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DanBuck

The Thin Man (1934)

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So, I caught the first installment in this series and was downright floored. I LOVED the dialogue. I could've listened to the marital banter all night. So great!

And here I was thinking that witty banter was invented by the Gilmore Girls. wink.gif

Anyway, the ending, I felt, was a bit frenzied. A fast talking reveal of all the facts that culminates in a villian and his demise before I'd even figured out who he was. Do they all end so abruptly and so "chattily"? Just curious. My wife enjoyed it too, which one should we hit next?
 

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It's been quite a while since I've seen any of these films, let alone the original, but as I recall, they pretty much do end "chattily," though in some of the films it's less so.

I found the first installment at a local library, several years ago now, and l immediately ran through the entire series. Personally I would recomend going right on to After the Thin Man; it's not quite so "tart" in places as the original, but it avoids the silliness of the later installments (and they get a little silly.) It features Jimmy Stewart.

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I'm not sure I ever saw any of the sequels (apart from the ten minutes I happened to catch the other morning of After the Thin Man). The original is jolly good fun, though, eh? William Powell and Myrna Loy really have "it" when they're onscreen together, whatever "it" is. Though I'm sure they were popular in their day, it's kind of strange they aren't better remembered today.

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Persiflage wrote:

: Gotta love every single one of The Thin Man films.

Really? A guy warned me, when I got the films out of the library, that the first film was great but after that they take a dive in quality, and I told him afterwards that he was mostly right -- but I thought the second film was okay, at least.

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FWIW, it's been a few years now since I watched the Thin Man series, but if I had to guess at why the first film was so impressive to me while the others just increasingly kind of sat there, I'd have to say it's because, on the one hand, the original film derives a lot of its energy from a certain glorious friction between criminals and the law, and, on the other hand, it's because the original film is kind of defined by all the non-stop drinking -- and the sequels are increasingly removed from all that.

The original Thin Man came out only one year after Prohibition ended, remember, and only 15 years after Prohibition had started in the first place, so the legal status of this basically universal activity was kind of still in a state of flux, and this movie celebrates the fact that people once again had the freedom to drink while, at the same time, it plays with the fact that many people who would have been arrested by the cops not too long ago are now law-abiding citizens. Note, I'm NOT making any comment on the particular kind of law-breaking that any of the characters in that film might have been up to; it's been too long since I saw the film for me to get that specific. But the awkward relatioship between "legal" and "illegal" activities, and how those concepts were shifting at that time, certainly lingers throughout that film, I think.

The sequels, on the other hand, find our protagonists becoming increasingly "respectable" -- with a baby and everything. And as the memory of the Prohibition era became more and more remote, I dunno, the films seemed to become less and less interesting. They didn't seem to tell me all that much about the times in which they were made any more.

Opinions will vary, though, of course!

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I've been a-hemed, so even though there wasn't much followup to my comment here, I'm going to transfer it over to this thread. (I do notice, though, that much of what I have to say ties into the "certain glorious friction" alluded to above).

The question here is: great Christmas movie, or the greatest Christmas movie ever made? I've been a fan of this series since I was no taller than a martini glass, but my most recent viewing got the over-thinking gears a-turning in my brain, and yielded a wordy 'blog post on the subject. The long and the short of it is this:

I think The Thin Man may be the perfect Christmas movie. It doesn't tug the heartstrings like It's A Wonderful Life (penned, incidentally, by the same writing team that wrote the screenplay for The Thin Man), and it doesn't communicate great truths in the way that any given version if A Christmas Carol might. But it's core belief is the same as Dickens, a faith in humanity and a deep love of the eccentricities of every human being. All served up with dry martinis and sparkling wordplay. What could be more perfect?

What especially got me thinking this direction was the Christmas party in the middle of the movie. Rather than copy-pasting my whole post (as I say, it's very long) let me give a couple of points and see what ya'll think:

1. The party (easily the best scene in the movie) shows a chaotic gathering of all classes: crooks and cops and socialites are all jostled together, getting merrily sloshed and singing carols badly. Nick (the detective, and so the principle of order--but also of disorder, like the feudal lords who would give wassail) attends his guests with the mock invocation "for tomorrow may bring sorrow, so tonight let us be gay." It's a celebration of shared humanity that stands in contrast to the dysfunctional Wynant family, not in the sense that it functions, but in the sense that its members operate in love one for another.

