Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett essentially wrote only five novels, but three of my favorite movies are based on his work, including this one.  The Thin Man is one of the best dialogue-based movies you will ever see and it is still extremely entertaining, despite having been released in 1934.  To put that in perspective, please consider that the following all happened in 1934:
  • Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown and was not the American League MVP in baseball.
  • The Chicago White Sox finished 47 games back in the American League.  Wow.
  • John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde all died.
  • Persia changed its name to Iran.
  • The first Three Stooges short film was released.
  • Adolf Hitler became the Fuhrer of Germany.
  • Leonard Cohen, Ralph Nader, and Sparky Anderson were born, none of whom were ever young.
Until I watched this movie, I was under the impression that no true classic movies were made until at least 1939, but The Thin Man proved me wrong.

Nick and Nora Charles are quick-witted, hard-drinking socialites in New York for Christmas.  Nick (William Powell) was a detective before marrying Nora (Myrna Loy), but now he spends his time amusing her and running her father's business.  An old client of Nick's, Claude Wynant, has gone missing and his girlfriend has turned up murdered.  Wynant's daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan), manages to drag Nick into the investigation.  There are a lot of reasons for Wynant to have left New York; his girlfriend was stealing from him, his ex-wife (Minna Gombell) milked him for money at every opportunity, his ex-wife's boyfriend (Cesar Romero) lived off the money he gave his estranged family, and his son had a creepy Elektra complex.  Clearly, a lot of people have their own reasons for Wynant to stay on the lam or to turn himself in to the police or to turn up dead.  In the process of solving the case (that shouldn't be a spoiler), Nick manages to get shot, knock out his wife, unite lovers, end relationships, and solve three murders (maybe more...there's a lot of people to keep track of), all while pleasantly buzzed from habitual drinking.

This film was only the first Thin Man movie; its success led to five sequels, all with "Thin Man" included in their titles.  Nick Charles is not the titular character, though.  In a bit of throwaway dialogue (that acts as a clue to the case), Nick refers to Claude Wynant as a thin man.  Nevertheless, Nick was identified as the thin man by the movie going public, so the title stuck throughout the series.

The plot to this film is decent, but nothing spectacular.  It's a layered mystery, where one answer leads to another puzzle, which leads to another puzzle, ad nauseam.  The story and director W.S. Van Dyke both do a good job keeping the pace brisk.  This movie has dozens of characters and plot twists, but does not really demand much comprehension.  This movie is more of a ride than something you want to puzzle out for yourself.  That would be a problem with most mystery movies, but the mystery is logical and clever for those who choose to pay close attention; this movie doesn't demand your analytical mind, though, to enjoy it.

The dialogue is what separates this film from so many others.  The screenplay from Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett is smart, funny, and --- most of all --- fast.  The only movie I have ever seen that has faster dialogue with this much quality is His Girl Friday, which had the benefit of Cary Grant, so it's an unfair fight to begin with.  This script, though, has more explicit flirting and outright affection, even if it is pretty sarcastic.  The first time I watched this, I thought it was decently funny, but I missed a lot of the lines because I didn't hear them, or was trying to figure out the last joke.  Sure, there are little easy jokes that anyone can catch, but there are a lot of language jokes as well.  Not everyone out there is an English major, I know, but my favorite jokes are the ones that come from misunderstandings of vocabulary.  "I heard you were shot five times in the tabloids.  It's not true; he didn't come anywhere near my tabloids," is a good snapshot of the movie's dialogue.  Now just imagine every other line being like that, and you'll have a pretty good idea of why I like this so much.

Of course, the dialogue would just be noteworthy, were it not for the truly great work from William Powell and Myrna Loy.  Powell steals the show with his wit and charm.  It is rare to see an actor enjoying himself this much in a role.  I also appreciate the quality of his drunk acting; as a child, I just assumed that all adults hiccuped and stumbled around while a trombone played in the background for effect.  Most movies play up the overacting drunk for comic relief.  Powell manages to appear subtly tipsy for the entire film, only occasionally delving into the stereotype.  Loy is able to match Powell's intensity and dialogue delivery in every scene. It's a shame that she was not nominated for an Oscar for her work because I think hers is one of the smarter and stronger female leads in early Hollywood.  The rest of the actors are fine, but they are just playing broad, usually comical, characters.  Their role is simply to show up and be commented on by Powell and Loy, and they do it well.

This is a fun movie, and one with replay value since you definitely won't catch every funny line the first time through.  The movie's pace keeps up with the dialogue, but can get a bit confusing at times; a lot of the supporting characters in Hammett's novel didn't do much speaking, so those characters are sometimes interchangeable on the big screen.  Van Dyke does a good job making sure that the dialogue doesn't fall flat, but he spends all his effort on the humor, and probably not enough attention on the plot.  It's okay, though.  The film is a little uneven because of that and is a little dated (not bad for being over seventy years old), but I absolutely love it.

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