The Thin Man (1934 movie)

  • Post comments:1 Comment

Shortly after the release of Dashiell Hammet’s 1934 novel The Thin Man, a movie was produced based on the novel. It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and the screenplay was written by married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were instructed to focus on the witty exchanges between Nick and Nora Charles. The film is just barely from the pre- Hays Code era. I don’t know if that code had any instruction about drinking, because the movie characters do a great job of keeping up with all the drinking in the books.

My review of this is going to be heavily comparative with my thoughts on the book, so reading that review, or some knowledge of the book, might be helpful if you’re reading, particularly as I’m going to mention subplots from the book. The plot, of course, is the same: ex-private detective Nick Charles is back in his old stomping grounds of New York City with his rich and charming wife Nora, when Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of an old client, asks him to find her missing father Clyde. Shortly after this, Clyde Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered, and events conspire to push Nick into investigating the case.

Nick and Nora in their element (hosting a party)

Our stars here are William Powell and Myrna Loy. The pair went on to star in many more movies together, and they’re both brilliant, and have great chemistry together. While Nora remains much the same as the book, Nick here is a more active protagonist; some of the sections in the book where he suggests to others that they investigate something are instead performed by Nick alone, with the assistance of Asta the dog. In general, being performed by charismatic actors helps brighten the already witty text, making some quips land where they didn’t for me in the book, and seeing William Powell play Nick removes the oddly distant feel of the first-person perspective from the novel.

The Thin Man himself, Clyde Wynant

As for the other characters, right off the bat there is a huge change to the film. Rather than being a mysterious background figure as he is in the book, the Thin Man – inventor Clyde Wynant – is actually the first character we see on screen. He was played by Edward Ellis, who I felt made a big impact in this short intro section. It’s an interesting choice to characterise the unknowable Clyde from the books, giving him traits the audience would sympathise with. This sympathy also demonstrates the biggest tonal difference between the book and the film – the film sands off a lot of the jagged edges of the book’s characters.

Clyde Wynant has not abandoned his daughter in the film, and maintains a loving relationship with her despite being divorced from her mother Mimi. Dorothy herself (Maureen O’Sullivan) also has a beau she’s committed to, rather than the deliberately uncomfortable infatuation with Nick that she shows in the book. One downside of these character changes, though, is that she’s so un-messed up that her later angst seems histrionic rather than natural. Mimi (Minna Gombell) and Dorothy’s brother Gilbert (William Henry), already rather flat in the book, are pure caricature here, although the film has no need for anything else from them, since their parts are cut down considerably. Mimi in particular maintains a constant state of agitated shrillness. Everyone else is very enjoyable.

The role of Mimi’s new husband Christian Jorgenson (Cesar Romero) is greatly changed in the movie, with different revelations about his character, which I think make more sense and help to simplify the conclusion, too. In the book the character made little impact on me, and he probably gets even less to do in the movie – he spends more time talked about than talking.

Since I’ve been reading about Agatha Christie adaptations, I took extra notice of Harold Huber – who played Poirot on the radio in the 1940s – as the weaselly Nunheim.

Asta, sit!

I can also confirm that the dog is cute.

Nick gathers together the suspects - and then he'll pull a fast one!

Just like the book, the movie has a surprisingly solid mystery for a comedic take on the genre. I found the explanation a little hard to track in the book but easier here, though apparently William Powell struggled with delivering the spiel!
The film has some fantastic comedic setpieces – the party scene from the book is expanded upon and is brilliant. In addition, the delivery of the denouement is changed from a normal conversation to a rather stagy, though witty, dinner party that is absolutely out of keeping with how the book would have done it, although it definitely goes to some effort to tie things off in a more satisfying way. That scene is the only one to properly puncture the more gritty elements of the setting, which, though downplayed, are still present in the story. The audience-pleasing focus on wrapping up the story does undercut what I saw as a key point of the novel, but frankly I enjoyed the film much more for it. This film seems very well regarded and I can see why; I had a great time watching it and would absolutely recommend it. It’s one of those adaptations that gives me greater appreciation of the original, too.

A playful trailer featuring another William Powell-depicted detective, Philo Vance. Movie trailers have changed a lot since then! Though it includes plenty of scenes from right near the end of the movie, so perhaps they haven’t changed much after all.
Have I been pronouncing the word “suspects” wrong all my life?!

This Post Has One Comment

Leave a Reply