In most of the Thin Man films, Nick and Nora look like cinema’s ideal couple

In most of the Thin Man films, Nick and Nora look like cinema’s ideal couple

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment. Fair warning: Spoilers are inevitable.

“You’re really not like a detective at all,” a fetching dame tells her laid-back interrogator in The Thin Man Goes Home. “You don’t pound the table or shout or threaten.” She’s talking about Nick Charles (William Powell), possibly the most unflappable of big-screen gumshoes, a man whose keen wit is matched only by his stylish nonchalance. Nick drinks like a fish, but never seems truly drunk. He is retired from the sleuthing business, but is always stumbling back into it, as though it were a habit he couldn’t shake or a hobby he couldn’t resist. He does serious work—cracking murder cases, one Sherlockian deduction at a time—with a wink and a shrug. His tongue is always planted firmly in cheek. A stiff cocktail is never far from his grasp. He is motivated mainly by boredom, not always his own.

Though conceived between the covers of a Dashiell Hammett novel, Nick Charles is a creature of classic Hollywood, through and through. He could only exist in a simpler age of crime fiction, before noir corrupted the genre with cynicism. That goes, too, for his heiress spouse, Nora (Myrna Loy), a wealthy socialite whose own taste for adventure is often the catalyst for her husband’s investigations. Not simply condoning his mischief but actively coercing him into it, she’s the refreshing polar opposite of the shrewish-wife archetype. Years into their marriage, Nick and Nora share the sparkling, flirtatious rapport of newlyweds. They also sleep in separate twin beds, as was mandatory for most Code-era cinematic couples. But savvy viewers knew how these doubly besotted lovers spent their downtime, even before they produced an offspring as proof.

Powell and Loy made a whopping 14 films together, six of which belong to the Thin Man series, a franchise reliant less on its murder-mystery mechanics than the profitable dynamic between its leads. (So credible was their chemistry that some of the public mistakenly assumed the actors really were an item.) Like its main characters, the Thin Man movies are fundamentally products of their era: They’re whodunits that double as comedies of manners, presided over by an irreverent private dick who’s always three to four steps ahead of everyone else on-screen—excepting, perhaps, his better half. No matter how grim the material ostensibly grows, tangling an ensemble of suspects in its web of murder, suicide, blackmail, and/or vengeance, the tone rarely skews dark. Each installment ends on an absurdly cheerful note, often with Nick and Nora sharing a celebratory drink with some chipper, non-grieving survivor of the deceased. When things threaten to get too serious, the duo’s troublemaking dog—a fox terrier named Asta—does backflips or runs off with a clue between his teeth.

Many of the franchise’s recurring tropes can be traced back to its first and best entry, 1934’s The Thin Man. Shot over a mere two weeks, on a fairly shoestring budget, the film was conceived by MGM as a B-movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke, who would return to helm three of the five sequels, reportedly fought to cast Powell and Loy, who had appeared together in the previous year’s Manhattan Melodrama (otherwise known as the film John Dillinger watched at Chicago’s Biograph Theater before cops gunned him down). Van Dyke’s casting coup paid off when The Thin Man became a surprise smash, thanks in no small part to its quip-firing stars. Also integral were screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a husband-and-wife team who infused the central relationship with an authentically playful, affectionate spirit. (Whether they modeled the film’s marriage on their own is unclear, but there’s no denying Nick and Nora talk like the platonic ideal of evenly matched life partners. There was no one quite like them gracing Hollywood screens at the time—or now, really.)

The thin man of The Thin Man isn’t its detective, but a missing inventor (Edward Ellis) whose Christmas-season disappearance sets the complicated plot into motion. Subsequent entries in the series would nevertheless include the Thin Man moniker, presumably to preserve brand recognition. (It becomes an implied alias for Nick himself, who is admittedly much more svelte than the heavyset gumshoe Hammett described.) Beyond titular influence, this inaugural installment set the template for the whole series, firmly prioritizing whip-smart banter over the accumulation of clues—though there is plenty of the latter. As much as any low-aiming action or horror franchise, the Thin Man movies adhere to a rigid formula. They gave people what they wanted, over and over again, until profit diminished with the returns.

