The Thin Man (1934)
The Thin Man (1934) is the first installment of a popular series of films casting a sophisticated, glamorous, pleasure-seeking, and urbane husband-wife detective team (William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles). Director W.S. Van Dyke had previously directed Manhattan Melodrama (1934), in which stars Powell and Loy had displayed their unique and charming chemistry in their first of 14 film pairings.
The film's mystery story takes a back seat to the romantic screwball comedy, featuring the splendid, snappy and flirty banter between the rich, carefree married couple. They are known for sleuthing, solving murders, wisecracking one-liners, affectionate witticisms, delightful teasing and one-upmanship, alcoholic fun with plenty of martinis, a wire-haired terrier named Asta (actually named Skippy), and a loving relationship - often punctuated with quick kisses and slight hiccups.
The story is taken from Dashiell Hammett's 1934 detective novel of the same name, with a married couple that was supposedly modeled on the author's relationship with longtime love and playwright Lillian Hellman. [This was Hammett's fifth and final novel, written following The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key.] The 'thin man' is actually the murder victim in the novel and film, and only appeared in the initial film. This low-budget MGM film, that was shot in less than three weeks (14 days) and earned over $2 million, is the best of the bunch.
It launched a series of five more lucrative Thin Man movies (from 1936 to 1947), some of which had their screenplays also written by Dashiell Hammett. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were responsible for co-writing the screenplays for the first three Thin Man films:
- After the Thin Man (1936), d. W.S. Van Dyke - a Best Picture nominee
- Another Thin Man (1939), d. W.S. Van Dyke; introduced a new character, Nicky Charles, Jr.
- Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), d. W.S. Van Dyke
- The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), d. Richard Thorpe
- The Song of the Thin Man (1947), d. Edward Buzzell
The husband and wife team (billed as "the happiest married couple in radio") was also broadcast on radio (by Pabst Blue Ribbon) for many years, with Claudia Morgan in the role of Nora, and a number of actors in Nick's role (Lester Damon, Les Tremayne, Joseph Curtin, and David Gothard). Each radio show ended with Nora's closing: "Good night, Nickeee..." The couple's popularity progressed into television, where Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk portrayed the pair for three seasons on NBC-TV in The Thin Man from 1957-1959, in 72 30-minute episodes.
Other husband/wife sleuthing comedies were also inspired, such as these 1970s-1980s shows:
- McMillan and Wife (1971-1977), on NBC, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James
- Hart to Hart (1979-1984), on ABC, with Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers
- Remington Steele (1982-1987), on NBC, with Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist
- Moonlighting (1985-1989), on ABC, with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd
Woody Allen's part-homage film Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) starred its director and Diane Keaton as the Liptons, modeled after the Charles couple. The couple was also memorably spoofed as Mr. and Mrs. Dick and Dora Charleston (cunningly played by David Niven and Maggie Smith) in Murder by Death (1976). A modernized remake of the original Thin Man film was planned by Warner Bros - to be directed by Rob Marshall and to star Johnny Depp as the tuxedoed, Prohibition-era sleuther solving a Manhattan murder mystery.
Although it was nominated in four categories for Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (William Powell), Best Director (W. S. "Woody" Van Dyke), and Best Adapted Screenplay (husband-and-wife screenwriting partnership Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, also authors of Naughty Marietta (1935), It's A Wonderful Life (1946), Easter Parade (1948), Father of the Bride (1950), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)), it was up against stiff competition from the Oscar-sweeping film It Happened One Night (1934), and went away empty-handed. [This film's first sequel, After the Thin Man (1936) was also a Best Picture nominee, and the first sequel ever nominated for Best Picture. The film also featured a surprise ending in which Nora revealed her impending motherhood - the third film in the series Another Thin Man (1939) would feature the debut of Nicky Charles, Jr. (William A. Poulsen).]The Story
As the film opens, an eccentric, tall, wealthy businessman/inventor named Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) - the "thin man" of the film title, is in his inventor's workshop - viewed first as a silhouette cast on a wall. He is angered when his assistant interrupts him, and not knowing that his doting daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan, better known as "Jane" from two Tarzan films) and future son-in-law Tommy (Henry Wadsworth) have arrived. When they announce their wedding plans to him, he tells his daughter that he is going into seclusion to work on an important new idea and invention (because there's "no peace, no quiet, everybody interrupting me"), and refuses to tell her his intended whereabouts. But he promises that he will return for her post-Christmas wedding (December 30th) to give her away. Wynant recently divorced his wife because of an affair he is having with his pretty blonde secretary/mistress Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead). He puts his mustached lawyer, Herbert MacCaulay (Porter Hall), in charge of his financial and business affairs while he plans to be away.
