Norton of Morton

Read a new instalment of Norton of Morton every Saturday at 4 o'clock

Saturday 20 June 2015

On film: The Thin Man

In which G.M. Norton considers becoming a drinking detective.

I recently had the pleasure of watching a 1934 comic murder mystery by the name of The Thin Man.

Based on a book of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, who also penned The Maltese Falcon, it is a well mixed cocktail of screwball comedy and murder.

The two main protagonists are Martini tossing married couple, Nick and Nora Charles, played with aplomb by William Powell and Myrna Loy.

I must confess that my first introduction to the two characters of Nick and Nora were two parody characters, Dick and Dora Charleston in the film, Murder by Death (played by the delightful David Niven and Dame Maggie Smith).

Anyway, I digress.
The plot involves inventor Clyde Wynant (a.k.a. The Thin Man) who is about to take a trip away to work on a top secret project. When his daughter announces her engagement just before his departure, he promises to return in time for the nuptials and wants to give the couple some bonds as a wedding present. However, when he discovers the bonds are missing from the safe, he suspects his mistress, Julia has stolen them. When Julia is found murdered, Wynant is the obvious suspect, but nobody can find him.

Enter Nick and Nora Charles, a retired detective and heiress, who are clearly very much in love. Nick finds himself pulled into the case, with everyone around him urging him into it. He's reluctant: but he's soon persuaded to take the case, solves it and exposes the murderer at a climactic dinner party. It's all delightfully done, and Nick doesn't miss a beat for a second.
Murder, loose women, dogs, adultery, polygamy, science, swindles, two dinner parties and copious amounts of drinking.

It must be said that the plot of The Thin Man is pretty much peripheral to the performances by Low and Powell whose constant playful interaction is so mesmerising that you can momentarily forget that you are watching a murder mystery.
Powell and Loy truly are a breath of fresh air; a married couple deeply in love, devoted, funny, boozy and bouncing off of each other with witty repartee.

Given their astounding chemistry, it was no surprise that Powell and Loy went on to make a whole host of films together. In fact, The Thin Man was their second film together! 

Made shortly after the end of Prohibition, Americans were now free to drink again legally and by Jove, did Nick and Nora do this to celebratory excess. They must be two of the most few boozy characters in the history of film. Indeed, I don't think there's a scene where the insouciantly dapper and suave Powell doesn't have a martini in his hand.
One of my favourite moments was when they meet up in a restaurant and Nora asks: Say, how many drinks have you had?Hmm, this will make six Martinis, replies Nick. Alright, waiter, will you bring me five more Martinis. You can all line them up right here.

Hilariously scripted, with flawless acting from all involved, The Thin Man is one of the most refreshingly funny films I have seen in a very, very long time.

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, the film was shot in just 12 days, using many first takes. No wonder he was known as One-Take Woody. Van Dyke was an unfussy director, with a keen eye for pacing and casting, both of which shine through in this production.

The Thin Man is as sparkling and flavoursome as the numerous glasses of champagne that are quaffed during this 1930s masterpiece. Nominated for four Oscars, (it lost out to It Happened One Night), it spawned five more films which I'm most interested in watching. 

So, go grab your favourite fellow or gal, fix yourselves a Martini or six and watch The Thin Man together. 

Just be warned, this film will make you want to go out, get a terrier and call it Asta, drink too much for your own good and become a private detective.

G.M. Norton
Protagonist of 'Norton of Morton'



  1. I really love the Thin Man films - I've got the book too. Powell and Loy simply sparkle together, they make the film a delight.

    1. I rather fancy reading the book. Another purchase come payday! I believe the film was produced very quickly after the book's release.


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