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October 30th 2016 print

Neil McDonald

The Triumph of the Thin Man

The credibility problem with most of the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction is how the sleuth happens to be sailing down the Nile or travelling on the Orient Express when the murder takes place. In The Thin Man the relationships seem perfectly natural

thin manThe Thin Man films were arguably the most successful series of comedy thrillers in American cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. They began with The Thin Man in 1934, followed by After the Thin Man (1936) then Another Thin Man (1939). Unlike the later films in the series—Shadow of the Thin Man, The Thin Man Goes Home and so on—these movies were shaped by the vision of Dashiell Hammett, the author of the original novel. His exact involvement in the first movie is hard to trace. Certainly he visited the set and met the stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the director, W.S. Van Dyke. Hammett must also have known the writers of the original screenplay, the husband-and-wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who used much of the novel’s dialogue and followed the book’s plot fairly closely. But for all this The Thin Man, the novel, is a very different work from the film version.

At the time the novel was written and published, Hammett was one of the most successful crime writers in America. A former Pinkerton detective, he had used his experiences as an operative to craft stories for what were known in the 1920s and 1930s as “the pulps”, magazines that collected short crime stories and were printed on pulp paper. Raymond Chandler, who before publishing books like The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake also wrote for the pulps, observed in his famous article on the detective story, “The Simple Art of Murder”, that Hammett “gave murder back to people who did it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse”. There was still a puzzle but the detective was not trying to work out how a murder could take place in a locked room, or, as Chandler put it, “with the same grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakme in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests …” Hammett’s sleuth was trying to find out who and why; and of course it was usually not just one murder. This hard-boiled school of writing was pretty tough. If a writer was stuck for an idea, Chandler recalled, “you’d have someone come through the door with a gun in his hand”.

Hammett’s detectives usually became involved in their cases professionally. His short stories for Black Mask, the most famous of the pulps, and his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, are related in the first person by an unnamed operative of the “Continental Detective Agency”—a thinly disguised portrait of Pinkertons. This “Continental Op”, as he was called first by Black Mask and later by Ellery Queen, is overweight, balding and very tough. Hammett’s style was plain, economical and coolly objective, and the narrative was propelled by the taut elliptical dialogue. His next two books, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, are written objectively, the action described cinematically with motivation expressed in the dialogue. Hammett believed that “the novelist’s job is to take pieces of life and arrange them on paper; and the more direct their passage from street to paper the more lifelike they should turn out; he needs … to force upon the reader a feeling of immediacy”. The investigators are projections of the detective Hammett had been, even though their physical appearance may be different.

This is true of The Thin Man too. Indeed it is the most autobiographical of any of his novels. Hammett had just begun a relationship with the twenty-four-year-old Lillian Hellman that was to continue with interruptions until his death in 1961. She is the model for Nora, Nick Charles’s wife. The author was Nick, the retired detective. This was made clear in the book’s original presentation. Hammett had been dissatisfied with the dust-jackets of his previous books and persuaded the publishers to let him use a stylish photograph of himself on the front cover. He was a strikingly handsome man. Chandler, who met him only once, at a reunion of Black Mask writers, described Hammett as “a tall distinguished looking bloke with a fearful capacity for scotch”, adding that he “liked him immensely”.

The drinking is portrayed in the book where, unlike the films, where it is played for laughs, Nick’s drinking is honestly portrayed as dangerous. He takes a scotch in the morning before breakfast “to cut the phlegm”, remembers his wife has left a drink untouched in the bedroom and promptly downs it: there are even oblique references to blackouts. Some of this could be because Hammett went on the wagon to write the book and made his characters take a drink whenever he resisted the urge to imbibe. But we know he rigorously edited his copy and if he had not wanted this to be part of the portrayal of Nick and his world it would almost certainly have been cut. The novelist John Baxter recalled writing a novel when on a diet and finding while revising that he had to cut numerous passages when his characters were either having snacks or consuming three-course meals, because they were not part of his narrative.

