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Film Review: The Thin Man

Updated on December 17, 2016

Background

In 1934 W. S. Van Dyke released, The Thin Man, based on the 1937 novel of the same name by Dashieel Hammett. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton and Skippy the Dog, it grossed $1.4 million at the box office. .

Synopsis

Nick Charles is a retired detective attempting to settle down with his wife, Nora. However, a friend disappears after a murder and he is pressed back into service at Nora's convincing.

Review

The Thin Man is a pretty good film as far as detective mysteries go, mainly because some of its elements hadn’t been done to death yet. For one, Nick and Nora make a great pairing, especially in how their dialogue bounces off each other. It really does feel like they’re being played by a married couple in how they can have a heated argument at one point, but seconds later, they’re back to discussing the finer points of the mystery at hand. While part of that can be attributed to the chemistry that Powell and Loy have together, having been one of the 14 movies the two acted alongside each other in, a bigger part of that is that the film was written by actual married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. As such, not only did the actors have good chemistry and act like a real married couple would if the situations of the film played out, but they had dialogue that really assisted in making the film more realistic and natural as the writers actually knew how married couples would behave in a similar situation.

Further, not only do the two make a good married couple, they make a good crime solving duo. Nick initially doesn’t want to take the case because he’s retired. However, it's Nora who pressures him to come out of retirement and stays by his side throughout the film helping him solve it. Nick acts like the Sherlock, finding the clues and providing some good detective lingo in piecing all the evidence together. Nora acts like the Watson, breaking down the meaning of what Nick says and finds. Half of her character may be exposition, but she’s incredibly good at it.

The murderer is also revealed in a classic way: a dinner party scene with all the suspects and a summation of all the evidence. Nick misdirects the real murderer into assuming that everyone believes the murderer is still out there due to a skeletonized body with oversized clothing. Yet, Nick knew the fat man was a plant and it really was a thin man and the person everyone was already looking for. His misdirection lets the real murderer think he’s gotten away with it and eventually traps him.

There’s another aspect to Nick’s character that makes him interesting: he seems to keep in contact with the released criminals that he’s put away over the years. On the surface it doesn’t make any sense, but thinking about it does. It’s so that he can keep up to date on what’s happening and have any tips on current cases. More than that though, the criminals are all Nick’s friends, coming to his Christmas party, and they seem to really appreciate him for putting them away and setting them straight too.

Alongside the very well done mystery aspect of the film, the comedic aspect is also done quite well, making it a great mixture of the two. The best comedic moments are when Nick isn’t fully dedicated to the case, like the party goer wanting to touch Nick’s knee because he cracks that he used to bounce Maureen on his knee when she was younger. One particularly notable moment is the scene where he’s shooting Christmas ornaments with a new gun he got as a gift. There's another humorous moment on the train where Nick mistakes the Sullivan Act with the Mann Act. Though that loses its relevancy with age, it's still topically comical for its time.



4 stars for The Thin Man

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion

Awards won

National Board of Review

  • Top Ten Films

National Film Preservation Board

  • National Film Registry

Nominated for

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (William Powell)
  • Best Director
  • Best Writing, Adaptation


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    • gposchman profile image

      Gene Poschman 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Nice review, I'm a Dashiell Hammett fan, and I like the This Man series, though the thin man in the first story is not Nick Charles, but the dead man found later in the story. It was fun watching the teaser with William Powell. There are some interesting references that go outside the story, and if you are not aware of Hollywood history of the time, you miss it. Again nice job.