THE THIN MAN—-Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and Agatha Christie’s ‘Hercule Poirot’ had been sleuthing and deducing since 1887 and 1920, respectively, so Dashiell Hammett’s dapper detection duo ‘Nick & Nora Charles’ were latecomers when introduced in his 1934 novel “The Thin Man”. The eccentric Brit and fastidious Belgian had precise diction and irritating manners down to a science, but it took The Charles to cleverly clue-chat while simultaneously looking chic mixing a martini. Martini’s, plural, since they down them with a regularity equal to how today pretend sophisticates narcotically nurse their phones. Hammett’s final novel made it to the screen the same year, shot in 16 days by lightning-speed director W.S. Van Dyke, starring the immortal William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Retired detective Nick Charles (urbane wit, swell guy and intoxicant specialist), assisted by his wife Nora ( heiress/socialite, sparring partner, sweetheart) take on a missing person’s case for a young woman (Maureen O’Sullivan, moonlighting from being Tarzan’s chick) desperate to locate her father. Missing turns to murder, with numerous suspects, including a young, slick Cesar Romero (his second part, age 27). In this, and future installments, the plots are just excuses for the I-know-you bantering between Powell and Loy. Nora & Nick are sly & silly, sexy & sweet, as they tease each other and react/retort to a parade of mugs, swells, dames and molls. Their cat-smart terrier ‘Asta’ (Skippy) adds her 4-paws worth to the merry go-rounding.
The Thin Man was a hit out of the gate, delighting critics and crowds, pulling Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Actor (Powell), Director and Writing. The $226,400 that MGM invested returned $2,600,000, ranking #30 for ’34, when average ticket prices were 23 cents.
Powell & Loy made a dream team. They’d already appeared that year in director Van Dyke’s Manhattan Melodrama, as a married couple friends with mobster Clark Gable, and in Evelyn Prentice, as yet another husband & wife involved in a murder mystery. Van Dyke gave them leeway to improvise, and their off-camera compatibility bubbled like champagne into the knowing dialogue written by married couple Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich. Powell: “When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren’t acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony”. They’d team in 10 more pictures over the next 13 years, five of them sequels to The Thin Man. *
With Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Harold Huber, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brophy, William Henry and Douglas Fowley. 91 minutes that made the Depression a little easier to bear.
* Two years later came After The Thin Man (a bigger hit, #6 in ’36), and 1939 provided Another Thin Man (#18), then Shadow Of The Thin Man covered 35th place for 1941, trailed by The Thin Man Goes Home in 1945 (ranking 59th) and finally, thirteen years after the first cocktail and wisecrack, Song Of The Thin Man called it a night in 1947, spotting at #89.