The Movie: Starring Myrna Loy and William Powell (1934)
I’m starting with the movie because, like so many of these pairings, that’s what I fell in love with first. How much do I love this movie (and all of its sequels)? I own the box set. I’ve watched it more times than I can count. I love it so much that when rumors started circulating that there was going to be a remake with Johnny Depp I was filled with a righteous indignation that anyone would dare tamper with my beloved Nick and Nora.
And it’s not just me, The Thin Man was nominated for a best picture Oscar and it was so commercially successful that five sequels were made over the next thirteen years. Powell and Loy were such a popular onscreen couple that they went on to star in fourteen films together. I can see why movie-makers might think they could cash in on that legacy by resurrecting it but this movie is perfect and nothing on earth could ever improve on it so please step away from the fedora, Mr. Depp.
The story: brilliant sleuth Nick Charles has married heiress Nora and sworn off detecting to manage her many assets, but when an old friend disappears, between Nora’s enthusiasm and the clumsiness of the police and criminals alike, he just can’t avoid being drawn into the investigation. The movie poster makes it look rather dramatic but really it’s much more of a screwball comedy than a traditional detective story.
The Thin Man was released just before the infamous Hays code began to be officially enforced by the MPAA, setting tight restrictions on movie content. Thus, the movie got away with centering a great deal of its humor around Nick and Nora’s constant – even competitive- martini drinking. However, certain aspects of the code can still be, well…detected…
There are a million things I could say about this movie but really you should just read this review by Roger Ebert which says it all far better than I ever could. And go watch the movie, even if for no other reason than Loy and Powell’s faces…
I give the movie 5 out of 5 dapper detectives!
The Book: by Dashiell Hammett (1934)
There may have been six movies but there was only ever one book. Dashiell Hammett, better known for his novel The Maltese Falcon, never wrote a sequel to The Thin Man, in fact, it was his last novel. It is believed that the characters of Nick and Nora are based on Hammett’s real-life relationship with author Lillian Hellman.
The book is funny and a good deal more light-hearted than the typical hard-boiled detective story, but it is quite a bit darker than the movie. The shady characters and potential villains aren’t just cartoon gangsters and ditzy gold-digging blondes. Nick and Nora are a charming couple but they are not the movie’s cheerfully wholesome (if somewhat sloshed) duo skating in and out of zany situations and exchanging adorable wisecracks.
The book acknowledges the more sordid side of life, no one is squeaky-clean, and I quite like that about the story. But I find the ending is actually less satisfying in the book than in the movie. In both cases the mystery’s solution is the same, it’s how the audience finds out that makes the difference. The movie does it in a way that had already become standard for murder mysteries – by gathering all the major characters at a dinner party where the detective makes the big reveal. Not exactly original, but at least it’s entertaining, a sort of grand finale full of misdirection and suspense.
The book does not bother with such an elaborate set-up and the solution to the mystery is revealed rather offhandedly. But that fits with the nature of Hammett’s version of Nick, still trying to remain aloof while Nora draws an explanation out of him. Coming from the movie, the ending was a tiny bit of a letdown for me but as a whole, I love the book and I absolutely recommend it to fans of mysteries and detective stories.
I give the book 3 out of 5 dapper detectives!
(Honestly it would probably be a 4 if it weren’t going head to head with one of my favorite movies)