The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
MGM’s beloved Dashiel Hammett adaptation The Thin Man, which kicked off a whole spate of more sanitized sequels, is a persuasive and sympathetic portrait of a good marriage because it’s so unsentimental, with no goopy assurance needed of the pair’s mutual devotion, no evidence floated that we’re “safe” in status quo normalcy because husband is the provider and wife knows her place. Nick and Nora, retired dick and heiress respectively, direct none of the jealousy, resentment or insecurity at one another that a lesser story would lazily harness for artificial conflict — in fact, the film (with Hammett’s novel adapted skillfully by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a husband and wife team) deliberately takes time out to mock such conventions. It’s something that gets harped on a lot here, but it’s such a relief compared with Hollywood’s perception of long-term relationships as some laborious process of people grudgingly accepting abuse from their spouse as the eternities pass.
And with only vague (though unmistakable, seeing how this just missed Hays) markers of their sexuality available, we get the studio-picture stand-in for same: banter — constant, adroit, still snappy and uproarious after 80+ years. The banter has its origin in Hammett, who based it on his much more fractious relationship with Lillian Hellman, but it’s mutated marvelously first by the screenwriters and then by William Powell and Myrna Loy, a couple of geniuses walking a tightrope in such a way that you know they’re showing off but somehow you can’t get annoyed at them for it, permitted by director W.S. Van Dyke (“one-take Woody”) to improvise individually and jointly, and boasting some of the best chemistry of any pair of actors ever thrown together, especially incredible in the context of peak-stable MGM. It just looks so fun (and, frankly, hot) to be them, or even just to be around them.
Though it sits differently in one’s memory because their scenes are such a joy, there’s relatively little of the iconic duo in this movie; they get a handful of scenes together (and Powell gets a decent number on his own) but those are by a longshot the best parts of the film, so much so that they overshadow a great deal of the actual plot. And the barbs fly fast and furious: it’s not just that when Nora frets over Nick’s pending, potentially dangerous departure to surreptiously work on the case of the missing inventor, one mark of the times being that chivalry of a sort prevents her from joining up when things get really hairy, and she chides him for the possibility of her being made a bereaved wife, Nick dryly responds “You wouldn’t be a widow for long,” it’s that she comes back with “You bet I wouldn’t,” a perfectly cynical expression of her deep affection and a play on his own love for her that still doesn’t faze him. They both know what they really mean to each other, so much so that it’s a matter of security and intense trust that they are able to exchange in this verbal and physical ballet together (as with Edna Best and Leslie Banks in Hitchcock’s original British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, released the same year) — to the extent that when Nora walks in on Nick platonically comforting a much younger woman, the daughter of the disappeared man at the center of the mystery, she only playfully chides him and there is never once the suspicion that she has seen something she shouldn’t, or on his part that he has to defend himself against the awkwardness of the moment.
Van Dyke’s rapid shooting style overcomes its relative artlessness through its feeling of lively spontaneity; you even envy the guests at that terminally awkward suspect dinner party (and certainly at the much drunker and sexier Christmas fete earlier on). The film is an active assault upon all of the pleasure centers, replete with frothy mystery and an adorable dog, but with everything centering around the extraordinary characters, layabout alcoholic cum semi-competent detective and his self-assured, witty spouse, who sit on the very precipice of the Code, just enough so that ample sensuality comes through here that would be relatively sparse in the rest of the series (all of which reprise the Thin Man title even though only this entry has anything to do with a thin man), despite Powell and Loy’s consistent effectiveness as a couple.
But let’s not forget, this is actually a whodunit — and while it’s interesting and full of intriguing characterizations and performances, the mystery elements certainly take a back seat to the real story, of ex-detective Nick letting Nora talk him into trying his hand at a case post-retirement. It’s set up engrossingly with an opening ten minutes that seem like the start of an entirely different film and remains diverting at the rare points when it’s our focus, but it grows increasingly confusing and muddled in typical Hammett fashion while the big revelation is wholly anticlimactic and makes little logical sense — and this reminds us, inevitably, that said resolution isn’t truthfully why we’re here. Apart from the moments when the marriage collides with harsh reality, as when a gunman comically intrudes upon their bedroom, the intrigue could be more seamlessly integrated, apart from demonstrating how Nick knows what he’s doing only marginally more than the police. Each time we’re torn away from scenes at home with Nick and Nora, aimless or not, and have to return to matters of story business that take us away from Powell and Loy’s effortless repartee, it has a bit of the feel of a frustrated orgasm.
On the series Moonlighting, directly inspired by Hollywood films like this one, the cases the detectives solved were always used as ironic comments on the state of their relationship; perhaps the morbid back-alley muck, corpses and gangsters and all, that plays out behind the main attraction in The Thin Man is a sort of commentary as well, letting us remember how irrelevant the larger world can appear when your company is this good. Whether it’s intended this way or not — by Hammett, by Van Dyke, by the actors and screenwriters — there’s something touching about the way that the whole setup just feels like an excuse to introduce us to Mr. and Mrs. Charles, divine characterizations stuck inside a relatively ordinary paperback narrative. That doesn’t mean that we don’t just want to watch a whole movie of the two of them hanging out and pretending to get on each other’s nerves, but we acknowledge that such a thing wouldn’t have been possible in mainstream entertainment; like a lot of really bold, adventurous studio films from the first half of the ’30s, though, it all really makes you wonder what-if and why-not.
[Expanded from my Letterboxd capsule of 2017.]