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The Thin Man

By Brian Shaer | May 4, 2021

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! If you have ever thought to yourself, “Gee, I love a good hard-boiled detective story,” then you owe a debt, in part, to legendary mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett. Now, if you have ever thought to yourself, “Gee, I love a good hard-boiled detective story that contains a slightly cheeky edge,” then you owe a substantial debt to director W.S. Van D**e. Specifically, his 1934 adaptation of Hammett’s novel The Thin Man, that follows the ultra-rich exploits of socialites Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).

Retired detective Nick and his wife Nora are visiting family in NYC for Christmas. While there, Nick is called back to action to find an old client, the “thin man” of the title. However, when a dead body is uncovered, the fun, whipsmart couple, who are always at the ready with a quip, must get to the truth before more people are put in mortal peril.

Even when considering the abundant entertainment value inherent in Hammett’s mystery, the real sparkling gem of The Thin Man is the chemistry between leads Powell and Loy. There is little that is more satisfying for an audience member than to watch two actors, each at the top of their game, clearly enjoying themselves in their roles and each other as acting partners. It’s as if the actors are inviting the audience to join them at the party. Each actor matches the other in wit and style throughout the picture.

“…Nick is called back to action to find an old client…”

So captivating is their star magnetism that when either actor is not onscreen (which, thankfully, is not very often), the viewer is aching for their reappearance (unless, of course, their loyal dog, Asta, is stealing the scene). It’s not very often that on-screen chemistry ignites like this. The charge between these two actors elevated the already pedigreed material and made for such a good time at theaters, not to mention the box office haul, that five subsequent Thin Man films were made featuring the couple.

What a pleasure it is, especially if one is an aficionado of the art deco style popularized in the 1920s and 1930s, to watch movies from the early part of the twentieth century. From the language to the fashions (oh, the fashions!), a certain elegance and formality permeates these movies that the average moviegoer rarely encounters anymore. The cadence with which people spoke their words back then, at least in dramatic works of the period, exudes a panache that just isn’t present in today’s vernacular.

With new slang popping up almost daily nowadays, the language and subtleties so typical of this era are a thing of the past. In films like The Thin Man, we are able to observe the sophistication of this hyper-stylized past with grand admiration. In doing so, these classic movies afford us a true vision into a rarefied distant age that very few experienced in the first place. This is pure and utter escapism in all the best ways.

The Thin Man zips along, barely taking a minute to breathe. The, for the time, risqué screenplay (“What’s that man doing in my drawers?”) by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich pops along with the grace of a finely-tuned machine and is sprinkled throughout with one-liners that are stunning in their construction (“Waiter, will you serve the nuts?”). The film deserves every bit of its designation as a classic piece of old Hollywood cinema and delivers the comedic goods that more than stand the test of time.

The Thin Man screened as part of the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival.

The Thin Man (1934)

Directed: W.S. Van Dyke

Written: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich

Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth, William Henry, etc.

Movie score: 10/10

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"…it's not very often that on-screen chemistry ignites like this."

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