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The Thin Man (1934)

by on 2011/12/21

“I don’t care. It’s just that I’m used to you, that’s all.”

* * * *

I’ve never been a particular fan of those old school hard-boiled mysteries. I tend to skirt the fringes of the sub-genre, with more enthusiasm for old gangster pics and film noir. Nonetheless something clicked in my mind when I first saw The Thin Man, a few short years ago.

Based on a story by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), it explores the mystery of a reclusive inventor gone missing. When he fails to materialize at his family’s Christmas celebrations, his daughter (the Tarzan series’ Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan) tries to solve his disappearance. To that end, she enlists the help of a reluctant ex-detective, Nick Charles (William Powell).

Unravelling the puzzle has rarely seemed so unimportant. I watch — and rewatch — this film, not to see whodunit, but for its script and its performances. The people here are relentlessly fun and funny, from the despicable Cesar Romero (the TV Batman’s Joker) to the beguiling Myrna Loy as Nick’s wife, Nora. Judicious editing even makes a good character out of a pet dog.

It’s everything I wanted from Duck Soup, coupled with the Expressionist production of Cat People. Heck, throw in a bit of Little Rascals while you’re at it. The dialogue is rapid-fire, quick-witted and clever, employing double entendre, puns, and sarcasm to spare. In this Swing era world, everyone’s festive together, even criminals formerly captured by Nick Charles.

“They’re making drunkenness charming,” I heard from a certain someone beside me.

Whatever your thoughts on the wisdom of its humour, it’s hard not to respect its keen edges. More forward than most of its contemporaries, it acknowledges — sometimes openly, sometimes obliquely — the realities of blended families, kept partners, and open relationships.

It’s an unusual piece, not only for its era, but for the holidays. The Thin Man serves as an antidote to the standard schmaltz and sentiment. It’s set at Christmas, mentions Christmas, even outright shows us Christmas, but it’s more suggestive and smart than you might expect. The candy cane is there to stir the drinks.

* * * *

Rated PG

91 minutes

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