For all the drinking, which makes the reader wonder if Nick is going to expire with cirrhosis of the liver before he can solve the case, the novel has a glittering surface. The dialogue is witty in a pleasantly unselfconscious way, and Nick and Nora are a likeable married couple who enjoy each other’s company and have plenty of money (hers)—Nick is managing it for her, as was expected in the 1930s. Hammett portrays with great skill their involvement in a puzzling series of murders that seem to have been committed by a former client of Nick’s—Clyde Wynant, the thin man of the title.

The credibility problem with most of the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction is how the sleuth happens to be at the house party, or sailing down the Nile or travelling on the Orient Express when the murder or murders take place. In The Thin Man the relationships seem perfectly natural. They go back to an old case of Nick’s and an old affair with Mimi, the thin man’s wife. The underworld connections come about because Nick had been an operative in New York before marrying Nora. He doesn’t want to take on the case—it interferes with his drinking. Then in the best hard-boiled tradition a man comes through the door with a gun in his hand and the ex-detective has no choice.

The Wynant family are spectacularly dysfunctional. Mimi goes into hysterical rages and beats her daughter; the son is obsessed by crime; the daughter hangs out at speakeasies. The cops are casually violent, even the detective Nick helps to solve the case—all completely accurate for the period. Just in case the reader misses the point that these characters are devouring each other emotionally, Hammett includes a long passage Nick and Nora find for the son on a real-life cannibalism case.

There are no “little grey cells” in the solution. The murderer is uncovered by straight police work based on leads Nick has suggested and, as he explains it all to Nora, all too grimly believable.

It was the brittle surface of the book, the high life and the dramatic structure that almost certainly attracted MGM producer Hunt Stromberg. He came up with the idea of getting W.S. Van Dyke to direct. At the time Van Dyke was best known for his action films. He had just finished a very accomplished gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama, which featured a triangle love story with Clark Gable as a gangster, William Powell as the DA and Myrna Loy as the woman who loves them both. Although Gable had the showier part and was very good in his scenes with Loy, there was an extraordinary on-screen rapport between Loy and Powell. It is worth watching their first scene together to see a minor miracle of 1930s screen acting.

In the early days of television in Australia there used to be midnight screenings of late 1920s and early 1930s Hollywood movies. There you could see William Powell help to define early sound acting. He had a magnificent voice that was superbly adjusted to the microphone, and he knew how to play to the camera with a delicately light touch that remains effective even if the technology was rather creaky. If you were lucky, in the early morning you might catch Loy as one of her oriental villains. She is wonderfully diverting as Miss Fu Manchu to Boris Karloff’s good Doctor Fu. But even if the parts are outrageously over-written, neither Loy nor Karloff over-play. Between takes of Manhattan Melodrama Van Dyke noticed Loy reacting delightedly to Powell’s witty sallies, and he suspected they would be ideal for Nick and Nora as the characters were being shaped by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. They came up with the famous routine with the airgun where a mildly drunken Nick fires at the balloons on the Christmas tree. They also made the most of Hammett’s dialogue and the dramatic structure employed in the book.

The writers can be credited with devising the famous party sequence. For the period it was an extraordinary technical achievement. With cameras just out of soundproof booths, the action is covered in flowing tracking shots while Nick is serving drinks and throwing off one quip after another. The dark implications of the Wynant family’s relationships are minimised. Mimi, in the novel almost another incarnation of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, someone who lies so incessantly that you are in danger of accepting a final lie out of exhaustion, is here petulant and vicious but never as dangerous as she is in the book. Dorothy, Wynant’s daughter, is not the victim she is in the novel, but as played by Maureen O’Sullivan she is a young woman of character trying to make sense of her father’s disappearance.

