Regent Film Library Spotlight: The Thin Man

Film critic John Douglas Eames described audiences as “totally captivated” by the film The Thin Man (1934), starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. This ninety-minute comedy/mystery was made by W. S. Van Dyke II and based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man intricately connects its plots, zany characters, and leading cast’s classy performances into one hilarious entanglement. I enjoy this film, particularly because it relies on clever writing rather than plot devices ensuring the film’s runtime is adequate, and is a complete and engaging stand-alone film.

When a man named Wynant disappears after leaving on a secret business trip, the “flat-footed detective” Nick Charles (William Powell) is dragged back into sleuthing to investigate the old man’s disappearance, the matter of a stolen $50,000 in bonds, and the murder of another young lady. Wynant’s eccentric family runs seemingly on emotion alone and rarely includes reason and logic as a motive for anything they do. If I were dealing with Wynant’s family in real life, I’m sure they’d be downright annoying, but when they’re just zanily schizophrenically characters presented hysterically on the silver screen, it all makes for jolly entertainment.

Nick and Nora Charles, the film’s leads, were accurately described by film historian Andrew Sarris as “the first on-screen Hollywood couple for whom matrimony did not signal the end of sex, romance and adventure.” For me, it’s pure magic to watch Nick and Nora interact on the screen. William Powell was a major star of MGM Studios in the 1930s, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Thin Man. He was paired with Myrna Loy in thirteen other films as they were brilliant co-stars. Myrna Loy was initially trained in dancing but played some minor roles in the silent film age. Her popularity grew with her performance as Nora Charles in The Thin Man films. 

Why were audiences “totally captivated” as John Douglas Eames described them? Probably because the film speaks to the innate desire we all have for romance between two loyal spouses as well as for good fair justice to take place against criminality. The movie owes its clever writing to the fact the film was shot and directed in twelve days’ time by W. S. Van Dyke, who learned his craft during the era of silent films and came to be known as “One-Take Wood” for his speedy production process. The crisp, economic cut of the dialogue, action, and execution of the film as a whole all come together to tell a tightly-bound tale and take the audience for a dizzying spin of intellectual merriment. Even I find myself having to keep up with the story.

In a world inundated with serialized franchises made up of TV shows and movies based on comic books with endless plot strands, The Thin Man is an enlivening excursion of stimulating taste. The Thin Man isn’t an escape from life, but reflects it in a light-hearted way that keeps me laughing until the end, despite how dark things may get and who may be intending to spoil the day. I now cordially invite you to find The Thin Man here at Regent’s library.