The Thin Man (1934)

Directed by W. S. Van Dyke

The Thin Man is a 1934 American Pre-Code comedy-mystery film directed by W. S. Van Dyke and based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. The film stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles; Nick is a hard-drinking, retired private detective, and Nora is a wealthy heiress. Their wire-haired fox terrier Asta is played by canine actor Skippy.

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Reception

The film was released in May 25, 1934 to extremely positive reviews and was a box office hit with special praise for the chemistry between Loy and Powell. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called it “an excellent combination of comedy and excitement”, and the film appeared on the Times year-end list of the ten best of the year. “The Thin Man was an entertaining novel, and now it’s an entertaining picture”, reported Variety.

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“For its leads the studio couldn’t have done better than to pick Powell and Miss Loy, both of whom shade their semi-comic roles beautifully.””The screen seldom presents a more thoroughly interesting piece of entertainment than this adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s popular novel”, raved Film Daily. “The rapid fire dialogue is about the best heard since talkies, and it is delivered by Powell and Miss Loy to perfection.”John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that Loy and Powell played their parts “beautifully”, adding, “All the people of the book are there, and I think the final scenes of the solution of the mystery are handled on a higher note than they were in print.” Louella Parsons called it “the greatest entertainment, the most fun and the best mystery-drama of the year.” The Chicago Tribune said it was “exciting”, “amusing” and “fat with ultra, ultra sophisticated situations and dialog.” It also called Powell and Loy “delightful”. Harrison Carroll of The Los Angeles Herald-Express wrote that it was “one of the cleverest adaptations of a popular novel that Hollywood has ever turned out.”

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The first, and the best, in a very good series

17 April 2001 | by Paul Dana (crystalseachurch@juno.com) (San Francisco, CA, USA) – See all my reviews

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when Ian Fleming was first introduced to the actor who would bring his 007 to life in “Dr. No,” his immediate reaction was a loud and emphatic, “Oh, NO! Anybody but HIM!” Luckily, of course, no one paid him any attention, and a largely unknown actor and former bodybuilder named Sean Connery was off and running toward stardom. Likely enough, had anyone thought to run the idea of William Powell as Nick Charles past Dashiell Hammett — always assuming, somewhat blithely, that the author would have been sober at the moment — his reaction would have been identical to Fleming’s years later.

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Powell, insouciantly dapper and suave, almost as slender as the silly mustache he affected, was virtually the complete antithesis of Hammett’s concept of Charles, the hard-drinking, two-fisted former New York detective who married an heiress much younger than he and yet somehow managed to remain uncorrupted by his good fortune. Yet Powell — as would Humphrey Bogart several years later, when similarly physically miscast as Sam Spade in the third film version of “The Maltese Falcon” — went on to make the character of Nick Charles so totally his own that even today, six films and almost sixty years later, it is well-nigh impossible to envision anyone else in the role.

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Powell was always at his best when playing opposite a strong leading lady — i.e., Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne — yet he was never better than when paired with Myrna Loy as Nora in the six “Thin Man” films. Every bit his equal at the backchat and martini-tossing, Loy proved the perfect collaborator in making the Charleses lovely people to visit (but you wouldn’t want their livers) time and time and time again. Particularly in this, the adaptation of Hammett’s novel, which created the audience demand for the ensuing series. And which also shows that, even if you do consult the writer, it’s not necessarily wise to give him/her final approval over casting.

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Puts modern movies to shame

10/10
Author: Minty-5 from Sydney, Australia
18 January 2000

“The Thin Man”, a deliciously superb mix that keeps getting richer becomes better with every single viewing. The first time I missed a bit of the murder plot, but repeated viewings just enhance the movie.

It has started making me wanted to go out, get a terrier and call it Asta, drink too much for my own good and become a private eye detective. And move to New York. The lovable couple make it all look fun, and even if they do drink too much. Only after I have snapped out of admiration mode for the movie I remember that they were highly paid actors following a script in a hit film of 1934, and I’m living in the year 2000, cannot get a dog, am living in Sydney, and worst of all, I’m fourteen, so I can’t drink or become a detective. Such is the modern manner of the movie. It is one of the very few films of its time that retains its freshness, intrigue and brilliant humour.