Powell and Loy’s Nick and Nora are enrichments of the original. The script makes their relationship even more fun than Hammett did and the performers make an extraordinary pair, with Powell delightfully extravagant and Loy reacting with wit and good-humoured exasperation. Powell does the drinking with great skill; he is never just a comic drunk. The actor also lets us catch glimpses of Nick’s toughness and professionalism. Inevitably the writers had to assemble all the suspects for the denouement at a dinner party, the invitations delivered by the police. “Ideal for a hostess,” exclaims Nora, and then looking at the motley crew around the table she says, “Serve the nuts. I mean serve the guests the nuts.”

It all becomes a neat burlesque of the Golden Age convention. After all S.S. Van Dyne was still a best-selling author and his Philo Vance had been played by William Powell. “Is all this true?” whispers Nora after one of Nick’s expositions. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he replies.

Van Dyke, known in the business as “One Shot” for his insistence on speed and spontaneity, keeps the action moving along at a cracking pace. There is also a nice touch of noir that counters the sanitisation of Hammett’s original. The exposition scenes at the beginning are shot by the ace cinematographer James Wong Howe in an expressionist style with lots of menacing shadows. Happily Van Dyke and Stromberg evaded the glitter of MGM’s design department. The Thin Man remains one of the great achievements of 1930s film-making; good Hammett and beautifully judged comedy-drama.

The first two sequels are not quite as good, but because of the involvement of the original writers, director and stars, and above all Hammett himself, they are both very satisfying. After the Thin Man, based on a treatment by the author, begins where the earlier film ended, with Nick and Nora on the train from New York then arriving home to find a welcome-home party full of freeloaders where they are not even recognised. Within minutes Nick is drawn into an intricate plot involving a cousin of Nora’s and soon some murders. Unfortunately the screenwriters and director overload sequences written by Hammett where Nick works with a competent San Francisco cop to unravel a dastardly fraud related to the murders. Instead Sam Levene, as the detective, was encouraged to do non-stop exasperated.

Many of the scenes look rushed. Sometimes with Van Dyke the spontaneity and pace could become carelessness, and Hammett’s treatment with its intricate plotting needed room to breathe. Still, Nick and Nora are a lot of fun and Van Dyke handles the comedy with his usual deft touch.

The climax devised by Hammett is simplified but the revelation of a spectacular villain can still surprise, provided some film-writer doesn’t give it away, which of course I won’t. Goodrich and Hackett decided to bring the series to an end by devising a charming scene where Nick discovers Nora knitting booties.

Nick: Why Mrs Charles.

Nora: And you call yourself a detective.

It didn’t work, and two years later they were all back at MGM making Another Thin Man. This time Hammett borrowed from a very tough Continental Op short story, “The Farewell Murder”, but related the events to Nora’s family (again). He put in the baby but made him charmless. Wisely this was ignored, but the first half plays like a tough thriller with Nick drinking less and functioning like the tough professional Powell had only suggested in the earlier films.

There are some nicely written scenes between Nick and a state attorney played by Otto Kruger, and with bodies piling up it looks to a modern viewer as though it’s going to be an early film noir. Then someone realised they might lose their audience and a very funny party sequence is woven into the climax; a climax which in the original was truly appalling. Still, much of Another Thin Man is similar to the novel The Thin Man, and all the better for it.

Fortunately Hammett’s drafts for these films have been discovered and published as The Return of the Thin Man. They may not be Hammett at his best—he was drinking heavily at the time—but the treatments are fuller than one might expect and are good reads. Hackett and Goodrich’s contributions still need to be examined and their collaboration with one of America’s great writers deserves to be evaluated. After all, they did go on to write the script for The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Thin Man series continued for three more films with which Myrna Loy and William Powell became increasingly dissatisfied. Still, their work was highly professional and their on-screen rapport remains a delight. For the films that fully translated Hammett’s vision to the screen there was to be The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Glass Key (1942).

Neil McDonald writes: The Return of the Thin Man was published by Mysterious Press in 2012. A radio adaptation of The Thin Man with Powell and Loy, directed and narrated by W.S. Van Dyke, can be found on YouTube.