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The Thin Man

The Complete Thin Man Collection

  • The Thin Man
  • After the Thin Man
  • Another Thin Man
  • Shadow of the Thin Man
  • The Thin Man Goes Home
  • Song of the Thin Man
  • Alias Nick and Nora
  • In 1934, actor William Powell was considered washed up. He'd been acting in Hollywood for two decades, starting out in silent films (usually playing villains) and starring as detective Philo Vance in a series of low-budget, moderately successful B-pictures. While his agent, Myron Selznick, ought to have been able to get Powell signed to MGM — his brother, David, was head of the studio — he couldn't get them to bite. Then MGM director W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke read Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Thin Man" and lobbied for Powell to play detective Nick Charles, with Powell's recent co-star Myrna Loy as his wife. While the two had exhibited some nice on-screen chemistry in the Clark Gable film Manhattan Melodrama (1934), it was really Loy and Powell's bantering, bickering off-screen friendship that convinced Van Dyke that the pair would be perfect to play the witty Nick and Nora. MGM was unenthusiastic — Loy, with over 80 films under her belt, was also considered a second-tier, journeyman actress, having been loaned out to every studio in town — but they struck a deal with the director that he could make the film so long as it was fast and it was cheap. With a B-movie budget and a shooting schedule of about two weeks (reports vary from 12 to 18 days), Van Dyke (who was known as "One-Shot Woody") turned Hammett's mystery into a sophisticated screwball caper, toning down the mystery angle while playing up the Charles' barbs and turning out a film that was wildly popular with critics and audiences. It spawned five sequels, revitalized Loy and Powell's careers, and earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

    The disappearance of a wealthy inventor (Edward Ellis) who may be responsible for a series of murders catches the interest of high-flying millionaires Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy). Nick, we learn, is a retired detective, and the money is all Nora's, although he's more than happy to help her spend it. Though he's committed to his new life of luxury and determined to avoid the stink of actual work, Nora thinks watching him solve a crime would be fun — so, after the inventor's daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) brings the problem to Nick, he reluctantly takes the case. The plot is secondary, however, to the character interaction between the boozy Nick, whom we first meet while he's instructing a group of bartenders on the finer points of mixing a martini ("Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot. A Bronx, to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time.") and the variety of mugs, thugs and ex-cons he and Nora encounter while chasing down clues. With their terrier Asta in tow, the pair drink, dance, and take loving shots at each other (Nora: "Pretty girl." Nick: "Yes, she's a very nice type." Nora: "You've got types?" Nick: "Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws"). The Thin Man ends with what would become the series' signature resolution (and which would inspire decades of imitation), with Nick gathering all the suspects together, laying out the clues, and tricking the murderer into 'fessing up.

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    For Depression-era audiences, the glamour, the wit, and even the comfortable predictability of movie plots were a much-needed break from reality, and The Thin Man delivers the same pleasures today. Part of the fun is just watching two actors have such a wonderful time playing against each other — between their off-screen friendship, the sparkling script, and the seat-of-the-pants shooting schedule, there's a breezy joy to The Thin Man that's rare in films. It's also a surprisingly unique combination of screwball comedy and proto-noir and, while it certainly introduced a level of humor to the genre that continued from that point on, one wonders why the formula was never really duplicated — although the bantering-sleuth-couple conceit was reborn in 1970s and '80s television with "McMillan and Wife," "Hart to Hart," "Remington Steele," and "Moonlighting." What those shows lacked in comparative sophistication, they also lacked in alcohol consumption — we will never again see movie icons swill booze with the conviction of Nick and Nora, who seemingly mixed cocktails as soon as they woke up in the morning and continued non-stop until that last nightcap before bed. If only we could all be so witty as our livers slowly pickle.

    Warner Home Video's DVD release of The Thin Man, which joins the seven-disc "Thin Man Collection," varies in picture quality throughout, from very good to merely so-so. Mostly very clean but not remastered, the full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) is very soft, with the contrast nicely boosted. Given the age of the film, it looks pretty good on DVD with little in the way of specks or scratches, although the scenes toward the end of the film are in worse shape than at the beginning. The monaural Dolby Digital audio is acceptable as well, given that they were working with recording equipment from the earliest days of talkies — it's very clean and clear. Vintage supplements, including cartoons and shorts, are scattered throughout the seven-disc collection, but The Thin Man only offers the feature film and the theatrical trailers for all six titles in the series. Keep-case.
    —Dawn Taylor

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