Edgar Allen Poe may have invented the detective in his short story Murders in the Rue Morgue but American crime novelist Dashiell Hammett took it to the next level with his iconic gumshoe Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and the Pinkerton detective the Continental Op in Red Harvest. Red Harvest would inspire Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) and Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). I became a fan of the crime/mystery genre during college (although I was already an Agatha Christie fan in high school) and Hammett along with Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford are some of my favorite hardboiled novelists.
But Hammett created one other famous detective duo that I avoided because they weren't as cynical or tough as Spade or the Op. Hammett's other great contribution to the mystery genre was the married detective couple Nick and Nora Charles (and their dog Asta, a wire haired fox terrier) who appear in Hammett's novel The Thin Man. Nick and Nora are socialites, throwing lavish parties and drinking great quantities of alcohol (Hammett had a drinking problem), hobknobbing with the wealthy and not so wealthy and solving murder mysteries. I had avoided The Thin Man novel because it wasn't gritty and jaded like Hammett's other works. But as popular as Spade and the Op were, spawning countless imitators in books, movies, and television, Nick and Nora Charles would also become the blue print for other sleuthing couples, most recently on television in series like MOONLIGHTING and CASTLE.
The film version of THE THIN MAN (1934) directed by W.S. Van Dyke based on Dashiell Hammett's novel is a great mystery punctuated by wonderful performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy as former detective Nick Charles and his socialite, wealthy new wife Nora Charles. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich pepper the film with clever and witty banter between the newlyweds during the mystery. When a reporter asks Nora what case Nick is working on, Nora replies, "A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him." I haven't read the novel but I'm sure the dialogue in the book is as good or better than the film's (which is very good).THE THIN MAN may be the first screwball comedy mystery ever made.
Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) visits her inventor father Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) to inform him she and her fiancé Tommy (Henry Wadsworth) are getting married. Wishing to give his daughter a nice wedding gift, Wynant looks for his stock certificates worth $50,000 but discovers his secretary/girlfriend Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead) may have sold them without his consent. Wynant plans on reporting her crime but first he has to leave town to work on a new invention.
Dorothy and Tommy run into old family friend Nick Charles (William Powell) and his new wife Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) at a posh gin mill in New York. Wynant has disappeared and Dorothy wants Nick to find her eccentric father. Nick's hesitant, having not been a detective now for four years. Nick's certain the eccentric inventor will turn up. Nora prods Nick to help Dorothy.
Julia Wolf had ties to gangsters but before anyone can talk to her, she's found dead. Wynant, the missing inventor, becomes the chief suspect. Herbert MacCaulay (Porter Hall), Wynant's lawyer tells Nick Wynant has left him messages by phone but three months pass and Wynant is still missing. A scar faced thug named Arthur Nunheim (Harold Huber) knows who killed the secretary Julia. Nunheim tries to blackmail Julia's killer but Nunheim is ambushed and shot by the murderer.
After Nick is almost shot by Wolfe's nervous hoodlum friend Joe Morelli (Edward Brophy), Nick takes the dog Asta for a walk and visits Wynant's "closed" factory. Asta scratches at a suspicious mark on the floor. Nick calls the police. The floor is dug up and a skeletal body in a large suit is found. The police think it's possibly another victim killed by Wynant. Nick believes it's Wynant himself who's been murdered and buried beneath his own factory floor. Nick remembers Wynant had a piece of shrapnel lodged in his shin from the war. The pathologist confirms it.
Nick has Nora throw a lavish party and invites all the suspects to the dinner party including Wynant's ex-wife Mimi Jorgenson (Minna Gombell), Dorothy's strange brother Gilbertt (William Henry), Wynant's lawyer MacCaulay, Wynant's bookkeeper Tanner (Cyril Thornton), the nervous hood Joe Morelli, and Mimi's new husband, gigolo Chris (Cesar Romero). After dinner and drinks are served Nick reveals the plot of why Wynant was murdered and the killer is revealed for Lieutenant John Guild (Nat Pendleton) to arrest.