Just before he departs for his long sabbatical, Wynant visits his upstairs office and discovers $50,000 in government bonds missing from his safe. Intended as a wedding present for his daughter, he questions his clerk Tanner (Cyril Thornton) about their whereabouts. He immediately suspects his mistress-secretary has taken them. He storms into her apartment, where he surprises her in the company of another man [Joe Morelli (Edward S. Brophy)]. He accuses Julia of two-timing him, and pressures her to confess that she took the bonds and sold them (and he believes that she took advantage of his absentmindedness). In addition, he threatens her with embezzlement and threatens to turn her over to the police. Then, he learns that she has divided the bonds equally with an unnamed accomplice. Intercepting a strange telephone call (from a scar-faced man later identified as Nunheim), he suspects who has assisted her.
In the next scene, three months later on Christmas Eve in a fancy restaurant, Dorothy dances with her fiancee and expresses how worried she is that she hasn't heard from her father. At the nearby bar, a suave and glib Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired former sleuth, makes a memorable first appearance in the film. He illustrates to an assemblage of bartenders how to properly mix a batch of martinis, while moving rhythmically to the music:
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.
Dorothy recognizes him ("as a real live detective" from years earlier) and introduces herself to him. Nick remembers her also, since her divorced father was a former client - as she explains to her fiancee: "He once worked on a case with my father." She tells Nick that she is worried that her father is nowhere to be found, and has failed to notify her. Nick suggests that she telephone her father's lawyer, MacCaulay, to find out if he has heard from Wynant.
In the next memorable comedic scene, Nick's sophisticated and loving wife Nora (Myrna Loy) also makes a noisy and memorable entrance. Heavily laden with Christmas packages, and dragged by their dog Asta on a leash, she ends up sprawled face-first on the floor as she enters the crowded restaurant. When asked to take the dog out of the restaurant by a waiter named Joe, Nick has a ready answer:
Nick: Oh, it's all right, Joe. It's all right. It's my dog. And uh, my wife.
Nora: Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing.
Nick: The dog's well-trained. He'll behave himself.
Dorothy and Tommy are introduced to Nora before they leave. Nick invites them to look them up again, since they will be in town for a while. They have come to New York from California (where they have lived for four years) for the Christmas holidays to celebrate their newly-wedded bliss with drinking, partying, sleeping late, and shopping. [The film capitalizes on the recent repeal of Prohibition, although in the novel set before Prohibition's repeal, the couple had to drink bootlegged hootch.] The couple sit down to have a few drinks at a table in the bar area:
Nora: (commenting on Dorothy's beauty) Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes, she's a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.
It is obvious that Nick has been drinking heavily, and Nora wants to keep up with him:
Nora: Say, how many drinks have you had?
Nick: This will make six martinis.
Nora (to waiter): All right. Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo? And line them right up here.
Soon afterwards, the couple both suffer from severe hangovers in their hotel room:
Nora: What hit me?
Nick: The last martini. How about a pick-me-up?
Just then, the doorbell rings and Wynant's lawyer MacCaulay enters, and asks:
What's Mimi [Dorothy's divorced mother] up to, Mr. Charles?...She usually is trying one way or the other to get money out of Wynant...I wanted to find out if you were, uh, (laughs), sleuthing for her?
Nick explains that he quit being a gumshoe detective four years earlier and prefers to be retired, in order to manage the private affairs of his newly-wed heiress wife - and presumably spend his inherited fortune.
MacCaulay explains how he hasn't heard from or seen Wynant for three months ("He sends word through his secretary Julia Wolf when he wants money. I give it to her and she gives it to him"). MacCaulay receives a phone call from his secretary and is informed that Wynant has reappeared and is "back in town" and waiting to meet him. As MacCaulay hurriedly leaves, he wishes them both a "Merry Christmas." Nora is tired of the Christmas spirit:
The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I'll kill 'em.
Nick telephones Dorothy to let her know that her father has arrived back in town. Mimi (Wynant) Jorgensen (Minna Gombell), Wynant's mean-spirited ex-wife, overhears the conversation, and demands to know where Wynant is. Greedy, she is concerned that Wynant's mistress Julia is taking all her ex-husband's money, now that she has remarried an unemployed, penniless lothario named Chris Jorgensen (Cesar Romero). Dorothy tells off her mother: "You just want money and you haven't any right to any more. He made a big settlement on you."
