The series of six Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy have been released as a box set on DVD. These comic mystery capers were influential in multiple forms - providing a radio play, a TV series, and numerous husband/wife detective pairs to the cultural landscape. It lost out at the Academy Awards, despite four nominations, being overshadowed by "It Happened One Night" in 1934
I was fortunate enough to catch a playbill of all six films on Turner Classic Movies recently, and thanks to my DVR, can now devour (and review) them to my heart's content. In classic TCM fashion, there are introductions with some interesting ancedotes about the films.
The first film, The Thin Man, is the only one based on the Dashiel Hammett book of the same name, the others merely borrowing the characters of Nick and Nora Drake, and the title for continuity. Nick Drake is more of a drinker than in the book, and less of a detective, except in the final denouement.
The character development is intense, and interspersed with dry humor, mostly between Nick and Nora. W S Van Dyke's direction is breathless and tight. coupled with stark cinematography by James Wong Howe. He uses techniques such as inter-cut scenes to introduce subtle hints, or perhaps Macguffins, while still keeping the main storyline moving forward. He shot the film in less than a month, and was a huge success.
Dashiel Hammett's own heavy drinking was doubtless an influence on the Nick Charles character, while Nora was based on Lillian Hellman, the acerbic playwright. The repartee between Nick and Nora, one of the best parts of the films seems true-to-life, and their dog, Asta, sparked a nationwide craze in wire terriers.
Another reason the films seem particularly relevant today is the subtle manner in which sexuality and alcoholism were allowed to permeate the atmosphere, while remaining stylish and eschewing explicit violence for the most part. The film was one of the first post-Code films (Although the code was formalized in 1930, it did not achieve it's force of boycott until June 1934), and had to adhere to the Hays Code(Complete text), while it was still able to pervert it in some ways - to our benefit as cineastes today. Cinema yearns to express the inner energies and urges that make life worthwile. The Code stifled those urges, and adept film-makers were forced to sublimate them into other structures within the film, the film's diegesis, as it were. Film audiences were shocked and alienated by the violence and sexuality of the gangster films of the early 1930s and expected a classiness from movie-watching, that the Thin Man films. among few others, succeeded in delivering, without losing their social heft or cinematic verity. (Minor trivia: The shady character, Chris Jorgenson, Mimi's husband, was renamed from the book character Rosebreen to avoid offending the head of the Hays Office, Joseph Breen)
Various elements combine to make this film, and the series, a timeless experience. While the solution is somewhat 'not allowed' in proper mystery writing, the seemingly accidental deductive reasoning of Nick makes the unraveling of the mystery a captivating experience.
Next up: "After The Thin Man" and how some sequels can surpass the original material.
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