April 04, 2013

THE THIN MAN Is Still Funny After All These Years

"Can you tell us anything about the case?"
"Yeah, it's really getting in the way of my drinking."

I've previously discussed the lopsided nature of my movie watching experience.  Generally speaking, if it was made in my lifetime then I at least have a passing familiarity with it.  But that leaves decades of classic films which I've never seen and know little about.  I really want to make an effort to experience some of these old gems, and the biggest hurdle is usually the feeling that watching stuff from before 1960 is the cinematic equivalent of eating my vegetables.  (Something I was never very good at...just ask my mom.)  I guess an easy entry point for a lot of this older material is anything that's been thrown into the modern Hollywood remake machine, as it usually indicates that there's something at the core of the story that translates across generational lines.  That's how I ended up seeing the original Ocean's Eleven, a movie that largely feels like Sinatra and friends let a camera crew film them hanging out in Vegas for the weekend.

About a year ago, director Rob Marshall was set to remake MGM's classic series The Thin Man based on the books by Dashell Hammett, with Johnny Depp lined up to play Nick Charles and a few different actresses in the running for his wife Nora, including Emily Blunt, Amy Adams, and Emma Stone.  I've got no love for Rob Marshall and, to be honest, it's getting harder and harder to stay interested in Johnny Depp.  That being said, after I read this article by one of my favorite film writers, Drew McWeeny, I was really curious to check out the original films, and it seemed there was a definite chance I'd end up liking the classic version more than whatever Marshall managed to cobble together.  (That film seems to have since turned to vapor.)  It's been sitting in my Netflix queue for a year now, so when I felt like I needed to vary up my screenings a bit, The Thin Man was my first choice.

Nick and Nora Charles are the ultimate good time couple.  Nick was a keen eyed detective until he fell in love with the wealthy Nora.  She's able to match him wit for wit, as well as drink for drink, and while Nick certainly enjoys living the more comfortable lifestyle, it's clear that he's not just using Nora for her money.  They have perfect chemistry, and whenever the two are together, there's an energy that absolutely crackles between them.  William Powell and Myrna Loy fill the lead roles, two actors who I was familiar with in name only.  In fact, for a number of years I worked on the Sony Pictures lot (which used to be the MGM lot), so when I think of the names Loy and Powell, I think of the buildings bearing their names.  While Powell gets the lion's share (MGM pun intended) of the attention here, both are an absolute joy to watch.

The story itself is a bit all over the place.  An eccentric inventor, the titular "thin man," goes missing and a number of dead bodies start popping up in his wake.  The police and his family suspect that the guy's gone on some kind of killing spree, but something doesn't quite add up for Nick.  When he inventor's family asks him to investigate, but he'd rather stay out of it, content to spend his days having a boozy good time with his beautiful wife.  Nora's got other plans however, tickled at the idea of seeing Nick in action and solving a real crime.  She practically dares to get involved and before long Nick is fending off gunmen and skulking around warehouses with a flashlight and their trusty dog Asta.  By the end he's got a suspect list of about a dozen people and literally any of them could be the culprit, but the audience isn't actually interested in learning the killer's identity so much as they are in watching Nick play detective.  Just to reinforce that fact, Nick solves the case by sitting everyone down at the dinner table and essentially bullshitting them until the villain ultimately reveals himself.

In my discussion of My Week With Marilyn, I talked about the rise of "The Method" and how it forever changed the face of cinema.  The Thin Man is a movie that really exemplifies the pre-method style, which is another reason I've always had trouble getting into much older cinema.  The whole thing is very theatrical, as if there's a prescenium arch just out of frame somewhere.  The power of the camera to show rather than tell seems to elude director W.S. Van Dyke, especially a poorly constructed bit where Nick discovers a crucial clue in the form of a dead body buried in the inventor's workshop.  I'm sure it's mostly just a sign of the time the film was made, namely that you didn't show a dead body on camera in 1934.  But the scene is staged with very little energy or suspense and until Nick gets on the phone and actually says out loud that he found a body, his discovery and its importance are very unclear.  Many of the scenes feel like they were ripped straight from the pages of an off-Broadway play.  In fact, it often seems as if we're just watching the recording of a stage show with the occasional close-up, particularly the final dinner scene.  There's even a running gag where Nora will rattle off some zinger causing Nick to do an exaggerated double take and it feels like Powell is still trying to play to the back row.  When compared to our modern aesthetic, the whole thing can sometimes feel very unnatural.

That said, The Thin Man is funny as all hell, and I think it's a testament to the timeless nature of the humor that every joke still lands nearly 80 years later.  The clever one-liners come fast and furious, inspiring more laughs per minute than most of today's sitcoms.  (Seriously, look at the IMDb quote page.  It's a mile long and it doesn't even include some of my favorites.)  It definitely helps that most of the cast are playing serious characters trapped in a typical murder mystery, leaving almost all the comedy to Nick and Nora.  That includes a stone faced young Caesar Romero, who would later go on to play The Joker to Adam West's Batman.

The Thin Man is proof positive that comedy can be truly timeless, the polar opposite of something like the Shrek films where the jokes feel dated before the movies even make it onto home video.  The only complaint I have is that there isn't nearly enough Myrna Loy.  She's great but totally underutilized, often disappearing when it comes time for the investigating.  I'm hoping that in the later films Nora gets to play a more active role in Nick's detective work.

I'm definitely going to find out.

PS - Watch this trailer below.  It's conceptually amazing, especially for 1934.

Title: The Thin Man
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Porter Hall, Minna Gombell
Year Of Release: 1934
Viewing Method: DVD - Netflix

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