Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Vintage Movies: The Thin Man

Hey, would you mind putting that gun away? My wife doesn't care, but I'm a very timid fellow.

The old black-and-white days saw quite a variety of genres that have now nearly vanished. So far we've looked at examples of two those genres, the swashbuckler (with The Mark of Zorro) and the screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby). Another example of a genre which seemed to lose all its shine with the advent of colour and the vanishing of the Hays Code was the film noir. These movies, as made by Alfred Hitchcock or the famous Bogart & Bacall pairing, used the chiaroscuro of black-and-white movie-making to great effect in their world-weary stories of crime and passion. Think hard-boiled detectives, femmes fatale, and gangsters. Film noir was the dark side of the swashbuckler.
Strangely, it was the fusion of this cynical genre with light domestic comedy that spawned one of the longest-running franchises in film history. The Thin Man was adapted from a darkly comic book by Dashiell Hammett, brightened up considerably, and given two winning stars in the persons of William Powell and Myrna Loy.
The Thin Man is Clyde Wynant, millionaire inventor, who vanishes one winter leaving his severely dysfunctional family not particularly worried—apart from daughter Dorothy Wynant, who is getting married soon and wants her father there to give her away. She tries to enlist the help of retired detective Nick Charles, who is holidaying in New York with his new wife Nora. Despite the entreaties of Dorothy and the enthusiasm of Nora (and various journalists) Nick refuses to have anything to do with the matter.
I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for.

But as odd circumstances (not to mention bodies, one of them nearly Nick's own) keep piling up, will he be able to resist?
It's not the murder mystery that makes The Thin Man memorable. It's Nick and Nora, and their relationship. There are all too few stories about married couples fighting crime (or, indeed, doing anything) together. The sourness that pervades the rest of the movie, especially around the blighted Wynant family, just manages to set off the cozy, alcoholic Charles home, where barbed wit barely hides real affection.
Nora Charles: Take care of yourself
Nick Charles: Why, sure I will.
Nora Charles: Don't say it like that! Say it as if you meant it!
Nick Charles: Well, I do believe the little woman cares.
Nora Charles: I don't care! It's just that I'm used to you, that's all.

The Thin Man is technically a fantastic movie, with plenty of wit, excitement, and great acting. But take the film noir label seriously when considering younger viewers. Despite the happy marriage enjoyed by the main characters, there's infidelity, adultery, and bigamy going on in the supporting cast. Although the movie came out before the Hays Code was put in place, this is treated with a very light hand and will probably shoot over the heads of smaller viewers.
If you enjoyed The Thin Man, there's a whole string of sequels, gradually declining in quality (although After the Thin Man is also quite good).


Unknown said...

Absolutely love The Thin Man! xx

Anonymous said...

I quite like the Thin Man movies, but if you are going to caution about movies, I would add that in the Thin Man movies, some of the characters drink like fish (to borrow the saying) and as I recall there is occasional casual racism.


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