The Thin Man (1934)

William Powell plays the role of Nick Charles, a retired private detective turned lush. His rich wife, Nora, played by Myrna Loy, has inherited her late father’s business and Nick has taken on the responsibility of running it and living in luxury. While at the lobby bar at the Ritz, Nick runs in to the daughter of an old friend. She informs him that her dad has gone missing and that she needs his help. Nick initially refuses, but over time he becomes more intertwined in the case.

Snappy Dialogue & Stage Play Influence

The Thin Man is teeming with fast paced dialogue that is snappy, full of double entrendres, and sarcasm. This style of quick witted conversation is typical of many films in the 30s and 40s. I am not sure if it is due to filmmakers leaning into the novelty of talking pictures, or a style adopted to help keep the film as engaging as possible, or to maximize every inch of film for budgetary purposes.

From what I have read, a contributor to the fast pacing found in many 30’s and 40’s films is due to filmmakers drawing from stage plays. Films had mimicked the stage in its infancy. Although, in the silent era, this took the form of camera framing and exaggerated emoting from actors. The early silent films looked like a filmed stage play. This quickly changed as filmmakers became more comfortable and experimental.

The advent of sound technology in film resulted in a similar phenomenon. Initially, many films began to take a similar form to the plays and stage acts. This can be seen in the prevalence of musicals and in the way dialogue was incorporated into the films. This is not to say that all films were like this, many filmmakers were creating films that broke these molds. The films had also long since evolved past the single camera angle facing a stage-like room. The new phase of mimicry was solely around the new ability to incorporate sound into the film.

The stage cannot compare to film’s ability to explore the world and sets. A film audience can have more nuance and subtle storytelling conveyed to them, than a stage play can offer. Thus, a stage play relies more on dialogue for story and character development. Quick wit and fast rehearsed dialogue swiftly found its way into the new era of films.

Again, it was not all films of the era that followed this trend. It seems like this style was more present in gangster films and comedies. Perhaps there was a successful forerunner and the studios just leaned heavily into establishing a template format. If there is, then I do not know what that film would be.

End of Prohibition

Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Thin Man, was first published in December 1933. This was the same month that ratification of the 21st amendment would take place, ending prohibition. Hammett had originally drafted the novel in 1932, before the end of prohibition. His original draft placed the protagonist in speakeasy’s, whereas the film places him and the drinking in the public eye.

Alcohol is so prevalent throughout the film it is almost a supporting actor. Nick is almost constantly either actively drinking, going to get a drink, or talking about it. I wonder if it is just a part of his character, or if there is more subtext to it. Is it just an opportunity to highlight the prevalence of drinking during prohibition? Or to as a celebration of the end of prohibition? Perhaps Nick’s quick rise in social class, due to the wealth of his wife, has turned him into a member of the idle rich, a call back to Chaplin’s film The Idle Class.

Powell’s performance could resonate with a society at a pivotal moment of the great depression. The economy is starting to turn around, prohibition is ending, perhaps hope is on the horizon?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke

Cinematography: James Wong Howe

Screenplay by: Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich

Based on the novel, “The Thin Man”, by: Dashiell Hammett

Editing By: Robert Kern

Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, & Cesar Romero

Runtime: 1h 31m

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Mystery

Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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