The Thin Man: From Novel to Film
The Thin Man
"Explain that to me Mr. Charlambides"
Translating detective novels like The Thin Man to film can be a difficult task. The filmmakers must remain true to the novel (or at least the aspects of the novel that they like) but must alter it so that it can be presented coherently in about one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours. The makers of the film The Thin Man do an excellent job of taking Hammett’s text and bringing it and the 1930s to life. The film does alter the plot in some undesirable ways but these alterations are outweighed by the other aspects of the film. The film looks superb, the dialogue is flawless, and the casting is nearly perfect.
The Thin Man makes good use of lighting, particularly with the titular “thin man.” Wynant’s shadow and silhouette reappear throughout the film, casting a specter over the otherwise lighthearted mood. They serve as the perfect visual reminder that underneath the carefree surface of society, danger is lurking (Van Dyke).
The set design of The Thin Man combined with the lighting excellently conveys the setting of the novel. Nick and Nora’s apartment is richly furnished and brightly lit. This helps remind the viewer of their posh lifestyle. On the other hand, the lower-class locations in the film like Nunheim’s apartment or Wynant’s workshop are dingy, dirty, and poorly lit (Van Dyke). Nick and Nora’s apartment seems to illuminate the gloom of the city just as Nick and Nora bring the solution of the mystery to light. They represent clarity and comfort in a confusing and dangerous world.
The film has wonderfully clever dialogue that makes for a lighthearted mystery. The film keeps much of Hammett’s original dialogue intact. When the film’s dialogue does deviate from the book, it is usually to remove language that censors would object to or to add more jokes of its own. There are wisecracks and wittiness throughout the film, but during the scenes when Nick and Nora are together, the wordplay seems even more relentless than in the novel (Van Dyke). The removal of profanity and the increased humor serve to make the film even lighter in tone than the novel.
The film, The Thin Man, presents the American society of the 1930s very well. Although much of its focus is on the wealthy, it still paints a good picture of ’30s culture and life. Nick and Nora are very wealthy and their lifestyle is a far cry from the many people who suffered during the Great Depression. However, the Wynant-Jorgensen family captures the financial uncertainty of the times. Although Mimi, Chris, Dorothy, and Gilbert live in relative comfort, they need access to Clyde Wynant’s fortune in order to keep up their lifestyle. They are a few wrong moves short of poverty. The need for money is a strong motivation for almost all the characters in the film and serves as a reminder that Nick and Nora’s wealth is the exception to the rule. The Thin Man also captures the changing social conventions of the 1930s. For the first time, respectable women are going into bars, are going to work, and are in other ways “acting like men.” These changes are represented by the active role women play in the film. Nora takes part in solving the mystery and Mimi and Dorothy alternately thwart and aid Nick and Nora’s efforts.
While the film version of The Thin Man does not remain entirely true to the novel, it nevertheless makes a very good adaptation of the Hammett’s last book and presents a snapshot of 1930s America. Many of the changes the film makes to the novel were necessary to fit the time and censorship constraints. While not all of these changes benefited the film, any bad decisions made by the filmmakers were outweighed by the flawless performances of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles.
The mystery in The Thin Man is particularly twisted and dark; this may have prompted the makers of the film to alter the plot. The changes that were made were no doubt intended to simplify the plot and make the characters more likeable. The film partially succeeds in these goals.
The plot of the film version of The Thin Man is a bit easier to follow than the plot of the novel. While Julia Wolf and Clyde Wynant are merely presented in the novel through what other characters say about them, in the film, both characters appear on screen. This helps to clarify the mystery for the viewers by letting them put faces to names. The film also shows Nunheim see the murderer of Julia Wolf and lets the viewer know it is he who calls Nick Charles to offer information on the murder (Van Dyke).This helps the viewer begin to piece together the mystery as it unfolds. The film also simplifies the Rosewater subplot. In the novel, it is revealed that Mimi’s husband Chris Jorgensen is Rosewater, the man who threatened Wynant years before. In the film, Rosewater’s name is changed to “Rosegreen” and has absolutely no connection to Chris Jorgensen.
Dorothy’s character in the film is softened which makes the story less plausible. In the novel, Dorothy says she “never liked” her father (Hammett 12). In the film, one of the first things the audience sees is Dorothy lovingly greet Wynant and introduce him to her fiancé Tommy, a character not present in the novel (Van Dyke). Tommy’s presence serves to add pathos to Dorothy (the young couple about to be married was a popular trope in the ’30s as it is now). In the novel, Nick says that Dorothy’s problem is that “Her old man’s crazy: she thinks she is” (Hammett 45). While Dorothy reaches this point in the film, it is not until it seems obvious Wynant is guilty (Van Dyke).Even here, her antics seem much more selfless, partly founded on her fears her beloved father will be found guilty of murder and partly on her fear that her children will inherit her supposed insanity (Van Dyke). These changes make Dorothy a more sympathetic character but they also make her character seem more contrived, especially when compared to the novel. In the novel Dorothy seems as bizarre as the rest of her family. In the film, Dorothy seems oddly out of place and the viewer cannot help but wonder how such a sweet and apparently normal girl could come out of such a dysfunctional family.
Part of the attraction of The Thin Man is the rich cast of colorful characters it contains and the film does a good job of bringing these characters to life. While some minor characters do not quite live up to the descriptions of the characters in the novel, overall the casting of the film is excellent.
The casting of Nat Pendleton as John Guild was a good decision. Although Pendleton does not quite match Hammett’s description of Guild as “a big sandy man of forty-eight or fifty,” he is still perfect for the role (Hammett 33). His height and blocky features embody Guild’s rough-and-tumble personality. Pendleton also plays well against the other characters. While he is not as clever as Nick Charles, he is clearly the boss of his policemen and knows how to deal with criminals and informers like Nunheim.
Porter Hall was a poor choice to play the role of Herbert Macaulay as the novel presents him but works well in the film. The novel describes Macaulay as “a big, curly-haired, rosy-cheeked, rather good-looking chap of about… forty-one – though he looked younger” (Hammett 6). Hall does not come across as youthful or match the physical description of Macaulay. However, his somewhat shifty manner and less handsome appearance make him more suspicious in the film and makes his guilt less surprising.
Minna Gombell is perfect in the role of Mimi Wynant. Although it is hard to bring the borderline-psychotic behavior of Mimi to the screen, Gombell successfully presents Mimi in all her moods. Many of Mimi’s scenes from the book were cut or reduced for the film but Gombell’s acting compensates for the lost time. Her Mimi is just as puzzling and frightening as in the book.
Perhaps the strongest element of the film, and one which makes up for any poor choices made by the filmmakers, is the film’s casting of its leads. The roles of Nick and Nora could have been written for William Powell and Myrna Loy who inhabit the roles with an effortless grace. One moment in the film more than any other demonstrates the skill with which Powell and Loy bring these characters to life. While Inspector Guild is on the telephone, Powell tips Loy’s chin, making her tip the ice pack on her head. She responds by pinching him and he pantomimes elbowing her in the face. Then, just as Guild looks up, the two entwine their arms and smile innocently. In that brief moment, Powell and Loy physically represent the playful sides to Nick and Nora with speed and dexterity that is amazing and their onscreen chemistry is plain to see.