After learning that Wynant has supposedly been seeing Julia while in town, Mimi phones Julia in the Clarkson Apartments (#9A) and arranges to meet and speak with her. To make matters more serious, she finds Wynant's mistress Julia murdered in her apartment when she arrives. (Nunheim is seen surreptitiously leaving the building as she enters.) At the scene of the murder, Mimi secretly removes Wynant's watch chain from Julia's hand, thinking she can protect Wynant from incriminating evidence. [Wynant's alleged reappearance happens to coincide with the first of several murders of his close acquaintances.]
Five short scenes are inter-cut to add further intrigue to the story:
(1) Mimi is seen in a restaurant speaking to Nunheim:
Mimi: Where have ya been?
Nunheim: Out makin' money.
Mimi: Let's see it.
Nunheim: I haven't got it yet. But I'll get it.
(2) A stocky-built man named Stutsy Burke (Walter Long) informs Joe Morelli at a bar that Julia Wolf has recently been "bumped...off."
(3) MacCaulay expresses complete shock and surprise when phoned and told that Julia has been murdered.
(4) A cleaning woman describes how she will tell the police "everything" about how she "heard an awful fight in there awhile ago" between Wynant and Julia the night that he left town.
(5) MacCaulay, summoned by police, is questioned about his last contact with Julia, when he gave her money for Wynant. He answers: "Yesterday, I gave her a thousand dollars." Police detective Lt. John Guild (Nat Pendleton) immediately suspects that the missing Wynant is Julia's murderer, because there is no sign of the money:
MacCaulay: Perhaps it was a robbery.
Guild (skeptically): And her with that sparkler on her finger and thirty dollars in her purse. It looks to me like our friend Wynant came around to collect and ran into a little trouble.
MacCaulay also asserts that his secretary received a phone call message from Wynant to meet him at the Plaza at 3 pm, but Wynant didn't show up.
Later at Mimi's apartment, Lt. Guild questions her about the murder scene, and asks: "Did you see anything in Miss Wolf's hand?" Mimi denies seeing anything or touching the body, although the medical examiner claims that the body may have been touched ("that someone had forced open the girl's hand after she'd been killed"). After the police leave, Dorothy walks in on Mimi putting the watch chain in a wall safe, and is dismayed to think that her father might be the murderer.
At a festive Christmas party that the Charles couple are hosting, news of the Julia Wolf murder is heard on the radio:
Police have found out that the beautiful blonde secretary was once a gangster's girl. They're now looking for the gangster. Clyde Wynant, the girl's employer, is still missing.
Nick is asked why he is in town during the Julia Wolf murder case: "My wife's on a bender. I'm trying to sober her up." Nora is also asked if Nick is working on the case:
Reporter: What case?
Nora (retorting): A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.
In the kitchen, she recommends that Nick take the Julia Wolf case, because it sounds interesting and exciting. He reminds her why he is not coming out of retirement:
I haven't time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for.
She tries to entice him with the intriguing murder case, now that the inventor has been accused of a crime: "Girl mysteriously murdered, nobody knows who did it, they haven't found any clues, no gun, no fingerprints." Nick asserts that he will hear nothing more from her about the case:
Nora: Is that my drink over there?
Nick: What are you drinking?
Nick: (He picks up the glass and slugs down its contents.) Yes. That's yours.
Dorothy arrives at the Charles' Christmas party terribly distressed. She begs to speak to Nick alone. To protect her father, she confesses to Nick that she shot Julia, but Nick immediately sees through her fabricated story - a cover-up to protect her father. Soon after, Mimi arrives and also wishes to speak to Nick about "something very important." Mimi asks Nick for assistance in locating her missing ex-husband:
You will help me find Clyde, won't you?
Nick is again reluctant to interrupt his Christmas vacation to help anyone, speak to reporters, or to get involved in the case in any way. However, in the midst of the party, he receives an intriguing phone call from Nunheim: "I'd like to lay a proposition before you. Well, I can't discuss it over the telephone, but if you'll give me a half-hour of your time...It's about Julia Wolf" - but then the call is cut off.
As the drunken party-goers sing Oh Christmas Tree, Nora embraces and kisses Nick, and tells him what she thinks about all the low-life guests he has gathered together: "Oh, Nicky. I love you, because you know such lovely people."