The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)

The murder mystery is ridiculously convoluted, vital suspects are never really properly introduced to us until near the end so that any attempt to try to put it all together is pretty much pointless, and the acting is universally awful, the product of the first few years of talkies.  But then there’s Nick and Nora and Asta, and in an instant William Powell, Myrna Loy, and that damn dog turn a run of the mill murder mystery into something really, really special.  A former detective now living the good life as a socialite, Nick Charles has the mystery of the disappearing inventor practically fall into his lap when he comes across the inventor’s daughter, an old acquaintance, at one of his famed parties (Powell in this film really has one of the best character introductions, like, ever – at the bar, slightly tipsy, unfathomably easygoing and charming, teaching his partygoers how to shake a martini – Nick Charles defined).  Whether out of a hunch or out of sheer boredom or because they’re out of booze, Mr. and Mrs. and dog Charles are on the case. 

But none of that matters.  Everything in this film outside of the goings-on of Nick and Nora is pretty much junk – the mystery’s a superfluous macguffin, and the hasty resolution, thanks in no small part to Nick’s brilliance as a detective and possibly foolhardy cockiness, indicates as much.  This is all about the chemistry and life and times of Nick and Nora Charles, with the biggest mystery really being whether Nick’s yen for mystery-solving will take a big chunk out of their precious drinking time.  I’d never seen William Powell or Myrna Loy act before, but when this film was over, in all seriousness, I had to go to IMDB to see if they were married in real life.  They weren’t, but I tell you, they had THAT much chemistry between each other.  Best on-screen couple I’ve ever seen, I’d say.  They drink like fish, Powell has that perpetually tipsy slur when he speaks, even while brilliantly deducing the facts of the case at a dinner part, Loy has a wonderful edge of both playfulness and mean but cute sarcasm, but alone they’re merely really good, but nothing revolutionary.  It’s when they’re together where the magic happens and two performances become one truly special presence. 

Their sarcastic banter, Powell’s especially, is among the most phony and unrealistic I’ve ever heard, but Powell’s constant tipsiness and semi-goofy charm, and Loy’s constant playful cockiness just make it so damn charming that it’s an absolute joy to watch and listen to these two together.  And there’s the little things, like the faces they make behind the other’s back, or little moments of cute fighting and touching and other signs of affection (this marks one of the few times I’ve watched a film where hitting a woman in the face turned out to be the right thing to do…), how they instinctually know when to get the other a drink, that indicate how they really, really can’t live without each other, and that behind all the jokes and playful insults is true love and a need for each other and a partnership like no other.  Or, there’s that hungover Christmas morning where Nick’s playing with the airgun he got as a present, and Nora simply watches him with a blank face that you’d think shows disappointment in how silly her husband is, but really just indicates that she got used to this kind of thing a loooong time ago – stubborn acceptance, and unconditional love.  They almost act like brother and sister the way they kid around with each other, but the way they always know exactly how to respond to the other’s sarcastic comment, or how Nora won’t put up with Nick’s occasional macho bullshit, or how they drink each other under the table without a second thought, all suggest that they really have known and cared for each other for years.  It’s all played for laughs, sure, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how much I laughed at this film, but their silliness is never, ever too over-the-top – it’s just enough so that one performance is quite simply incomplete without the other.  They fit together like those final two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.  I haven’t seen that kind of on-screen chemistry since I watched The Beatles’ performances in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and those were based on real-life relationships – Powell and Loy’s were based solely within the realm of fiction and celluloid.  Just goes to show you how special Powell and Loy’s performances really are, when an exchange like this, following a tussle at a party:

Nick: I’m a hero.  I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true.  He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.

…can actually feel REAL and spur-of-the-moment, and not like it was randomly inserted into a screenplay to get laughs.  I’m not gonna quote this movie any more than that, because most of the comedic effect of any given line comes from Powell and Loy’s delivery, anyway, so it wouldn’t do to read them on a page and ruin the experience.  Even with the dumb mystery story whose convolutions try to make it into a poor man’s Big Sleep, “The Thin Man” was one of the most joyful and carefree and endearing filmwatching experiences I’ve had in a very, very long time.  I mean seriously, I wanna be Nick Charles.  A brilliant detective, slightly alcoholic but never too drunk (therefore eternally happy and tipsy 😛 ), impossibly charming and clever and witty, married to a beautiful woman who’s just as intelligent and spunky as he is and can match his banter wit for wit, has the most awesome dog on the face of the earth, rich, spending their nights throwing parties and drinking (and drinking, and drinking…) and hobnobbing it with socialites AND degenerates (he’s actually all buddy-buddy with a thug he once put away), and solving murders as a fucking HOBBY.  Seriously, how is that NOT, like, the most perfect lifestyle imaginable?

9.5/10

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4 comments so far

  1. moogirl22 on

    I loved this movie too!! ❤

  2. Mango on

    The acting is great. Shut up with your “awful” and “phony.”
    (Uh, but continue praising everything else the way you’re doing. That’s fine.)

  3. Simon M. on

    ah, cranky Mango is my favorite kind of Mango 😆

  4. fast loan on

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