Friday, March 23, 2012

The Thin Man

You know those movies that would otherwise be forgettable but have one element to elevate them into the realm of awesome? The Thin Man (1934) is a classic example. As a melodrama and a murder mystery, it's certainly passable, but the on-screen pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy as a husband-and-wife detective team transforms the movie into a hilarious, sardonic, and witty screwball comedy, and even nearly 80 years later, it still holds up.

New York inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) has gone missing and is suspected of murdering his secretary lover Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead). His daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) believes he's innocent and turns to family friend Nick Charles (Powell), a retired detective visiting from California, and his wife Nora (Loy), a rich heiress, for help. Nick isn't too interested in the case, but he's egged on by Nora, and soon other assorted characters start popping in: cops, gold diggers, hoodlums, lawyers, and more, all seeking help and information.

Based on a novel by Dashell Hammett, The Thin Man is surprisingly not hard-boiled. Sure, dead bodies turn up, and the police are for the most part helpless to solve anything, but the plot is not a descent into depravity or despair. Hammett's work provided the basis for a number of great film noirs, but here, the tone is playful and giddy. While there are moments of danger, the Charleses act more like they're dinner hosts on a lark. Instead of surreal, expressionistic complexities and images, the plot here is gleefully silly, practically playing second fiddle to the banter of Powell and Loy.

The dialogue is really great: a lot of sarcastic put-downs, one-liners, and double entendres. Nick and Nora are essentially the smartest people in the movie, and they enjoy one-upping each other in regular rounds of verbal jousting and toying with others. Sample dialogue: "You know, that sounds like an interesting case. Why don't you take it?" she asks. "I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for." In their first scene, Nora, after finding out Nick has already had six martinis to her first, promptly orders five more. While everyone else is running acting slimy, suspicious, or scared, Nick and Nora find it all amusing.

Describing Nick and Nora as dinner hosts probably is appropraite given they're frequently hosting parties and attending other social gatherings. At their Christmas party, where they force drinks on everyone, all major players in the murder investigation turn up seeking Nick's help, piling on the comic tension until it erupts. Later, the identity of the killer is revealed at a dinner party Nick is hosting, all according to plan.

The murder mystery around Nick and Nora is fairly run-of-the-mill for the time. Nothing about the crime or resolution stands out (especially compared to the film noir genre set to emerge in the next decade), and maybe a little too much time is spent on some of the supporting characters who aren't as interesting as the Charleses. Still, The Thin Man remains great fun, done with great style, class, and humor.

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