2. The party mirrors the climactic scene; in that scene, Nick toasts with "Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die"--a darker iteration of his previous toast, and one that underlines the fact that this scene is one of putting-to-rights. Where formerly the detective was feudal host, now he's a judge. He restores true order to the Wynant family, but he doesn't do this because they're disordered; rather, their order is a false one based on self-interest and self-deception. The detective's monologue is a kind of Christmas apocalypse (at the risk of overstating things, it's an apocalyptic "no" of the sort that the Incarnation was in that false powers and false order are shown to be null and void).

3. (not related to the party) The movie opens with the titular "thin man" (not Nick Charles, but the old inventor Wynant) hoping that his daughter can see "that there is such a thing as a happy marriage." The man he addresses, her fiance, is of course incapable of this, since he has as much personality as Zeppo Marx, but the chaotic-good Charleses do model a happy marriage in their mutuality and love. This plays into the two dinner parties mentioned above, since Nick and Nora are themselves an unlikely pairing (he a drunken ex-cop, she a socialite).

Incidentally, the chaos of the Charles Christmas party reminds me, as I mention in point 1, of the socially disorienting origins of wassailing, which is what pushes me to read The Thin Man as a Christmas movie as well as a murder-mystery. I think it taps into the madcap sense of elation that more sincere productions might miss.

Now, I know too well that I'm over-reading a film that is essentially a fun romp, and I'm by no means suggesting that the filmmakers or Dashiell Hammett had any intention of making a "Christmas" let alone a "Christian" movie (even with my talk of "apocalypse" above), but I'm not wholly offbase, am I?

(BTW, just to give this post a contemporary reason to exist, there is apparently a remakein the works with Johnny Depp in the lead).

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FWIW, it's been a few years now since I watched the Thin Man series, but if I had to guess at why the first film was so impressive to me while the others just increasingly kind of sat there, I'd have to say it's because, on the one hand, the original film derives a lot of its energy from a certain glorious friction between criminals and the law, and, on the other hand, it's because the original film is kind of defined by all the non-stop drinking -- and the sequels are increasingly removed from all that.

... The sequels, on the other hand, find our protagonists becoming increasingly "respectable" -- with a baby and everything. And as the memory of the Prohibition era became more and more remote, I dunno, the films seemed to become less and less interesting. They didn't seem to tell me all that much about the times in which they were made any more.

All that drinking doesn't really decrease in the later films. I do remember one particular scene where Nick's son insists that he drink a glass of milk instead of hard liquor, but that was just to show how horrible non-alcoholic drinking really was. What's enjoyable about the later films is watching Nick and Nora actually retain their sense of fun & savoir-faire in spite of being forced into respectability. On the whole, it's the relationship between Nick and Norah that drives all the films, that and trying to guess who the murderer is before Nick explains it all. My viewing experience for each film may also have been enhanced by watching each film in college, pressing pause before each dinner scene, placing bets on who the murderer was, and then pressing play.

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I do remember one particular scene where Nick's son insists that he drink a glass of milk instead of hard liquor, but that was just to show how horrible non-alcoholic drinking really was.

That was, IIRC, in Shadow of the Thin Man, where Nick has to drink milk to convince their son to do the same (domestication going in on there, too). In The Thin Man Goes Home, he goes off the bottle altogether; incidentally, that movie that actually went a long way in further domesticating Nick by giving him a middle-class background (in contrast to the working class origins implied in the first couple of films and, I understand, in the original novel). So yeah, the drinking doesn't exactly taper off, but the jokes become less about the drinking itself and more about abstaining from alcohol. (I've not seen Song of the Thin Man, so I can't address how the issue is handled there).

What's enjoyable about the later films is watching Nick and Nora actually retain their sense of fun & savoir-faire in spite of being forced into respectability. On the whole, it's the relationship between Nick and Norah that drives all the films, that and trying to guess who the murderer is before Nick explains it all.

