Friday, May 23, 2014

Introducing the Thin Man

Nick (William Powell): Now how did you ever remember me?

Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan): Oh, you used to fascinate me. A real live detective. You used to tell me the most wonderful stories. Were they true?

Nick: Probably not.

Dashiell Hammett was a great mystery writer. He created some of the great characters to be adapted for the big screen, including Sam Spade, the detective in "The Maltese Falcon."

But Sam was a rather somber sort. Hammett's most entertaining detectives, Nick and Nora Charles, made their screen debut in "The Thin Man" 80 years ago today.

Nick and Nora were a married couple who solved mysteries together. Their boozy banter ("The Thin Man" was rated #32 among the comedies by the American Film Institute) was part of their charm — which they parlayed into six movies between 1934 and 1947.

They had a pet terrier, Asta, who accompanied them in all six of the "Thin Man" movies — although, like the dog from the Frasier TV series, the character wasn't played by the same dog from start to finish.

All six of the titles included "the thin man," and I assumed (until I saw the first one) that it was a reference to William Powell, who played Nick Charles — but, in fact, it was a reference to the man Charles was originally hired to find.

Actually, Powell and Loy appeared in 14 movies together. "The Thin Man" was only the second of three movies they were in together in 1934, but it was the best.

In fact, "The Thin Man" may have been the best of the six–movie series. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, but lost all four to "It Happened One Night."

("The Thin Man" series of movies kind of reminds me of the "Rocky" series or the "Star Wars" series. The original "Thin Man" movie was a sleeper. It was made in a couple of weeks for less than a quarter of a million dollars. Not much was expected from it, but it ended up inspiring not only five big–screen sequels but radio and TV programs as well.)

About halfway through the movie, Charles referred to the missing man as a "thin man with white hair." The missing man turned out to be dead — a fact that was revealed before the movie ended — but the titles of sequels to the original always mentioned "the thin man." I don't think I was the only one who was confused by that — Powell was rather lanky — and Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer, I am certain, did what it could to encourage that confusion among moviegoers of the time.

Anyway, when moviegoers first met them in 1934, Nick was a retired detective and Nora was a wealthy socialite. Nick was pressed back into service when an industrialist friend (the thin man, played by Edward Ellis) vanished.

Nick Charles: The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox–trot time, a Bronx to two–step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.

And that took Nick and Nora (Myrna Loy) down a twisting path that ultimately led to the revelation Nick shared with the suspects who were gathered together for a dinner party in the final scene.

Four decades later, Neil Simon lampooned Nick and Nora — as well as Sam Spade and other classic movie detectives — with David Niven and Maggie Smith in "Murder By Death." Much of the humor focused on a spoof of the old gathering–the–suspects–in–one–place scene.

In 1934, it wasn't the cliche it has become. In fact, it was a rather effective device — 80 years ago.

Too bad there wasn't a butler in "The Thin Man." That cliche originated elsewhere.