Without fail, Nick’s attempts to just relax and drink away a few afternoons will be disrupted by a sudden murder mystery, practically materializing around him. Reluctantly, and with a big push from Nora, he’ll take the case, outpacing the actual detective investigating (usually an incompetent or overzealous fellow). There will be at least one scene of Nick snooping around where he doesn’t belong, and another of him swearing off the assignment, only to later pretend that his commitment never wavered. There may be a brawl. There will always be a lowlife associate of Nick’s, dropping by to behave uncouthly and raise Nora’s eyebrows. And that mugging canine, a clear comedic ancestor of the Frasier pooch and The Artist’s Uggie, will undoubtedly provide some slapstick assistance—possibly in slow or fast motion. What changes, predominately, is the backdrop: Nick works his magic in New York and San Francisco, Long Island and his New England hometown, on a race track and a gambling boat. Trouble seems to find him wherever he goes, usually on vacation.

Every Thin Man movie ends the exact same way, with a scene of Nick gathering all the suspects at what Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg would call the “Accusing Parlor.” He talks through the evidence aloud, shakes down potential culprits, and waits for the guilty party to make a critical slip-up. These finales are invariably satisfying: Even when the mystery itself ain’t exactly Edgar Award-worthy—I’m looking your way, later sequels—seeing Nick solve it aloud is what whodunits were made for. Without fail, the accused will cop to his or her crimes, before being tackled to the floor during a pathetic attempt to go out in a blaze of gunfire glory. (No one in a Thin Man movie can shoot for shit, unless they’re aiming at the first victim.) The below scene, from the original, exemplifies this convention, but any and all entries in the series build to a basically identical climax.

So inevitable is this repeated conclusion that Nora actually acknowledges it, adding meta interjections during the final minutes of The Thin Man Goes Home. (“It’s called payoff,” she notes, before remarking upon the obligatory inclusion of a red herring and remembering how many of her husband’s cases end with an attempted shooting.) In many respects, Nora is the audience surrogate, at least in that it’s her desire to be thrilled—to drag her leisurely hubby back into the fold for her own amusement—that jump-starts the narrative. “It’s positively sadistic the way you drive me to work,” Nick tells her in the franchise’s final film, but she’s really just his enabler. The retired detective isn’t merely a high-functioning alcoholic, but also an excitement junkie—a subtext that’s underlined when, in Goes Home, he makes a noble attempt to kick the sauce, too. The most perverse thing about the Thin Man movies is that they star a couple of obvious sensation addicts, who become interested in all the mayhem happening around them—the crimes of passion and greed—for its entertainment value. (They definitely aren’t in for it the money; as Nick frequently jokes, he’s married Nora for her bountiful fortune.)

The main draw of this franchise, from its auspicious start to its underwhelming finish, is the sophisticated comic interplay between Nick and Nora. She frequently wakes him up in the middle of the night, dragging him out of slumber and back into action. He loses her when she tries to tag along on dangerous assignments, though usually only for a moment. The two seem to be using the death of strangers as a kind of foreplay, reinvigorating their marriage every time a body hits the floor. They are impossibly droll, fearless, knowing—genius playmates in a game without personal stakes. Powell delivers each line with withering precision. Loy, capering in his periphery, dances through the plot as lightly as a feather. There’s a reason MGM made six of these movies. Nick and Nora are that charismatic reason.