Yup, although I've seen it argued convincingly that Nora increasingly fits the mold of ditzy housewife as the series progresses (see, for instance, the spanking scene in Goes Home and try to imagine the Nora of The Thin Man letting Nick get away with that). But Nick and Nora certainly maintain a spark even in those later movies that other crime-solving couples like Mr. and Mrs. North, for instance, don't really seem to have.

Incidentally, Frederic Dannay and Manifred B. Lee, the writing team behind the Ellery Queen mystery novels, contributed to Shadow of the Thin Man, though the exact extent of their work is unknown. As a fan of both Ellery Queen and The Thin Man, this fact makes me very happy. :)

EDIT: It might be interesting to note Jimmy Stewart's performance in After the Thin Man in connection to our discussion about Rope. To say more, however, might be getting into spoiler territory.

Edited by NBooth

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Persiflage wrote:

: Gotta love every single one of The Thin Man films.

Really? A guy warned me, when I got the films out of the library, that the first film was great but after that they take a dive in quality, and I told him afterwards that he was mostly right -- but I thought the second film was okay, at least.

Watched #1 again this Christmas, followed by first viewings of #2 and #3 (or a partial re-watch of #3, actually). What I find interesting about the sequels so far is how much the second one is geared towards the appeal of Loy and Powell, rather than the actual mystery. That's nothing to sneeze at, of course, but it does feel looser all around, especially the first scene, which is a pretty lazy re-hash of what makes the Charles so fun to watch. Things get better though, and I actually found After The Thin Man to be, minute for minute, a lot funnier than my most recent viewing of #1.

Moving on to #3, it appears criticisms of the plotting of #2 were taken to heart, as once again the script is well balanced between the mystery and the Charles' interplay. I saw the second half of this last Christmas on TCM, and at the time it seemed pretty flat, but seeing the whole film in context was very enjoyable this time around. There is a decline happening as the sequels progress, but so far it's very slight. And as W.S. Van Dyke also directed #4, I'm confident that the curve will remain shallow until after his departure.

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I actually found After The Thin Man to be, minute for minute, a lot funnier than my most recent viewing of #1.

It's been a while, but that matches up with my memory. I especially liked the way that After bookends its predecessor both in terms of story (following directly on it) and in terms of social interactions (where The Thin Man had Nora dealing with Nick's working-class connections, After has a lot of fun pitting working-class Nick against Nora's wealthy relatives).

Edited by NBooth

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Bumping this thread because I noticed that J.A.A. Purves listed The Thin Man as one of his "top noir films." Now, I can ignore putting The Third Man in the third tier. I can even forgive it. But I'm really curious as to how The Thin Man got onto the list at all. [Dear me, that sounds combative, but it really isn't....] So, first, some background:

 

Regarding noir:

 

Noir, as a distinct generic form, is kind of like pornography--one knows it when one sees it. But, generally--based on my [limited] critical reading--it can be outlined as follows:

 

1. A hapless/loser protagonist, by over-reaching for

2. A woman, or

3. Easy money, or

4. Both

5. Finds himself drawn into a web of criminality from which he only with great difficulty [if at all] extracts himself.

 

There's some mushiness in the outline, but I think that the genre revolves, then, around a couple of thematic poles:

 

1. The weakness of "good" (where goodness is equated with stupidity)

2. The power of "evil"

3. Gender (where women are temptresses or--no, pretty much just temptresses)

4. Pervasive rot (think Hammett's "Poinsonville")

5. Social concern, with interest slanted toward "low-lifes"--where the rich only enter as corrupted or corrupting purveyors of the rot mentioned above.

 

--as well as being defined by a distinct style which (?) gives the genre its name--a focus on shadows and darkness.

 

Now it doesn't seem to me that The Thin Man fits into this category very well, if at all. There's pervasive rot, to be sure, but it could be more accurately be described as pervasive madness (we're all mad here). Women are, largely, temptresses, but the character of Nora goes a long way toward suggesting that this isn't an essential gender norm (and, so, there's much less ambivalence about masculinity in the movie). Evil isn't powerful; it's quibbling and silly. "Good," on the other hand, isn't just strong--it's stylish. No one could mistake Nick Charles for a noir protagonist--or even for a hard-boiled protagonist (and that's ignoring the book, where he's at least in the "jobbing" mode of the Continental Op).

