This 1934 mystery movie is the first of perhaps the most popular series of Hollywood movies ever — at least until Marvel and Harry Potter came on the scene.
As the preview notes, constantly, the plot came from a book by Dashiell Hammett, who wrote many, many hard-boiled detective stories. (More about him later.)
The film’s leads are Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired private detective and his equally devoted wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), an heiress who also takes an interest in the detecting game. They are fun to watch, and their comfortable life probably was also fun to observe during the Great Depression.
After a trip by train to New York, Nick is importuned by the daughter of his inventor friend to help find her father, who has disappeared. After a bit of protest, Nick finds himself drawn into the mystery. The other characters include the inventor’s ex-wife, his son, his lawyer, his secretary/girlfriend, her other man-friend, and others. Moments of investigation and inquiry are interspersed with witty exchanges between the Charleses and involving their terrier, Asta. Weapons are displayed — always 38-caliber pistols — but the action is tame by current standards. (In those days, there weren’t so many psycho criminals, apparently.). Toward the end, all the characters gather and Nick reveals the murderer and answers all the associated story questions.
One remarkable aspect of the movie is the Charles’ appetite for cocktails, which continues to a somewhat lesser degree in subsequent Thin Man stories. This may have been a reaction to the 1933 repeal of the 18th Amendment, aka prohibition, which perhaps whetted the country’s appetite for distilled beverages or at least for seeing them consumed on screen after 13 long dry years.
“The Thin Man” was one of the most popular movies of 1934.
“After the Thin Man,” released two years later, features an unpublished Hammett story and a screenplay by two film pros who capitalized on the parts of the first movie that seemed to be most appealing to audiences.
In this case, Nick, Nora and Asta arrive back in San Francisco on the Sunset Limited, where Nick is met by a squad of reporters and an old friend, “Fingers,” who has served his time in the pen and briefly purloins Nora’s handbag, which is returned.
They go home to their lovely home overlooking the soon-to-open Golden Gate Bridge — in Pacific Heights or maybe atop Telegraph Hill (hard to tell).
That evening, they set out for dinner with Nora’s relatives, including some fuddy duddies who are not fond of NickoLOSS, as they call him. Another problem has arisen, of course. Nora’s cousin Selma Landis, is married to a nogoodnik who has disappeared.
Turns out Selma’s husband, Robert, has been drowning his sorrows and hatching extortion plots for several days at the Lychee Club, a restaurant with a full orchestra, a cast of dancing girls and a singing star with a dodgy brother — all of which adds interest to the movie and suspects to the mix when Robert Landis is found shot dead.
A vigorous police investigation ensues, led by a lieutenant named Adams who is easily frustrated and whose favorite word is “Phooey!” which is another nice touch. Selma, of course, is the main suspect.
Nora inserts herself into the investigation even after Nick tries to ward her off. She’s smart, too, and they are a nice team.
As in the previous movie (and Agatha Christie novels, among other detective stories of the period) the entire cast gathers for a scene in which Nick explains what really happened and identifies the killer.
At the end, a new plot element is revealed to build interest in the next movie.
Personally, I found this Thin Man more fun than the others two. Others may disagree.
“Another Thin Man”, released in 1939, finds Nora and Nick — now with Nicky Jr. — back in the Big Apple. One of the first New Yorkers they meet is a bellhop whom Nick previous sent “up the river” but who is not resentful — 20th century crooks were a different breed, apparently — and who promises to gather some of his friends and their children for young Nick’s first birthday a few days hence.
Then it’s off to Long Island and the home of Colonel MacFay, a business partner of Nora’s late father. On the way that dark evening, the car passes a body lying on the road with a knife sticking out of its torso. When the Charleses go back to investigate, the body is gone. There are also armed guards stationed at the gate to the MacFay estate and at its front door.
So something’s up. Naturally, the Thin Man’s help is required.
The cast includes MacFay’s assistant, his adopted daughter, Lois, and Lois’ boyfriend, plus skeezy guys named Dum-Dum and Diamond Back, and others.
MacFay is found dead, of course, which requires an inquiry and the expertise of Nick and, yes, Nora, who is also paying attention.
The orchestra and dancers in this case are at the West Indies Club, where Nora shows up unexpected and is romanced by a Lothario. Another family touch is that Nick calls his wife “Mommy!” when he is feeling sentimental.
The principals reconvene at the end of a weekend in the New York hotel suite, where the bellhop and his buddies have shown up, each with a child, for the promised birthday celebration.
When the situation gets tense, someone suggests suggest putting the toddlers in the “pen,” or play pen, a term that distresses the ex-cons for a moment (and is the kind of good-natured wordplay that fits in a Thin Man plot.)
Again, after the larger group gathers, Nick unravels the mystery.
There are three more Thin Man movies that might appeal to binge-watchers. The three here are well-made and fun, but enough for this writer.
This much-admired novelist’s school career ended well short of his school graduation. He dropped out (like others of earlier periods) to help support his family.
In 1915, at 20, he signed on with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, where he worked for five years before and after his Army service in World War I.
While stationed in Europe he contracted the tuberculosis that left him in ill health and forced his resignation from the Pinkertons.
Fortunately, that short professional career gave him the insights that enabled him to write detective stories and crime novels. His first was published in 1922.
Perhaps Hammett’s most famous character is Sam Spade, the detective in “The Maltese Falcon”, a book that was turned into three movies — two long forgotten, and the third, starring Humphrey Bogart, that is a film classic.
Another Hammett character, perhaps more quietly influential in crime stories over generations, is the Continental Op, who is discussed and placed in context on this website” by someone who seems pretty familiar with the material.
Hammett’s heroes typically were unsentimental tough guys, and Nick and Norah Charles are a tad more sentimental than these. In fact, The Thin Man was published first in Redbook, a women’s magazine.
Purists in the genre would call Nick Charles (and certainly Nora) more soft-boiled than hard-boiled. My recollection of The Maltese Falcon is that the Sam Spade of film is also a touch more sentimental (soft-boiled) than the character in the book.
Hammett died at 67 in January 1961.