At the same time, the best of the Thin Man movies are the ones that weave interesting mysteries. After the NYC-set original, with its familial gallery of potential killers, Nick and Nora return to their San Francisco home in 1936’s After The Thin Man, which begins—per its title—mere hours after the events of the earlier film. This superlative sequel finds Nick investigating the disappearance of Nora’s cousin-in-law, a mission that drops him into the middle of a love triangle and a shady Chinese nightclub. (No spoilers, but it isn’t exactly impossible to finger the villain this time out.) Notably, Hammett wrote the story for this second chapter, which explains the plot’s intricacies. His handiwork can also be detected in 1939’s Another Thin Man, which turns one of the author’s Continental Op stories—about a colonel being threatened by a suspicious opportunist—into a Nick and Nora adventure. These sequels are convoluted in all the right ways.

The franchise started to go south when it began shedding principal participants: Hammett had no hand in Shadow Of The Thin Man (1941), about the murder of a horse jockey—and nor did Goodrich and Hackett, whose clever wordplay largely goes missing. After directing the first four films in the series, Van Dyke fell ill of cancer and committed suicide in 1943. His respective replacements, Richard Thorpe and Edward Buzzell, struggled to balance comedy and suspense as gracefully. The films get goofier, cornier, and less cool as they go.

While the mysteries were never the be-all, end-all of the Thin Man series, it doesn’t help that the later movies increasingly marginalize that element in favor of broader comedy. Whereas the original notably introduces its suspects before Nick and Nora, allowing the lovebirds to enter the film like a gust of fresh air, franchise lowlight The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) takes a full half-hour to get to the case—time misspent on a bumbling train trip and scenes with Nick’s elderly parents. Song Of The Thin Man, released two years later, corrects this course slightly, returning the pair to an urban setting where they belong. But, again, the mystery is no great shakes, and the jazz-scene backdrop does little to enliven a half-baked plot.

But perhaps the real problem with the latter Thin Man movies is that Nick and Nora, once so delightful in their back-and-forth, begin to seem like predictable, even tired characters. Part of that is surely the domestic evolution they go through: The two have a baby by the third chapter, which cramps their lush, paint-the-town-red style a little. The movies, however, do everything in their power to keep the tyke off screen; Goes Home excludes him entirely, while the installments before and after it never quite commit to depicting the Charleses as active parents. Yet Nicky Jr. isn’t the actual issue. Nick and Nora just stop surprising each other (and, in turn, the audience). Their dynamic remains static, except when it regresses: In Goes Home, Nick actually spanks Nora in front of his parents for an indiscretion—a real low point for a series that once put its lovers on equal footing.

Powell and Loy seem bored, too, as though there was little mystery left in their characters, no aspects of Nick and Nora left to reveal. The overwhelming impression one gets from the later Thin Man pictures is that the magic has gone out of this fictional relationship. Every marriage, even an invented one, needs to spice things up from time to time. Nick and Nora, once the perfect Hollywood couple, simply fell into a rut. How do you keep a screen team alive after a half-dozen installments? Even the master detective Nick Charles might be stumped by that unsolved mystery.

Watch: The Thin Man; After The Thin Man; Another Thin Man

Skip: Shadow Of The Thin Man; The Thin Man Goes Home; Song Of The Thin Man

Outside canon: Those jonesing for more Nick and Nora have no shortage of options. Though Hammett only featured the characters in one of his novels, they’ve popped up in a variety of other media. Powell and Loy reprised their roles for a 1936 Lux Radio Theater adaptation; later, the characters returned to the airwaves in The Adventures Of The Thin Man, which ran from 1941 to 1950. Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk played the married couple on a television program of the same name, which ran from 1957 to 1959. There was a TV movie in 1975 (Nick And Nora), an unpopular stage musical in 1991 (Nick & Nora), and a dramatic stage adaptation in 2009. Johnny Depp is currently said to be developing a big-screen reboot, though there’s no word on who will be the Nora to his Nick. And that’s to say nothing about the countless homages, parodies, and ripoffs that have been made in the characters’ honor. The Thin Man casts a shadow, all right. It’s a long one.


Next up: The Hannibal Lecter movies

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