If I ever made a list of film genres that I have very little personal experience with, at the top would sit exclusively Romance. By this I mean a film that is meant to be taken first and foremost as Romantic instead of just interpreted as such, using this basis, I consider Dead Alive’s Lionel and Paquita to be the greatest example of onscreen romance of this generation. A few notches below would be Mystery, a genre that I tend to break up into two categories: one that actively allows the viewer to put the pieces together alongside the lead detective, and another that gives the impression that the detective knows who to finger as a culprit and presents all evidence only moments before the reveal. (An example of shortchanging a long-set genre yes, but on the surface that is what Mystery feels like that to me.) In this review, I am looking to the past and playing in a new environment with 1934’s The Thin Man, which I feel combines aspects of Romance and Mystery in a way that is almost alien to my past experiences.
The Thin Man was directed by W.S. Dyke, a director who was trained in the silent film era but moved on to work in the talkies years later. Alongside such titles as 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man and 1938’s super big budget Maria Antoinette, Dyke went on to direct three of the five Thin Man sequels, specifically After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, and Shadow of the Thin Man (yes, keep orchestrating the illusion that you know something about pre-1970 film that is not just Forbidden Planet). A little IMDBing left me with some interesting information on W.S. Dyke, (by interesting I mean something contextually significant regarding a theory I will mention later) who was known as ‘One-Take Woody’ for his ability to crank out feature films in break-neck speeds, which is confirmed on the back of The Thin Man DVD box, “by promising to shoot this splendid adaption of Dashiell Hammett’s novel in three weeks, He took 12 days”.
Inventor Clyde Wynant is visited by his overly cheeky (sort of childish really) daughter Dorothy and her new fiancé whilst inside his workshop. After congratulating the young couple on getting married and providing advice as to how not to end up like him and his ex-wife before the two depart, Wynant consults his lawyer Hebert MacCaulay in regards to money concerns. He leaves his workshop to go home, where he finds his girlfriend Julia Wolf conversing in their apartment with her associate Joe Morreli. Suspicion based on what he knows about Wolf’s sketchy history and the fact that Morreli might be Italian (which I am going to take contextually for the time to mean that he must be either laundering money or at least working for some don) convinces Wynant to send Morreli out with a yell. Julia Wolf, a woman who considers her boyfriend’s family to only there for his money. Time passes with Wynant disappearing and Wyant’s ex-wife Mimi discovering Wolf dead in Wolf’s apartment. Those following along know now that we have a murder mystery on our hands and I hate to say it, still have suspects left to mention.
Introduce famed retired detective Nicolas Charles, his seemingly younger wife Nora Charles, and their dog Asta. Left to live out his past greatness managing his wife’s inherited business, alcoholic by my definition, Nick has his past come back to interrupt his cocktail parties when Dorothy asks him to find her father. Not wanting to get involved in the lives of one of his old clients, Nick and Nora find themselves unintentionally in the center of Wynant and Wolf’s case, with further suspects like Mimi’s workless husband Chris and book smart but not peoples smart son Gilbert as well as local witness Arthur Nonheim involved in a secret conspiracy to not allow Nick enough quiet time to drink and mess around New York City.
I mentioned earlier that The Thin Man was shot over a short amount of time, and while I have very little reference for how long most films takes to shoot except a few examples like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre taking a month. I feel that recording at this fast pace helps and hinders The Thin Man as a film. On one side, you have in the moment improvised dialog and character interactions, specifically between Nick and Nora that subtly shows they are a couple with an apparent age range where Nora looks up to Nick like a hero but also as a jokey companion. The two seem to share this same unorthodox space in where every other character seems to just walk around, noticing that Nick and Nora are just a little different. The other side results in some of the fastest paced film-making I have seen in a while. Everyone talks fast too each other and it got to the point where I started to watch with the subtitle track on just so I would not miss the lightning quick jokes. I am fine with a film expecting me to know what words like “sing-sing” mean in context of the times, so speed is fine there. But when three months pass between two scenes and I feel like it has only been a day, I feel like someone pushed fast-forward without me noticing.
Pros: Succeeds by my limited grasp of Mystery film by giving you suspects, allowing you to piece together who you feel did it, and accept evidence that it was in fact someone else. You get to play along without feeling like Nick was the only smart individual on the other side of the camera. Nick and Nora have what I have been looking for in fiction lately, which is appealing interaction between spouses. I seem to live in a world where spouses are either divorced because of the plot or parents to the protagonists, but thankfully Nora and Nick exemplify a married couple who actually work off their married dynamic.
Cons: Not excluded from certain logical leaps, specifically when suspects like Arthur Nonheim are involved and I just play along like he could be connected to the case as a whole. Once I learned that this is part of a bigger series, I unfortunately realized that everyone outside of the Charles and a certain Detective Guild were as necessary as guest-stars on a Soap Opera.
The copy of The Thin Man that I have was one of Alex Hajdar’s Warner Bros. single copies, which I do feel pales in comparison to the complete Thin Man collection which I found dirt cheap on Amazon right now. It might be rushing towards its climax, leaving me confused from time to time, but that just leaves The Thin Man with some excellent leads in Nick and Nora. As long as I continue to see them as figures like Indiana Jones or Black Jack, larger than life figures in episodic adventures, there is reason for the rest of The Thin Man films to keep my attention after the first was so memorable.