The Thin Man
Director: WS Van Dyke
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy
A year ago, I spent New Year’s Eve 2011 at the movie theaters taking in a screening of The Thin Man. It being one of my favorites, my husband tagged along to see what the fuss was about. I’m always nervous when Rob sees one of my absolute favorite movies, because I want him to like it but I never know if he will. I cannot begin to say how happy I was when I heard him laughing through the entire thing, let alone when he asked afterwards if we could watch the sequel (which, of course, I own on DVD). He couldn’t stop giggling at William Powell, and he commented on how much drinking there was in this movie. Naturally, he’s correct, which gave me an idea for New Year’s Eve 2012 – The Thin Man Drinking drinking game. The rules are really quite easy: take a drink whenever one of the characters drinks.
Before we get started, here’s a rundown on the plot. Nick Charles (Powell) is a retired detective; he gave up the gig when he married his wealthy wife Nora (Loy) and is now living a life of leisure. But when his old friend Wynant, the eponymous “thin man,” disappears, his daughter Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) appeals to Nick for help. It looks increasingly as though Wynant committed a double murder, but Nick has his doubts. Can Nick solve the case and clear his friend’s name?
Alright, the first ten minutes of this film have no drinking. It’s just the establishment of the Wynant’s relationships, and is, frankly, a fairly tedious ten minutes. Come on, let’s get to Nick Charles! Yes, I’m playing this game with champagne, half because it’s New Year’s, and half because when I think of The Thin Man, I think of champagne. Light, bubbly, fun, effervescent.
Finally, Nick’s entrance. You must always shake a martini to waltz time, after all.
Twenty minutes in: Yeah, okay, I’m about a glass of champagne in and feeling rather nice. That first scene with Nick gives you plenty of opportunity. This is a pretty decent game.
Forty minutes in: Through two glasses of champagne, and we’re past the Christmas party scene. Plenty of fun times there. Everything’s feeling rather grand indeed.
Sixty minutes in: Three glasses of champagne down the hatch, and between the two of us, we’ve kicked the first bottle of champagne. Good thing we put the other one in the fridge.
End of the movie: Had to switch over to Dr. Frank’s Riesling. Not the drunkest I’ve ever been, but three and a half glasses of champagne plus a glass of wine… yep, good drinking game.
Resuming my review the next day with a clearer head:
I love this movie. I really do. Watching it again last night, I realized it’s not perfect. Anytime we move away from Nick and Nora, the movie’s definitely weaker. All that guff with the Wynant family, the introduction of more suspects for the murders than you can shake a stick at, that’s not the attraction for me, and it’s a little dull, frankly. But Nick and Nora… oh, Nick and Nora. You make everything so much better. So much so that I am more than willing to completely overlook the random nonsense that is happening around you to completely focus on just the two of you.
So let’s talk about Nick and Nora. I cannot believe this movie was made nearly eighty years ago. Their relationship is completely and utterly modern. Nick does not treat Nora as someone who is beneath him, or as someone who is merely there to wait on him and get him his slippers in the morning. On the contrary, he treats her with respect and reverence, waiting on her just as often if not more than she waits on him. He loves her, but not in an overblown “movie passion” sort of way. There are no great, lengthy speeches of love, or ardent embraces. Instead, there are just little looks, lots of giggles, funny faces, and cheeky asides. It’s an everyday adorable kind of love. I’ve seen my fair share of movies from the 1930s, and I really can’t think of an example of such a modern relationship from that time period.
Because Nick and Nora have fun. That’s what makes it so modern. Their relationship isn’t work. I’m sure they have their issues just like everyone else, but we certainly don’t see them. All we see is them having fun with one another. They got married because they entertain each other. They make marriage look so dang easy. I adore that about the two of them.
Most of this, quite honestly, comes from Powell’s portrayal of Nick Charles. His irreverence and his quips make him completely unpredictable, and that’s a huge part of what my husband likes about him so much. When a suspect slips away during an interrogation, Nick doesn’t flinch, but calmly calls for police backup. When a different suspect shows up with a gun in the middle of the night, Nick hits his wife instead of hitting the suspect, and then uses the resulting shock to grab the gun. On Christmas day, he plays with the BB gun Nora got him by aiming in stranger and stranger ways at the balloons on the Christmas tree. For all of this goofiness, though, William Powell always keeps Nick so impeccable, so suave, so slick. Upper class, sophisticated goofiness: that’s Nick Charles to me.
Although most of the attraction is Nick Charles, this movie wouldn’t work without Nora, impeccably played by Loy. Nick needs someone who can keep up with him, someone who can appreciate his unpredictability and not flinch at his silliness, and that’s absolutely Nora. Given that Nora makes her grand entrance by falling flat on her face, this is set up for her character from the get go. When Nora walks in on Nick in a (comforting) embrace with another woman, all Nora does is pull a funny face, then calmly walk in to help comfort the woman as well. No “how dare you hug my husband!” No “Nick, what are you doing, how could you!” Nope, implicit faith. I love that. She is, perhaps, not as off-kilter as her husband, but she can match him step for step wherever he leads her. He starts skipping, so she starts skipping. He has had five martinis to drink, so she orders five martinis to catch up. He breaks a pane of glass, and she just changes the topic. He teases her, she slaps him upside the head – lovingly, of course. Nora is a perfect match for Nick.
The dialogue in The Thin Man is absolutely crackerjack. I never tire of listening to this film, with all its witticisms. “We’re all like that on my father’s side.” “Oh, how is your father’s side?” “Much better, thanks, and yours?” And that’s just in the first scene! I don’t want to resort to simply listing lines, but crap, it’s funny. Pay attention whenever Nick and Nora are talking to each other, as that’s when the dialogue is at its sparkling best.
And back to the drinking – there is a great deal of alcohol in this movie. Made in 1934, Prohibition had just been repealed in America, and the nation was thirsty. For the first time in several years, filmmakers could actively show people drinking on film in a non-threatening way. The Thin Man is a celebration of this. Yay, we can drink again! The imbibing is not sad or depressing; these are not alcoholics here. People drink in The Thin Man because it’s fun. Nick Charles, for his part, is nearly always under the influence, ranging from just a bit tipsy to slurring his words, and it’s funny.
The last thing I want to say about The Thin Man is more personal. When I started watching movies from the 1001 Movies book, I started out by seeing movies randomly, from any decade. I only did this for a few films, however, before deciding that I wanted to watch movies chronologically by decade. At the same time, however, I realized I had seen barely any movies from thirties, and none from the twenties or earlier. I decided that, to help acclimate myself to the particular stylizations of early cinema, I would start by watching the comedies of the thirties then work backwards, because comedies are always appealing. The Thin Man was the very first “old” movie I watched from 1001 Movies. The very first one. And I still remember being completely blown away by how fresh and funny and appealing it was. I wanted to watch it over again immediately, and I bought it the first chance I got. It did wonders for my enthusiasm for watching early films, and really helped me fall in love with films from the thirties. I still remember finishing watching The Thin Man and being so excited about this movie journey I had just started. The Thin Man convinced me that it would be a grand adventure.
I’ve seen this movie dozens of times – literally. I know it inside and out. As I mentioned before, the parts without Nick and Nora drag a bit, but I don’t care. I love it. Unabashedly and forever. All Time Top 10 Favorite. Desert Island Movie. Myrna Loy and William Powell shine. They are my favorite movie couple of all time. I think my new New Year’s Eve tradition is this movie. There are far worse ways to ring in the new year.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. Personal adoration trumps *slightly* imperfect cinema.