 

I would propose, instead, that The Thin Man should be read in another mode entirely: the "B" detective feature. More background:

 

The "B" Detective Feature

 

"B" detective features were generally cheaply-made [duh] versions of the detective novels popular during the "Golden Age" of the twenties and thirties. Examples of protagonists in these features would be: Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, Ellery Queen, and--most tellingly for the case I'm making--Philo Vance. The generic demands of a "B" detective feature are broadly those of the Golden Age mystery itself (i.e. the very form against which hard-boiled fiction and noir are rebelling), namely:

 

1. An aristocratic [or in some way Other--see Chan, Wong, Moto] detective.

2. Socially elite characters who display different forms of eccentricity.

3. A closed circle of suspects.

4. Resolution in which the detective reveals the fairly-clued solution.

 

Additionally, these "B" features generally had other elements, such as:

1. A sympathetic romantic couple (not featuring the detective, except in a few instances), and

2. Some technological innovation; victims were often scientists--or else [as in the first Mr. Wong feature and at least one Charlie Chan movie] they were killed by some miraculous bit of technology (exploding glass grenades filled with gas; bullets made of frozen blood; etc).

 

Now, with all that in mind, I want to post the trailer for The Thin Man:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSNJ-8ouQEM

 

A couple of points:

 

1. An explicit connection is made between Powell's performance as Vance and his performance as Nick Charles (We should watch The Thin Man because it stars the guy from The Kennel Murder Case)

2.Emphasis is placed on the ritzy locations.

3. Emphasis is also placed, musically, on romance and comedy--not the pervasive dread such as that found in, for instance, the trailer to Sunset Boulevard:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3P0Zpe-2og

 

It seems evident to me that The Thin Man doesn't fit the generic demands of noir; on the other hand, it does largely fit the generic demands of the "B" detective movie--even down to emphasizing--even more than I remember the book doing--Wynant's career as an inventor (it also makes Dorothy and her beau far more sympathetic than they are in the book).

 

Hmm. That's really a wall-o-text. But I am curious why The Thin Man gets itself listed as a noir. It doesn't really fit the generic mold, as far as I can tell. Thoughts?

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When I saw The Thin Man, if I had to pick one genre to categorize it as, it would have been comedy.  I thought the comic bantering between Powell and Loy was the strongest aspect of the film.  The mystery, while fascinating with decent complications, wasn't the primary driving force of the movie IMO.

 

I would probably classify noir a little more simply: 1) an ingenuous or inexperienced protagonist (male or female) 2) becomes involved in a web of criminality or otherwise dark proceedings 3) that go far beyond anything s/he expected or was capable of imaging.

 

Even with that definition, I'd still say it's a stretch to describe The Thin Man as a noir.  I would opt for mystery-comedy.

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Mike_tn wrote:
: IMDb says The Thin Man release was May 25th 1934, and must have slipped under the Hays enforcement deadline by only a month.

 

That's a fascinating observation.

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Criminal Element asks: is the book always better?

 

It all may just be a case of loving the movie too much. I guess I was looking for the book to be more like a movie treatment. Would I feel differently if I had read the book first? Possibly. But I don’t think my mother would have let a six-year-old me read it. She wouldn’t have read it to me either. But I got to watch the movie any time they showed it on television.

 

 

Hrm. FWIW, I do like the movie better than the book, but the reasons given here are...not the best. At all.

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It's hard for me to say which of the first two movies is better! They're both so good. (After that, I agree, the quality drops off.)

 

One interesting thing about the second one is that you get such a mix of acting styles. There are Powell and Loy, who were masters of the screwball style. Then you have a supporting cast full of more melodramatic, stilted, old-fashioned actors, with two main exceptions. Jessie Ralph as Nora's aunt does the "grande dame" hilariously. And 28-year-old Jimmy Stewart, with a very natural style, acts almost everyone else right off the screen.

 

The film becomes sort of a snapshot of a time when a lot of things in Hollywood were changing, and not just the Code. It's really fascinating to watch with that in mind.

Edited by Gina

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