Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Thin Man (1934)
The arbitrary rule of this column is that none of the movies featured can be from after 1960, and it was made for not so arbitrary a reason. Despite picking it while I was staring down the last 4 ounces of the 72 oz Steak Challenge at The Big Texan Steak Ranch, my subconscious must have clued in to what an unusual year 1960 was. Of course, no single year can be said to be the Maginot Line between the past and the present, but 1960 is as close as you’ll come to seeing a divide between classical Hollywood and modern films.
As if to prove that wrong, The Thin Man may stand as one of the earliest examples of a modern film.
It’s difficult for me to pin down exactly what I mean by that, but there are at least a couple of factors at which to look. The first is the sort of self-aware nature of the film. The entire appeal of the movie is not in its simple detective story which literally came a dime a dozen at the time (or at least that’s what my grandfather tells me) and you got a bag of popcorn to boot. The appeal is in the characters of Nick and Norah Charles who almost stumble their way through the entire case with the nonchalance of two people challenged with getting a cat out of a tree. You’d think they would use booze for bait in that situation, but cats don’t actually like booze, and they wouldn’t risk wasting a drop.
There’s a constant wink at the audience perpetrated by their behavior – a result of blending Marx Brothers-esque word play and cattiness with the black-and-white-by-numbers of noir. This, and the presence of Myrna Loy and William Powell as the stars, leads to the second factor: a decidedly non-theatrical acting style. Up until 1960 (or so), much of film acting was still rooted deeply in the lessons of the stage or Vaudeville, and that loud, bellowing crispness of line delivery is part and parcel of the whole experience. Even in some detective stories. In the same year that saw George White’s Scandals and Hollywood Rhythm, The Thin Man would have been a strange antidote to the musicals and hard-boiled tales of the year. Although, The Man Who Knew Too Much also came out that year – proving that more than a few were forward-thinking.
The third element, and the most difficult to explain, is the writing. The dialog seems more likely to be written in the mid-1990s than in the early 1930s. Nick and Norah snipe at each other with what can only be described as ennui and irony. Trademarks of Generation X popping up 60 years too soon. Perhaps that’s why so many younger film fans love it when they cross its path.
Retired detective and alcoholic Nick Charles (William Powell) is drawn out of his retirement (which is being funded by his marriage to gorgeous, witty socialite lush Norah (Myrna Loy)) by the disappearance of the very thin Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) who may also be mixed up in the murder of a young woman. Throw in the usual familial suspects, Cesar Romero, and a few gutter-dwelling punks, mix thoroughly with outlawed gin, and you’ve got yourself one sober mystery to solve un-soberly.
There are so many things to love about this movie – most of all its ability to blend together different styles without wiping the sweat from its brow. There’s the suspense of a murder mystery, the thrill of violence, the sweetness of romance, and all of it is punctuated by the banter of two people who you’d think hate each other if you didn’t know they were in love. Some of the lines tossed back and forth between Nick and Norah are downright cruel, but they get away with them because Powell has the ability to shrug with his voice, and Myrna Loy could give you the finger and make you fall in love with her. Their match up is really at the core of the film (and the core of why five sequels resulted), but there’s also the cold snap of a dark figure lurking in the shadows and the lightning crack of gun shots leaving a body motionless in the street. How those two disparate tones manage to meet, date, and get married in a single film is beyond me, but it speaks sincerely to the writing of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (not to mention the novel by Dashiell Hammet) and the directing of W.S. Van Dyke (who made his first film 17 years earlier in 1917 and would go on to direct three more Thin Man movies).
The movie was nominated for Best Picture but lost along with 8 other films to It Happened One Night. It’s interesting because, despite being so modern, the film played today seems more like a clever distraction than one earnestly vying to call itself best of the year. However, that’s all part of the unending charm of the picture. It is perhaps one of the few examples of a film that is all things to all people: a satisfying murder mystery, a laugh-out-loud comedy, an endearing romance, a popular favorite, a critic’s choice, a technical achievement and a deeply quotable movie.
There are more words written positively about this movie than I care to read, but on top of that pile, I’d like to put forward the simple conceit that I laid out at the beginning. The personnel behind this film were ahead of their time, and as such, have made a film that is timeless – a film that can and does reach out to everyone.
I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.
Check out the trailer for the film. You’ll notice that William Powell as Nick Charles is talking to…William Powell as Philo Vance (a popular detective played by Powell at the time):
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