In the 1930s the detective story was huge. Of course, it never really lost its popularity, but the classic detective stories you probably think of when you think about that genre were written at that time. The trend continued into the 40s. These were the stories with the dashing, almost superhuman private-eyes solving amazing crimes. These detectives were almost always in trouble and involved in cases far and above the real cases of most private-eyes. Dashiell Hammett was one of the most prominent authors of the detective story. He’s the one who wrote the classic Maltese Falcon. However, many fans of the movies and the detective story, don’t realize he also wrote the much-more-light-hearted The Thin Man, as well.
The Thin Man leaped to the silver screen in 1934, during the height of The Depression. It starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. They were unlike any couple seen on the big screen. First off, they were married and they were very much in love. This is not the typical formula that most Hollywood movies wanted to put up on the screen. Nick was not out philandering and he wasn’t arguing with his wife. Sure, the poked fun at each other, but they were obviously hopelessly in love.
Nick Charles was an interesting detective. When the Thin Man opens he is famous and that trend would continue throughout the series, however, he was so famous that every cop in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles knew his name. All Nick wanted to do was cuddle up with his martini shaker and drink himself into oblivion. Then he wanted to sleep in the bed next to Nora (they still didn’t have a bed where they slept together at this time) and walk their dog Asta. In what would become a signature of the series, Nick was always just a little bit in the bag every time you saw him. In the first film, Nora lines up the martinis to keep up with him.
Only the first movie was based on the Dashiell Hammett novel. Hammett would return in the sequel, After the Thin Man, to help write the script but then he fell off after that as well. The first movie is probably the best in the series. It is funny, well-acted and amazingly plotted. The story holds you from the first. Yes, Powell is dashing and handsome and Nora is gorgeous and funny and Asta has great scenes guaranteed to make you laugh, but there are also some brutal scenes. A man is shot right in the face climbing a staircase. In another scene, a body is found buried beneath a cement slab in a concrete floor. This is Dashiell Hammett being funny, but with an edge.
As the series went on, a sharp-eyed viewer can tell what became popular and what everyone wanted more of as the series went on. For example, Nora gets more lines as the series goes on. She is there for some great one-liners in the first movie, but gets shoved and locked into bedrooms and closets as the things start heating up. In the following movies, however, she gets more lines and steps up to stand next to Nick as he solves the crimes. Also, you can see, from the very first sequel, that Asta had really become the breakout star. In the second movie he gets scenes all on his own as he realizes that his own “wife” has been cheating on him while he was gone.
The movies descend in quality from the first sequel. After After the Thin Man, came the movie Another Thin Man when Nick and Nora have their child, then came Shadow of the Thin Man, and then The Thin Man Goes Home, and, finally, Song of the Thin Man. By the time the final movie in the series had come the world had gone through World War Two. When the first movie came out, people wanted to see a movie about a wealthy couple who had nothing better to do than drink, walk their dog, and solve a crime or two in their spare time. However, the world had seen so much horror and bloodshed after the war, it wasn’t quite so quaint anymore.
Most people assumed that the “thin man” in the movie titles referred to Nick Charles, played by William Powell in the role that he would truly become famous for. However, it actually refers to the guy who “did it” in the crime story. However, once it became associated with Powell, the titles reflected the public assumption. Powell is many things, but he isn’t particularly thin. He is very funny, however, and his face tells you the jokes as much as what he says.
Of course, what made the movies successful was that Powell and Loy were so good together. This was just a happy accident. They were very much like Nick and Nora even when the cameras weren’t rolling. They poked fun at each other, zinged each other with jokes, and just enjoyed being together. They were not ever really married, as some believed, but were close friends throughout their lives and just naturally clicked.
All of these movies have now been brought together in an amazing DVD boxed set. Any fan of movies and, in particular, fans of detective stories must see these films. They have become classics. They are funny, well acted, well plotted and filled with guest stars. Look for a young Jimmy Stewart, for example, in After the Thin Man. Each film is crisp and clear as the day the films were first shown the screen. Also, if you want to have your own experience of seeing movies like they were meant to be seen, complete with a cartoon before the feature, each DVD has one of those as well. Finally, the set comes with a double-documentary feature that tells the story of William Powell and Myrna Loy. That DVD also has a cartoon and a recording of Loy and Powell doing a radio version of The Thin Man.
If there is one complaint about the boxed set it’s that there could have been more printed material. I like a boxed set with pamphlets and booklets that describe and explain about the movies and the stars. That is lacking here. All that is in each box is the DVD. Still, it is a small complaint for the sheer joy and fun of these movies, meticulously restored, and just as fresh, fun and interesting as the day they first appeared on the big screen.