Monday, October 8, 2012

The Thin Man (Dyke, 1934)

Well, in a literary sense, among the fantasy and the horror stories I revel in, I take a great pleasure in the detective tales and the hard-boiled. It comes from my own experiences in life and, as far as I have seen, serve as a partial catharsis to me to a point. A major author I take all my time in reading is Dashiell Hammett, which isn't hard given that he doesn't have much literature available unfortunately, himself having been a detective, utilizing a somewhat accuracy for the craft of induction and yet still giving fictional entertaining accounts of pulp sensibilities without being outright ridiculous. The Glass Key, Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon are all among my top ten favorite books. As for Hammett's final book, however, The Thin Man notsomuch. While it's rich in memorable characters with their own Wes Anderson-esque quirks, with the two witty leading characters based on Hammett and his romantic partner Lillian Hellman, reading the dated yet humorous dialogue and hearing it are two different things. It wasn't helped by the fact that, as opposed to the four other books of Hammett's, The Thin Man was largely dialogue and not much action, a shift that didn't resonate well towards me just yet. Reading the book, while I'll never be caught saying it's a bad book (on the contrary, it's among my literature collection) was a drag.

Along comes a motion picture adaptation from 1934... From what I understand, the 1930s-40s were an era of screwball comedies with fast-paced dialogue and leads who were absolutely meant for each other, surrounded by the zaniness and the craziness of the movie's events, at some point the leads being in perfect synchronicity with this backdrop before returning back to their own little world. Unfortunately, the only movie I can say I've seen in this realm before The Thin Man is It Happened One Night, though you'll see me rushing to find a copy of Bringing Up Baby and intending to see His Girl Friday sometime soon.

This screwball approach to romantic comedies outright suits The Thin Man perfectly. It brings the dialogue and pacing to life in a way I could not at all have attempted to imagine. William Powell and Myrna Loy give Nick and Nora Charles, the martini-sipping, party-throwing social sweethearts the sort of dryly sarcastic yet loving tone that I needed to hear to just about enjoy the picture's moments. It may be augmented by Loy and Powell's real-life friendship, much in same way that previously married Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter made convincing siblings, but much as they could easily hold their characters on their solo moments, they are not at their peak until they are together in the same room, juggling alcoholic drinks, talkative guests and quotable quips against the city. They'll jokingly toss pillows at each other, coax each other into another drink or mystery, but it's all in good fun between two people completely in love with each other.

Compared to the lead performances, unfortunately, the rest of the picture remains seemingly lackluster - Sure, the Wynant children, Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Gilbert (William Henry) give good enough performances, but the rest is just run-of-the-mill detective yarns watered down to fit a 90-minute running time. Still it's the rarity in which the two leads can actually carry the movie on their own, mainly since the plot takes a secondary status to these characters - a tribute of the relationship between Hellman and Hammett until the end of Hammett's unfortunate days.

However, the performances wouldn't be much if they weren't supported by a great screenplay featuring that wonderful dialogue in an accessible form of a more complex murder-mystery novel. So, credit where it's due to Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, themselves a married couple, explaining the knack they have for delivering the lines that make the romantic couple such a great interest.

The movie's also somewhat filled with inadvertently silly moments, like seeing the two sleep in separate beds, a publicly married and romantic couple. I suppose that was the times, though. Very old-fashioned, but forgivable.

The picture is quite landmark in a fashion of bringing up to the cinema a new milestone of the early detective stories: The dinner scene reveal. The detective in charge, in this case, both Nick and Nora, put together a dinner with all the potential suspects, go through the evidence and give reveal the killer to be sitting right there amongst them before delivering one great slug to the culprit's chin before he can escape. While the reveal was more accurate to real-life in the novel, this was more theatrical more of a treat to watch, seeing the different interactions now that everybody is in a room with the very last people they want to be in a room with and being forced to act civilized in a dining room manner.

"Could you please serve the nuts?"
All said and done, I'd give the movie an 8.5/10. Memorable fun.

And in my own self-indulgent style of writing, I can't help but find Myrna Loy a babe (maybe that's just me or maybe it's her mouth) and would really love to have a pet like Asta. She was wonderful, makes me want a Wire Fox Terrier.

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