THE THIN MAN'S Nick and Nora are unlike any detectives we've encountered. Private dicks like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe wore trench coats and ate in dingy diners. Nick and Nora live in a penthouse. They dine and drink well. They're well-aligned with the upper crust of New York. For most of the film, Nick is more concerned with martinis and champagne than finding the missing Wynant. Nick doesn't even begin to investigate the case until half way through the film. For Nora, it all seems like a lark, a fun game until Nick heads out to search Wynant's factory. Only than does she realize the danger in solving a mystery. Nick is touched and relieved she cares. Nora cracks "I don't care! It's just that I'm used to you, that's all!"
Hammett's stories are always complex and this film adaption is no different. There are a lot of characters introduced early and it takes some time to figure out who's who. THE THIN MAN uses the classic whodunit trick of having all the suspects gathered together (mystery writer Agatha Christie did this too) so Nick can reveal who the murderer is. But like Hammett's other detectives Spade and the Op, Nick lets the suspects reveal themselves as paranoia and guilt get the best of them until the killer gives him or herself up.
One of the misconceptions of THE THIN MAN is that Nick Charles is the title character. Although Nick is svelte, the title is derived from the body that is buried under the floor of Wynant's factory. The body has been placed in oversized clothes to give the appearance of a large man and hide the deceased's true identity. The killer has even thrown lime on the bones to try to destroy them. Nick deduces it's really a thin man's body. Nick's suspicions prove accurate as the body turns out to be Clyde Wynant, the inventor gone missing and presumed murderer of Julia Wolfe and Arthur Nunheim. This discovery upends the story, sending it in a totally different direction. Hammett would only write one Thin Man book but after his death, manuscripts would be found with enough material that another Thin Man book was published posthumously. Many believe that Nick and Nora Charles are fictional versions of Dashiell Hammett and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, playwright Lillian Hellman.
The movie version of THE THIN MAN would be a box office hit and would bring about several more THIN MAN sequels starring Powell and Loy including AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936) co-starring a young Jimmy Stewart , ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939), and SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947). There would be six THIN MAN movies made with Powell and Loy between 1934 and 1947. W.S. Van Dyke would direct four of the six.
What makes THE THIN MAN work is the chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Their lively, humorous banter, quick one liners and double entendres remind us that marriage can be fun and breezy. Nick and Nora love each other but playfully antagonize one another. Both Powell and Loy would continue to have successful careers beyond THE THIN MAN series but these films define their legacies.
Powell would mostly play suave, sophisticated men from 1938's MY MAN GODFREY all the way to co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1955). I just watched Myrna Loy play the lethal, nymphomaniac daughter of Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) and she was marvelous. Loy played sexy vamps early in her career. Loy's Nora is sexy but in a smart way. Loy would star in many dramatic roles including the Academy Award winner THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946).
Look for a young Cesar Romero (he played the Joker in the 1960's television series BATMAN) as Chris Jorgensen, Mimi's gigolo husband. And Maureen O'Sullivan as Wynant's daughter Dorothy would also have a lengthy career like Powell and Loy. Toward the end of her career, O'Sullivan would appear in Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) as the mother of Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow, and Dianne Wiest. Another great silver screen actor Lloyd Nolan would play O'Sullivan's husband in HANNAH.
The 1930's gave film audiences several great couples in comedies -- Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937), Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), and Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) but I challenge that William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles kicked off all those successful tandem movies with THE THIN MAN. Unlike most romantic comedies where the male and female lead start off hating each other before falling in love, Nick and Nora are already married. What's fun in THE THIN MAN is to watch Nora learn more about what her husband Nick use to do when he was a detective and urge him to solve the mystery. Nora's more a cheerleader in the first film but I presume in the other THIN MAN films she may be more involved with the sleuthing. So pick a rainy Sunday afternoon and find THE THIN MAN on one of your cable movie channels and enjoy literary's first married detective couple.