Thursday, February 7, 2013

Solving murders is a good way to keep a marriage healthy.

Read/Watch 'em in Order #30

Dashiell Hammett's last novel--and last important work of any sort--was 1934's The Thin Man. I'll be covering the movie series, but proper context requires a brief look at the novel, which introduces us to former detective Nick Charles and his wealthy wife Nora.

The novel is a sort-of dark comedy of manners, full of dysfunctional and unpleasant characters, all of whom lie through their teeth about pretty much everything. And as far as the protagonists are concerned, I've always felt there was an aura of wasted lives hanging over Nick and Nora; a sense that they don't really accomplish anything useful and are in their own way as dysfunctional as the murder suspects they encounter. They just sort of exist while drinking far too much. Nick's reluctant return to detective work shows us that he has a skill that can be very useful. But he'd just as soon not bother with that sort of thing any more.

That would make an in-depth examination of the book particularly interesting. Nick Charles is an obvious expy of Hammett himself, who drank too much and effectively gave up on his career as a writer. How much of the book is Hammett's attempt at self-examination? What does it say about him as a writer and as a human being?

But we're looking at the 6-film series that grew out of the novel, so we can leave meta-textual criticism aside. Because the movie version of The Thin Man (1934) drops much (though not quite all) of the darker and more cynical aspects of the novel and basically gives us a combination mystery/screwball comedy.

In any other case, this would give us good reason to complain. The novel is excellent and its the inherent darkness and cynical view of human nature that gives it backbone. Losing that ambiance should have ruined the movie, at best giving us a serviceable mystery.

But then the movie fools us when it presents us with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. And that, of course, makes everything all right.

Powell and Loy starred in the 6 Thin Man films and in 8 other films during the 1930s and 1940s. And they were, by golly, perfect together in every one of them. Their comedic timing was flawless, they literally ooze charm and class, and they convinced you in every one of these movies that they were madly in love with one another. Put Bill and Myrna together and we will have fun watching them.

They were funny, they were in love and (in the case of the Thin Man films) they were constantly stumbling over corpses. What more can two people ask for out of a relationship?

Also, Myrna Loy is a goddess--without question the single most beautiful woman who has ever existed in the history of the entire universe. Don't argue with me about this. It's incontrovertible fact.

Fall to your knees and worship her, you fools!

The actual plot of the first film mirrors the book fairly closely. Though one of the many dysfunctional supporting characters from the book is made more sympathetic (to ensure a happy ending to a romantic subplot), the actual detective stuff is very faithful to its source. Nick and Nora are in New York City for a visit. Nick is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation that also involves a missing man (the titular thin man). Nora is thrilled by this at first, though she later on has some second thoughts when she realizes that Nick might actually be in danger. But once Nick is involved, he sticks to it--running down several clues that the cops had missed. Soon, he has an idea who the killer might be. 

It's a good, strong plot and could have made for a pretty good movie on its own. Had the movie been more faithful to the novel's darker ambiance, it might have kick-started Film Noir a few years early.

But because of Powell and Loy, The Thin Man is a classic in its own right.  Because they are so perfect as Nick and Nora, the movie works for what it is. In fact, it worked well enough to spawn five sequels over the next fourteen years. Each successive movie might have been a little more screwball and a little sillier than the last, but (as we'll be seeing) that's not going to be a problem. All we need is William Powell, Myrna Loy and a few corpses. Everything else will then work itself out.

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