Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Thin Man is a Darn Fine Film (and a Christmas Movie, Too)

If Die Hard is a Christmas movie, then so is 1934's The Thin Man.

As a Christmas gift, the family gave me the complete Thin Man movies on DVD. I've seen the first two more than once, but now, this week, I'll be watching one a day until New Year's Day. Why now? Well, the first movie takes place around Christmas, thus my opening statement. The second takes place around New Year's Day. See what I mean?

Anyway, most of us know about The Thin Man, the 1934 movie based on Dashiell Hammett's last novel of the same name. The novel was published in January 1934 and the film was released on 25 May of the same year. Got to appreciate the efficiency of everything back in the Depression. The film's stars are William Powell and Myrna Loy who play Nick and Nora Charles. The pair are in New York for a visit before they return to California and their real life. Nick, a former detective, now runs the railroad company his father-in-law used to operate. He's retired from the detective business, but circumstances drag him back into a case.

Old man Clyde Wynant has disappeared. His daughter Dorothy asks Nick for his help, but the former detective keeps demurring. He doesn't want any part of the business and prefers to let the cops handle the dirty work. Nora wants to see her husband as he was in his earlier life. The cops partially suspect Nick had something to do with everything but then want his help, too. The rest of the Wynant family--ex-wife Mimi who only wants his money; son Gilbert, a rather bookish type with dark, round plastic glasses who thinks he can solve the case via things he learned in books; Julia, Clyde's secretary and the reason there is an ex-wife but who also helps control the finances--each try to get a piece of Nick. 

But he's having none of it. All he wants to do is drink, be with his wife, walk his dog, Asta, and drink some more. If you know anything about the Nick and Nora film series, is the abundant amount of alcohol consumed and the witty banter between husband and wife. Nick is first introduced at a high-class gin joint, shaking the martini shaker to the time of the music. Already drunk, he then consumes the martini before hearing a commotion outside. Asta is dragging Nora into the bar. Her arms full of presents, we first see her via a pratfall. An interesting way to introduce the heroine, but right in line with the vibe of the film.

Let's be honest: we watch The Thin Man for the relationship and chemistry between Nick and Nora. Their continually throwing one-liners at each other, more than a few of which are double entendres. I haven't heard it, but I bet the radio play was just just as fun, and might have even expanded some of their scenes. Powell is a verbal gymnast with his dialogue and delivery. Fun, too, is his facial expressions, not the least of which is his perfectly trimmed mustache. It's almost like a character on its own. Loy, while appearing in some lovely attire, plays Nora as one who actually wants to get into the mix of things. Her voice often takes on a sarcastic quality, almost like a wink and a nod to the audience. 

It's fun to see how Nora practically begs Nick to take the case, but then worries about him when things get hot. I know it's a 1934 film, but it would have been fun to see Nora do a little sleuthing. Maybe she does in the later films. 

Asta, too, is a great addition. Often, director W. S. Van Dyke will do that thing where you speed up the film to show animals doing something funny, like when some shooting starts, Asta rushes under a chair or behind something. It's easy to see why Asta became the important third wheel on the Nick and Nora train.

As much fun as it is to watch Nick and Nora, there is still a mystery involved. Like any good traditional mystery during the Golden Age of detective stories between the world wars, the clues are all there. It's a decent enough mystery, one that zeroed in on the only realistic bad guy. 

I especially appreciated how Nick got all the cast of characters together at a dining table and gives The Talk. It's one of the hallmarks of stories like this, and Powell is perfect at it. I enjoyed how he'd get to a certain point, say a character's name, have that character protest their innocence, only to have Nick ask about the meal. 

Everything wraps up nice and neat, with Nick and Nora on a train barreling west to California, their detective sojourn in New York complete. A thread that runs throughout the film is the obvious love and affection Nick and Nora have for each other. Even when Nora accidentally catches Nick hugging Dorothy Wynant, she knows her husband. Sure, they sleep in different twin beds in the hotel room, but in the final scene, Nick puts Asta on the top bunk before settling in the bottom bunk with Nora. And Asta lays down and covers his eyes.

The Thin Man is a blast of a film. I'm already looking forward to tomorrow to watching the second film, After the Thin Man, which picks up almost exactly where this one ends. 

Christmas Movie?

To me, there is a difference between a movie about Christmas and a movie that takes place at Christmas. Home Alone, The Santa Clause, the various Grinch movies, etc. all are about Christmas. They couldn't take place at any other time of the year. 

Movies that take place at Christmas are usually about something else but use the trapping of Christmas for humorous effect or a plot device. Die Hard, for me, falls into this second category. So does Batman Returns. Crucially, however, these movies could be set during other times of the year or different holidays. Imagine Die Hard at Thanksgiving. Batman Returns during the Fourth of July. Or The Thin Man around St. Patrick's Day.

Still, many folks consider Die Hard a Christmas movie. If it is, then so is The Thin Man.

Funny Quotes:

Nora: [hungover after catching up to Nick's six martinis] What hit me?

Nick: The last martini.

Nora [when a cop is searching the dresser where her clothes are]: Say, what's that man doing in my drawers?

Reporter [at a Christmas party hosted by Nick and Nora with lots of drinking]: Say listen, is he working on a case?

Nora: Yes, he is.

Reporter: What case?

Nora: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.

Nora: They say you were shot in the tabloids.

Nick: They never got near my tabloids.

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