THE THIN MAN: Or, How the End of the Prohibition Made a Party Out of Murder

Today’s Festival lineup is a rare treat for anyone interested in hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir, with screenings of THE THIN MAN (1934), Double Indemnity (1944) and Touch of Evil (1958).  It probably goes without saying that these films don’t constitute one of the official sub-themes of this year’s “Family in the Movies” programming, but they do provide a snapshot—or maybe a mug shot—of America’s mood swings the mid twentieth century.
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THE THIN MAN and Double Indemnity are adapted from the works of, arguably, the two greatest writers of hard-boiled fiction: Dashiell Hammett (his name pronounced “Da-SHE-al,” as special guest Eddie Muller pointed out), who is the first great novelist of this terse, fast-moving style that developed in the pulps; and Raymond Chandler, who set the standard for hard-boiled writing by coupling the style to a philosophical stance equally spare and unforgiving.

 

Yet, at a glance these films have virtually nothing in common.  So how did we get from the bubbly enthusiasm of THE THIN MAN to the brutal existentialism of Double Indemnity in just a decade? And from there, why did noir head further into a “darkness more than night” (to quote Chandler) with the nihilism of Touch of Evil?

 

Special guest Eddie Muller—who is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, and producer and host of the Noir City film festival—provided key insights into these and other topics in his introduction this morning.  He noted that Hammett wrote The Thin Man, his final novel, during a period of giddy optimism just a few years into what turned out to be a 30-year relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman (who always claimed the character of Nora Charles was based on her).  That mood, it seems, permeated the book.

 

There’s no denying Nick and Nora Charles are Hammett’s most convivial characters: a fun-loving detective turned playboy and a wealthy Nob Hill heiress, their machine-gun dialogue hits the mark between hard-boiled and screwball.  But those who have read the source novel know it’s a far darker affair than the film—with visceral depictions of violence, angst that veers often into hysteria, and a long imbedded story about the Donner Party and human cannibalism (which reads as a rather somber reflection on human nature).   To understand why the film distilled all traces of hard-boiled from Hammett’s work—leaving only the high-proof comedic spirit behind—one must consider not only who Nick and Nora Charles are, but when they arrived on the scene.

 

Redbook first published the The Thin Man, in what Hammett scholar Robert L. Gale calls a “condensed, bowdlerized form,” in December 1933—the same month the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed, ending Prohibition.  A decade and a half out from WWI and five years into the Great Depression, everyone was ready for a little cheer.  Nick and Nora Charles were the ones to throw the party.
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In the short span between the time Redbook published the story and Knopf printed the complete novel (in January, 1934), MGM snapped up the rights for a sizeable $21,000 and began work on the adaptation.  Scriptwriting was turned over to a real-life married couple—Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich—who perfectly captured witty, wedded repartee (wisely sticking to much of Hammett’s strong source dialogue).  The film went into production April 9, and was completed in just 16 days (some sources say as little as 12 or as many as 18).

 

The pace of filming may have been one important factor in establishing the rhythm of the onscreen comedic banter.  But the majority of credit has to go three talented individuals associated with the project: veteran director W. S. Van Dyke (who was, nonetheless, something of a novice with comedy) and the incomparable William Powell and Myrna Loy.

 

From mid-March to the first week of April, 1934, Van Dyke helmed the first Powell-Loy film, Manhattan Melodrama.  The onscreen chemistry between the two actors was evident, and within a week of the time Manhattan wrapped, production began on THE THIN MAN.  The duo proved even better suited to comedy, and while their dramatic turns were memorable (Manhattan, plus Evelyn Prentice and The Great Ziegfeld), their comedic collaborations were, and remain, without equal.

 

With impeccable timing and an ability to underplay absurd situations Powell and Loy made even the most outlandish stories believable, and they made us think real life could be as enjoyable as the life they lived on screen.  But we shouldn’t forget Hammett as we discuss their genius, for in Nick and Nora he created something special: they were neither the typical socialites of parlor mysteries nor the rough-edged loners of film noir.  Instead, they were a bit of both—a duo that moved easily between the mansions of knob hill and the speakeasies of Manhattan, between high society and low.  In them, Hammett scripted a toast to America—all of it—at a time when America needed something to toast.  And Van Dyke, Powell and Loy delivered that toast in a way that lightened the collective mood.

 

And it still does.  Today at the Egyptian theatre, just one month shy of the 80th anniversary of this film’s premiere, the packed house roared with laughter as Powell and Loy raised a glass and gave cheer.