BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 9, 2005
"The important thing is the rhythm," the man at the bar is explaining, cocktail shaker in hand. "You always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time. A Bronx, to two-step time. But a dry martini you always shake to waltz time." He's joined a few moments later by his wife and his wire-haired terrier. The former inquires how much he's had to drink and is told he's on his sixth martini. As she downs her first, she flags down a waiter: "Will you bring me five more martinis and line them up right here?"
Thus was the wide world introduced to Nick and Nora Charles in 1934's The Thin Man, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Witty, sophisticated, and pleasantly pickled, the pair would sleuth their way through a total of six films, the last five of which have just been released on DVD for the first time. (A short-lived 1950s TV spinoff starring Peter Lawford is better left forgotten.) As Nick and Nora, Powell and Loy subverted the classic detective film with comic aplomb and presented an impressively modern vision of marriage as an association of equals. They were also cinema's most glamorous dipsomaniacs, a reminder of a bygone era when Hollywood could still imagine that charm, taste, and good humor might go hand-in-hand with the copious consumption of distilled spirits.
The Thin Man was adapted from the Dashiell Hammett mystery of the same name (Nora is to some degree modeled after Hammett's longtime love Lillian Hellman), but director W.S. Van Dyke and married co-writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich leavened the novel's hard-boiled tone and grim wit. The result is less a detective story with occasional flashes of humor than a light comedy set against a backdrop of murder. Nick Charles is a former police detective of considerable fame who has retired in order to "manage" (i.e., spend) the wealth of his heiress wife Nora. He has little desire to return to crime-solving, but after an acquaintance is murdered he finds himself back in the thick of things, much to Nora's delight. The scenario repeats throughout the sequels: Again and again, lethal misfortune befalls someone in the Charleses' circle, and missus prods mister to get to the bottom of it--with her help, of course, and that of their terrier, Asta. In the course of their investigations, they match wits, and frequently highballs, with the full spectrum of 1930s cinematic types, from high (Nora's stuffy society relatives) to low (gamblers, jazz musicians, and a parade of amiable crooks with names like "Fingers" and "Creeps," few of whom begrudge Nick the fact that he has at one time or another sent them up the river).
The mysteries themselves tend to be somewhat disappointing--needlessly convoluted, with solutions that often hinge on a last minute revelation or "clue" of dubious import (for example, whether or not someone announced themselves before opening a door). Rather, the chief pleasure of the films is in spending time with Nick and Nora as they tease, cajole, and romance their way toward the conclusion. Powell and Loy, who made a total of 16 movies together, have an inimitable chemistry, easygoing and companionable yet perpetually alert to any opportunity for a loving tweak. Unlike Hepburn and Tracy, whose onscreen partnerships are never more than a step away from open sexual warfare, Powell and Loy get along quite well, thank you very much, their disagreements rarely occasioning more than a wrinkled nose or wry putdown. ("How'd you like Grant's Tomb?" Nick asks, having sent Nora there in a cab to keep her out of harm's way. "It's lovely," she replies. "I'm having a copy made for you.") Indeed, the Thin Man movies have an almost revolutionary cinematic view of marriage as neither a goal nor an obstacle, but rather a state of being--and a happy, openly romantic one at that.
But these days what is perhaps most striking about Nick and Nora is not their easy blend of comedy and drama or their balanced sexual dynamic, but rather their carefree booziness. In modern American movies, the consumption of alcohol is limited largely to fraternity pledges, lost souls, and the occasional Billy Bob Thornton character. The idea that discerning, well-adjusted adults would on occasion choose to have a few drinks in the company of like-minded friends is almost heretical unless it is accompanied by suitably catastrophic consequences--a fist-fight, adulterous affair, or car accident.
Some would argue, no doubt, that any onscreen hint that drinking can be fun must be avoided for the sake of the children--though how this problem is solved by limiting portrayals of the activity to plastered high-schoolers and collegians is not quite clear. Sadly, I suspect Hollywood's dim view of sociable drinking has just as much to do with its dim view of sociability. The activity that accompanies alcohol consumption most frequently, after all, is not wife-swapping or vehicular homicide but rather conversation, and conversation of a particular kind: banter, chitchat, idle musing, or witty repartee. With relatively few exceptions, American movies today have little use for talk that has no purpose beyond itself, that doesn't move the plot forward or reveal some hidden character trait but rather consists merely of two or more people taking pleasure in one another's company and inviting us to do the same, as the Charleses do with such genial ease. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that "Americans do not need drink to inspire them to do anything, though they do sometimes, I think, need a little for the deeper and more delicate purpose of teaching them how to do nothing." Were he alive today, I suspect he would find this observation more true than ever.
In their comical bibitory excess, Nick and Nora Charles are not realistic drinkers, of course, any more than they are realistic detectives--though if that's the standard to which we intend to hold Hollywood we might just as well shut the place down. They don't slur or stumble or speak too loudly. They are every bit as charming after a few drinks as they were before, perhaps a touch more so. As a result, spending 90 minutes or so with them is less like being around drunks than it is like being a little tipsy oneself. Bottoms up.
The Home Movies List: Thin and Thinnerer
The Thin Man (1934). The best of the bunch by a good margin--sharper, funnier, boozier, and yet more tender, too. The scenes where Nora wakes Nick to fix her eggs or Nick shoots the ornaments off the tree on Christmas morning capture their marriage better than any bout of sleuthing.
After the Thin Man (1936). The title tried to maintain the conceit that the "thin man" of the original film was not Nick Charles but the murder victim. It was a losing effort though, thanks in part to William Powell's slim frame, and soon abandoned. In this first sequel, the Charleses travel to Nora's hometown of San Francisco, where her cousin soon winds up under suspicion of killing a ne'er-do-well husband. A young Jimmy Stewart is along for the ride, though his Big Scene at the end gives little hint of the stardom to come.
Another Thin Man (1939). Probably the weakest of the lot, with a tortuous plot and dark, gothic elements that mingle incongruously with the cosmopolitan comedy. An elderly colonel who manages Nora's investments turns his Long Island estate into an armed camp after receiving death threats. His precautions prove in vain, however, and the bodies soon begin piling up. The film marked the introduction of Nick and Nora's progeny, Nicky Jr., here a baby whose birthday must (of course) be feted by an array of ex-cons. Look for a pre-Stooges Shemp Howard among them in the uncredited role of Wacky.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). The first of the series not based on a Hammett story and the last to be directed by Van Dyke, who died in 1943. Nick and Nora continue their bicoastal commute, with a slender but enjoyable race-track mystery set in the City by the Bay. Donna Reed also stars, as does famed drama teacher Stella Adler in a rare onscreen performance.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). The Charleses get a fix of bucolia with a visit to Nick's parents in the small town of Sycamore Springs. They also go (temporarily) on the wagon--in the film, a concession to Nick's father, who disapproves of drink; in reality, a concession to World War II, which prompted liquor rationing. The mystery begins relatively well, but is ultimately revealed as another absurdly overdone criminal conspiracy. With Edward Brophy (who played another character in the original Thin Man), a young Gloria DeHaven, and Anne Revere as the town lunatic.
Song of the Thin Man (1947). Nick and Nora enter the world of late-night jazz clubs in pursuit of yet another killer, with a very good Keenan Wynn co-starring as their guide and translator of hipster lingo. (The movie also features child-star-turned-reliable-character-actor Dean Stockwell as little Nicky.) The movie, and series, ends with a likable exchange. Nick: "Now, Nick Charles is going to retire." Nora: "You're through with crime?" Nick: "No. I'm going to bed."