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William Powell and Myrna Loy are incredibly likeable, the wisecracking darlings of society who we all want to know. Their performances were both absolutely brilliant! Some of their antics are a good deal wilder than those we are used to, but in fear of being caught up in murder would keep me away from them, but not long enough. I don’t believe there are any shallow characters at all. Thank goodness for “The Thin Man”. One of the first to show an affectionate couple in love, I’m still scanning for the same in movies of the 50s.

W.S Dyke is of course not one of the most remembered directors of his time, but for this alone he could be considered a great director. He was not Alfred Hitchcock, but he successfully combined high comedy, crime and thrills into one film. No wonder the major film studios were hot after this property. And Dyke didn’t have to rely on the excruciatingly hilarious elements of slapstick. A married couple and a dog was all that was needed. Such a simple thing to emphasise on, and how well it worked! Could there be a more stolen plot of today?

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Unfortunately, MGM, despite creating one of the best teamings of the era by putting the platonic Powell and Loy together, released this film in 1934. A nominee for Best Picture, Actor and Director, among other things, it was Capra’s “It Happened One Night” that made history by becoming the first film in history to sweep the five major categories at the Oscars. If it had been released in 1933, it would have beaten the now forgotten “Calvacade”, in 1935 it may have swept some Oscars up against “Mutiny on the Bounty”. I wonder why Loy was not nominated. The film simply could not have been done without her.

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Powell and Loy went on to make many movies together. Asta, appeared again as George in the 1938 slapstick masterpiece “Bringing Up Baby”.

Although we need some good movies now, no one should even think contemplate for a split second on a remake. There is no way justice could be done to this film. It is a comic masterpiece that continually tricks the viewers, and without a doubt, one of the very best and brightest movies of the 1930s.

I hope I can watch the other “Thin Man” movies. I will definitely be reading the book. The film ended half an hour ago, but I already feel like going back for a second helping.

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One of the funniest films ever made…

9/10
Author: A-Ron-2 from Storrs, CT
14 July 2000

I am not really a fan of comedies, but I can definitely appreciate a good one when it comes along. Often times comedies only really work when they are combined with another genre (in the case of this film, the ‘hard-boiled detective’ film)… and sometimes they achieve brilliance.

In what might have otherwise been a sort of mediocre movie, Bill Powell and Myrna Loy breath a phenomenal life into the roles of Nick and Nora Charles, a rich woman and her dandyish (but dangerous) lush of a detective husband. This film entertains on so many levels and establishes (not exploits) so many cliches that it should be mandatory viewing in any introductory film class.

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The plot of The Thin Man is pretty much peripheral to the performances by Low and Powell, but it is involving in its own way. Murder, loose women, police brutality (fun police brutality), adultery, polygamy, science, swindles, two dinner parties and drinking… lots and lots of drinking… all combine into one hell of fun movie. There is even a fair amount of tension in the film and all kinds of great one-liners and set-ups.

This is quite simply a phenomenal film, lots of fun (even for Gen Xers like myself), and well worth watching.

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Classy, sassy fun

8/10
Author: FilmOtaku (ssampon@hotmail.com) from Milwaukee, WI
22 January 2005

W.S. Van Dyke’s 1934 film “The Thin Man” stars Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick Charles, upper class sleuths who unwittingly become caught up in the case of a missing friend and former client. Nick is a former detective who has been in retirement for the last four years, living the high life with Nora when Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) implores with them to help find her father, who has been missing for three months. Throughout the investigation, Nick and Nora rarely are without a drink in their hands, are forever trading bons mots and getting themselves into comical situations; they even get their terrier Asta in on their investigation.

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“The Thin Man” is a great detective story that is enhanced by its classiness and humor. Powell is definitely the physical comedian of the pair, with Loy looking stunning and conveying so much with the looks she gives him. I honestly found myself guessing the outcome until the end, which culminates in a deliciously wonderful dinner party where all of the guests are suspects. It is stunning that this film was made in 1934, because it seems so ahead of its time; which is probably just one reason why it is so highly regarded and remains on many critics’ lists. “The Thin Man” is so thoroughly enjoyable, and its stars (including Asta) are so engaging that I look forward to seeing more in the six-film series. Rent this one or catch it on Turner Classic Movies, like I did. It is well worth seeing, and surely an inspiration to many film genres ranging from screwball comedies to detective stories. A very strong 8/10.

–Shelly

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