In the beginning of The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles sit opposite each other at a table with floral centerpiece and start talking. Nick leans in, gets a flower stem up the nose, grimaces, and hands the centerpiece to a passing server. Nick and Nora keep talking.
Video clip: click to reveal
This is a magic trick. A few years earlier, the centerpiece would have been a disguised microphone. Although cinematography had become expressive and creative during the silent era, the demands of sync-sound (sound recorded at the same time as the performance), primitive recording devices, and noise from the camera equipment and set forced movies to take several steps back from a visual perspective. Intentional brag or not, The Thin Man shows a film industry recovering what it had lost when it gained sound.
Unfortunately, by 1934 the prudish and censorious Hayes Code was growing teeth, setting the film industry back once again. MGM released The Thin Man just a month before movies had to be generally approved to get distributed. In the other five films, Nick and Nora have quit drinking, are raising loveable tyke, and have an approval certificate.
In this one, however, they both spend most of the movie buzzed, drunk, or hung over. Nora is a rich socialite. Her husband Charles is a former detective. When a former client (and friend Clyde) goes missing, Clyde’s daughter Dorothy guilts Nick out of retirement. Nick’s investigation digs up skeletons both old and new, and it all requires an elaborate dinner party to set straight.
Now, I’ve watched the film four times and I still don’t know who the murder is. I’m not the only one to find the plot impenetrable; Powell apparently had a great deal of difficulty memorizing the great reveal speech; he complained it was windy nonsense. That’s OK, because plot’s not the point. If it was, we wouldn’t get an extended slap-sticky scene of Nick Charles shooting ornaments off a Christmas tree with a BB Gun.
Van Dyke instructed screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to ignore the plot, ignore the novel, and write up the banter. Powell navigates every scene like a genial, drunk insult-comic while Loy gives him Oscar-quality side-eyes. The Thin Man needs sound; it’s all about the dialogue.
The Thin Man was originally a serialized novel written by Dashiell Hammett and published in Redbook. He didn’t write this screenplay, but he wrote the next two sequels. His other major sleuth, Sam Spade, is iconic: The Maltese Falcon was also his. Although Hammett lived until 1961, The Thin Man was his last novel and he was not eager to talk about why.
Whether it was because of the immense expense of film stock or just director Van Dyke’s personal preferences, the film often has a rough, improvisational feel. Powell’s introductory scene, where he banters with bartenders, actually was improvised; Powell thought he was doing a mic check. In another scene, Clyde bops Dorothy on the chin while reaching over his shoulder for a handshake. Other movies would require another take; Van Dyke prints it. Absent careful direction, the movie relies on the chemistry between the characters. Loy and Powell have it. It’s hard to imagine the studio didn’t want either of them. They thought Powell too old and had typecast Loy as a femme fatale.
Even though the movie is eighty-eight years old, it feels really fresh. It’s about as late as you can get in the technical development of early film before the Hayes code stomps on plots and themes. I thought it was younger when I first saw it. But even modern comedies have difficulty carrying film on dialogue to the extent this one does.
The Thin Man is a recognized classic at the United States National Film Registry, so you don’t really need me to tell you it’s important. But someone apparently needs to tell rights-holder Warner Bros.; it only got a full Blu-Ray release in 2019, and that was on their niche “Warner Archive” label. Other, far less influential movies get the fancy case-book-and-slip-cover treatment. It’s streaming on none of the major services at the moment, although it is available for rent. If you’re wondering if it’s worth the $4, it certainly is.