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.
The 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.
That’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!