Poster for The Thin Man
Jesse Pasternack explains how The Thin Man‘s mixture of genres turns the 1934 classic into something truly special.
If I had to compare The Thin Man (1934) to one drink, it would be a martini. It’s elegant, cool, and delightful to enjoy. More importantly, it resembles a martini because it’s composed of multiple ingredients. A martini gets its taste from a combination of gin and vermouth, while The Thin Man gets its power from a mixture of two genres: mystery and comedy. It’s a blend which is still potent.
This film begins as a straightforward crime drama. It follows an inventor named Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), who is the titular “thin man.” His daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) is getting married and he learns that a wedding present of $50,000 in bonds has gone missing. Wynant confronts his secretary Julia (Natalie Moorhead), who tells him that she embezzled half of the money. He tells her to come up with the rest of the money before he leaves and mysteriously disappears.
These introductory sequences are straightforward, brisk, and tough. In other words, they are the exact opposite of what people remember about The Thin Man, which is most famous for depicting the adventures of the quippy, cocktail-loving husband-and-wife detective team Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles. But this beginning also grounds the film in dramatic situations which provide good stakes for what is to come. These scenes are also beautifully shot by the legendary James Wong Howe. If this film had kept its initial tone, it might be remembered as an effective yet not especially memorable crime movie.
William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Skippy as Nick, Nora, and Asta Charles
But things start to change at the 11-minute mark. Before this moment, the camera had rarely moved. But now it tracks forward towards Nick, who is shaking a martini. You can almost feel the film change its tone to a lighter one as he wittily talks about mixing drinks to the beat of certain dances as if he were lecturing at Harvard. As he engages in banter with his fellow drinkers, a desperate Dorothy who asks his help to find her now missing father and a hilarious Nora who just wants to match him quip for quip and drink for drink, you can feel the film start to find its own rhythm.
While this movie continues to devote time to the layers surrounding its mystery, complete with good twists, it also starts to add in more comedy. Its funny scenes keep the film light, even if they have nothing to do with the plot. One of the more famous examples is when Nick shoots at some balloons (something they incorporated after Powell did that on set in real life), but I’m more partial to a moment that comes when a guy bumps into Nick. Instead of brushing him off, as he would if he were a tougher detective in a darker crime film, Nick grabs the man and tries to dance with him. It only lasts a few seconds, but that moment reflects the jaunty atmosphere which makes this movie as a whole so delightful.
The Thin Man celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. Despite its age, it continues to be a wonderful concoction that deftly oscillates between being a dark mystery and a sparkling comedy. I’ve got a feeling that it will always be the cinematic equivalent of a martini that’s elegant and delicious in equal measure, and one that’ll be enjoyed by many for decades to come.