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The Thin Man

The Thin Man(1934)

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The Thin Man A husband-and-wife detective... MORE > $19.98 Regularly $19.98 Buy Now

Home Video Reviews

The classic moment in The Thin Man comes when William Powell announces that he's going to invite all the suspects to dinner as a way of finding out who the murderer is. Chances are that gag was a cliché long before this film ever came out but watching it now, it plays like history is being made. On old television viewings, The Thin Man was a creaky fossil with scratches and bad audio; Warner's DVD makes it look ... well, if not brand-new, then awfully close. Several generations of movie fans have discovered it since its mid-Depression debut.

Synopsis: Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are in New York on pleasure. A prominent detective, he retired to run his wife's business affairs. They spend their time shopping, drinking and walking their dog Asta (Asta). Nick is drawn back into the sleuthing racket when an old associate, inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) disappears and is suspected of murder. Other suspects appear by the handful - Wynant's money-grubbing ex-wife (Minna Gombell), her slimy husband Chris (Cesar Romero) and thug Joe Morelli (Edward Brophy). Nick cares a lot for Clyde's daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) and so does his best to solve the crime, even after an attempt on his life. Naturally, he and Nora hardly miss a highball during the course of the investigation.

With a literary pedigree courtesy of Dashiell Hammett and the considerable chemistry between its two stars, The Thin Man was a natural success. The exceptionally witty script by Hackett & Goodrich has a new clever remark every minute and director 'mister speedy' Van Dyke arranges thriller and comedy elements into a slick and sophisticated enterprise. Nick & Nora's natural, unforced dialogue delivery became the envy of the upscale set, and their lifestyle the dream of the Depression's dispossessed. One can imagine Mia Farrow watching this film in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and being carried away by it. The Charles's live in a swank Manhattan hotel and come off as great people to know. Nora wears killer outfits even when slouching on the sofa, and they blithely order their booze from a room service that's an unending tap. It's the perfect fantasy: rich swells who are swell folks.

The film divides its time equally between light character fun and a reasonably engaging mystery. Nick playfully shoots Christmas ornaments with his brand new popgun and then oversees the unearthing of a corpse from freshly laid concrete, naturally without getting his fingers dirty. Their relationship was made for the films: Nick and Nora banter, flirt, insult and if necessary slap each other around, but their mutual devotion is never in doubt. They're just too faux-hardboiled to be bogged down with unnecessary sentiment, especially when drinks are waiting.

Part of Nick and Nora's success also comes from a Hays code dodge. The couple are devoted, upstanding, and faithful...they only act and talk like libertines, kidding one another about other women and sex. What they actually do is completely in line with the code - they even sleep in twin beds. Like all the great Golden Age screenwriters, Hackett & Goodrich were experts at innuendo and playful sex talk. She: "It says you were shot 5 times, in the tabloids." He: "The bullet didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."

Powell was never more handsome or charming and Myrna Loy is a sight to die for, a unique beauty with a pinched nose, catlike face and an utterly disarming manner. This very relaxed behavior- based comedy is perhaps their best. Doggie star Asta was the rage as well, even though he's just asked to play straight-dog to Powell's quips. Not their equal in star caliber but just as beloved is supporting actress Maureen O'Sullivan, famous as Tarzan's Jane. Her disappointed socialite suddenly and unconvincingly declares, "I'm never going to get married or have children. From now on I'm just going for the ride."

The Thin Man's most salient aspect today is its concentration on alcohol. Nick & Nora are the perfect distiller's fantasy, as they drink like thirsty fish. There are occasional hangovers but the way these too slosh down Manhattans ("Line up five more here, so I can catch up with Nick!"), they should be in a hospital. Counting the number of drinks consumed in the movie is impossible, as most scenes begin after the bar is opened. Nick's introduction comes while demonstrating to bartenders how to shake a drink with the right rhythm. Two years after prohibition was repealed, The Thin Man promotes that heavy drinking as a social necessity. Nick and Nora demonstrate that booze makes one witty, popular and sexy. An' no schlurred spleech, neethur.

The film's 'usual suspects' belong in the conservatory with Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum. Maureen O'Sullivan's bookworm-mama's boy brother Gilbert walks around talking Freudian nonsense. Nat Pendleton's dumb police Lieutenant is matched by Edward Brophy's cartoonish thug. Oily Cesar Romero is an excellent gigolo and Minna Gombell a caustic ex-wife. Nick's final forced 'dinner party' collects all the kooks together to reveal the killer. Nora says, "Pass the nuts," but corrects herself with "Pass the guests the nuts."

MGM's usual white-telephone trappings share screen time with dank night exteriors, which certainly aren't noir but are creepy nonetheless. The story is confected so that everybody from tough cops to underworld thugs is intimidated by William Powell's good looks and smart mouth. He gets his way and commands authority by sheer charm and slick screenwriting. Historians make frequent mention of the speed with which the film was made. The only place the haste might show is the big ending dinner, where too many cutaways to single actors just barely match the scene in tone and pitch.

Warner's DVD of The Thin Man looks just fine. There are faint scratches here and there but the show is intact, nicely framed and free of flickering or bad contrast. Hollywood film stocks from this era lacked a full contrast range but they did have that 'silver screen' nitrate glow, and the DVD accurately replicates the look. The sound has obviously been cleaned up from serviceable elements, as there is little hiss and no telltale signs of EQ or compression.

The only extras are some filmographies and a whole string of Thin Man sequel trailers. They didn't rush these out, as the six titles stretch from 1934 to 1947. Powell and Loy aged gracefully while the material got thinner with each outing. A veritable parade of MGM hopefuls shows up as red herrings: James Stewart, Sheldon Leonard, Gloria Grahame (is that her original nose?), Barry Nelson, and others.

For more information about The Thin Man, visit Warner Video. To order The Thin Man, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson