W.S. Van Dyke | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U
Produced as a B-movie, but eventually nominated for four of the biggest Oscars (Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay*), comedic detective mystery The Thin Man went on to spawn five sequels and a TV series (not to mention a radio series, a stage play, and a musical), as well as inspiring a host of similar comic-mystery B-movie series like the Saint and the Falcon.
Playing like a cross between an Agatha Christie mystery and a screwball comedy, it’s in fact based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and other hard-boiled tales. This is definitely not one of those. The murder mystery is standard enough — a businessman has disappeared, but when his former secretary and lover is found dead, he’s the prime suspect — albeit with enough genuine suspects and twists to keep the viewer guessing. The real joy comes from the investigators: retired detective and alcohol fan Nick Charles (William Powell) and his rich, interested wife Nora (Myrna Loy). Plus their dog, Asta, who gets up to all kinds of mischief. Regular readers will know I’m half-sold on the film at that point.
The film luxuriates in the interactions between Powell and Loy, and between them and any other character. The plot regularly takes a back seat to the cast’s playfulness, which only the most mystery-focused viewer will find objectionable, because it’s so delightful. Acting drunk for the sake of comedy might seem like a cheap fallback, but Powell is on just the right side of the line to make it work flawlessly, especially in scenes that border on farce, like a Christmas party which is regularly interrupted by victims and suspects. Even the final scene, a rambling and none-more-Christie-like “gather all the suspects and reveal the answers” dinner party, seems natural because of the characterisation throughout the rest of the film. Loy’s part may not be quite as showy — as demonstrated by its failure to gain an Oscar nomination — but she’s an invaluable half of the double act.
Across the decades the detective story has transitioned to be a staple of television, with dozens of US dramas each churning out 22+ mysteries per year, not to mention all the British ones and, more recently here in the UK, European imports — you can’t move for a fleet of complex murder mysteries being solved on the gogglebox every day. It can make older movies that do the same thing feel less significant; less deserving of their big-screen status. Not so with ones like The Thin Man, which has so much more to offer besides the narrative and its revelations. Here a solid mystery, with potential to keep the viewer guessing, gives a structure on which to hang the real joys, which are provided by the central screwball-ish relationship. And the dog, of course.
Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.