ends up in the jail in After the Thin Man.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

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