The visual appearance of The Thin Man (1934; dir. W. S. Van Dyke), based on the Dashiell Hammet novel, is so stage-like as to seem static and artificial. But this is simply a convention to which one can adjust, just as the ultra-realism of many contemporary films is a convention. The hero, Nick Charles (William Powell), is a retired detective whose marriage to a wealthy woman, Nora (Myrna Loy), allows him to retire and live a life of leisure in San Francisco. The film doesn’t look askance at his life style, which is simply part of what makes him interesting. (Interesting in the same way one might read Fitzgerald without noticing, at least in his better stories, the undertone). During a visit to New York, the case of a missing scientist lures him back to sleuthing.
Powell isn’t the modern conception of a handsome leading man. He is middle-aged, with a weak chin and somewhat dangling under chin. He ranges from tipsy to more than tipsy throughout the film, as does his wife. Rarely drunk, they are always drinking, and always in control. What makes this film entertaining as well as interesting is the constant repartee between husband and wife, their sexy double entendres and wordplay and banter. What also makes it interesting is the array of secondary characters: eccentric, quixotic, often inebriated. During a Christmas party at Nick and Nora’s apartment, these characters show their stuff. When the plot occasionally falters, these major and minor characters maintain our interest.
I’ve always thought of Nick and Nora as a husband and wife team. While they are married, they are not equal partners in sleuthing, and when dangerous work is to be done, Nora stays at home. The missing scientist had been conducting an affair with his secretary, who is referred to as a girl, though she seems close to middle age. The scientist’s ex-wife, always in need of money, is having an affair with a younger man played by Caesar Romero—he, as it turns out, is a swindler who is still married.
The Thin Man is far more comedy than mystery.