Thin Man, The (1934)
Release Date: May 25th, 1934 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: W.S. Van Dyke Actors: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Cesar Romero, Henry Wadsworth, Edward Ellis
orothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) has come home to her elderly father, Clyde Wynant, to tell him of her engagement and upcoming marriage to Tommy (Henry Wadsworth), set for just after Christmas. Clyde is intent on leaving right away due to a new invention of his that must remain a complete secret, refusing to tell anyone where he’s going or for how long. When months pass and no one has seen or heard from Mr. Wynant, Dorothy begins to worry. Then, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead), Clyde’s secretary and mistress who recently stole $50,000 worth of bonds from him, turns up dead, clutching a prized watch chain worn by the missing man.
All the motives point to Wynant, but the clues lead elsewhere. His ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell) always wanted money and was the one to discover the body; lawyer Herbert MacCaulay (Porter Hall) may have been the last one to see him; nerdy younger brother Gilbert (William Henry) desperately wants to get involved; conniving, jobless Chris Jorgenson (Cesar Romero) would love to get some quick cash for Mimi; Morelli (Edward Brophy) likes to interrogate with guns; bug-eyed Arthur Nunheim (Harold Huber) wants to pin it on Morelli; bookkeeper Tanner (Cyril Thornton) likes to snoop around; and everyone wants to stay between the cops (led by low-voiced, emotionless Lieutenant John Guild, played by Nat Pendleton) and the truth. In walks Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired detective with a fine reputation and a glass of scotch permanently in hand, visiting New York in the wrong place at the right time to take the case. Along with his supportive wife Nora (Myrna Loy) and their beloved dog Asta, Nick decides to get to the bottom of it – especially when the body count begins to rise.
One of the most interesting things about “The Thin Man” is that Nick is already married to his love interest, even though much of the film is devoted to the two of them flirting and wooing one another. Powell and Loy were one of the greatest screen couples, their cinematic compatibility epitomized here with this second collaboration (opening just after “Manhattan Melodrama” the same year, also directed by W.S. Van Dyke), with Powell effortlessly delivering witty remarks and Loy scrunching up her face in affectionate disapproval. They continued to work together for more than ten additional films – including five “Thin Man” sequels. Their chemistry is easily the highlight of the film, though the fast-paced, incredibly complex plot (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett) is endlessly fascinating. At times, the large number of characters can become downright confusing, adding in points of deception, plenty of motives, and unexpected developments that keep the conclusion completely unpredictable.
The combination of laugh-out-loud dialogue and a multiple-murder mystery is highly unique and one of the reasons “The Thin Man” comes across as inventive, original, and unusually thrilling. There’s also a distinct note of film noir mixed in. The memorable finale humorously involves Nick gathering together all the suspects at a dinner party and wordily recounting the events of the slayings, hoping the culprit will expose himself – or herself – accidentally, as he’s still not certain who did it. Despite general and contemporary public confusion as to who the eponymous “Thin Man” title actually referred to, and the fact that it was designed as a low-budget B-movie, the project was met with such critical praise and commercial success that it went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay, and would see the first of many sequels just two years later.
– Mike Massie