Monday, March 30, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #112 - The Thin Man (1934, dir. W.S. Van Dyke)

Wait, you mean you haven’t seen The Thin Man? Seriously?  But it was one of the top grossing films of 1934! And it has huge stars in it! - William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a boozy, retired detective and his wealthy wife (also boozy). And though Nick would rather drink martinis – he’s given up detective work since marrying the wealthy Nora – everyone pushes him to investigate a murder/missing person case. But once he’s certain that the wrong man is begin framed, he takes an interest when everyone else thinks the case is shut. And let’s not forget Asta, the wire fox terrier who started his career here but went on to appear in such massive Hollywood hits as Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth (and one of the five sequels to The Thin Man). And how could you have missed their comic interchanges, which like so many films of the early sound era worked a quick wit and sparkling dialogue like very few films have since.
As an example, there’s a part in the film as they start to get embroiled in a murder case and a nosy reporter questions Nora:
Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?
Nora Charles: Yes, he is.
Reporter: What case?
Nora Charles: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.

Or when another reporter is grilling Nick about the case (murder case, that is, not the scotch) and it goes like this:
Reporter: Well, can't you tell us anything about the case?
Nick Charles: Yes, it's putting me way behind in my drinking.

You might have correctly guessed that this mystery-comedy leans pretty heavily to the comic side. Though there’s danger to the characters and suspense, it’s usually studded with bon mots like the above.
And it’s based on a hit novel by Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote the novel The Maltese Falcon, and surely you know that film, right? And like the earlier, 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon that people don’t know as well as the famed 1941 version, The Thin Man was knocked out quickly (shot in 12 days) and got into theaters a mere matter of months after the novel itself hit the stands. I mean, Hammett’s a great writer and even though other people adapted the screenplays, his work lends itself beautifully to cinema, doesn’t it? Especially when that film is photographed by one of the great cinematographers of old Hollywood, James Wong Howe, who makes both the shadowy suspense and brilliantly lit comic scenes work equally well.
I mean, it was nominated for four Oscars, too – surely you knew that, right? Didn’t win any, but it got the nods.
Well, maybe not. Maybe you’re more familiar with the great Oscar winner of 1934, It Happened One Night, instead. (You’re not? Man, we need to talk about some Capra then!) Maybe you weren’t born in 1934, and neither were your parents, and maybe not even your grandparents. I suppose that’s a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why you haven’t seen it. Maybe you knew about the sequels (quality films, too, not diminishing returns) that kept coming regularly up through 1947 and maybe not. Maybe, for some insane reason, you have an aversion to older, B&W cinema, no matter how entertaining and amazingly well written, acted, and shot it may be. Well, if that’s the case, maybe you can start learning with this film about why people considered the 30’s a big part of Hollywood’s golden age – you just don’t find dialogue like this, with completely non-P.C. alcoholics as our heroes played with brilliant comic flair by Powell and Loy, in today’s films. Or yesterday’s, or pretty much anything after the 1950’s. If somehow this little delight has eluded you until now, it’s high time you check it out. But be forewarned – it will not only lead you directly to the sequels, but will probably put you in the mindset to check out at least two of the other films above (though I’d recommend all four of them heartily)! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But start here – it’s a gas.

- Patrick Brown

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