Wednesday, June 2, 2010
Holding off stiff competition from the likes of Von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress, Howard Hawks Twentieth Century and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, W.S. Van Dyke’s razor-sharp comic-mystery The Thin Man is my favorite film from 1934. Loosley adapted from the popular novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man remains a brutally funny and wonderfully wicked masterpiece that hasn’t aged a bit since it wowed audiences throughout the summer and fall of '34.
Getting his start as Assistant Director to D. W. Griffith on the stunning Intolerance, W.S. Van Dyke (One Take Woody) quickly became known in Hollywood for the speed at which he would direct. The Thin Man was indeed shot very quickly, in under two weeks, and it's directed with a rather unrefined zip. Thankfully Van Dyke’s sometimes-rudimentary style doesn’t hurt the film at all and it almost adds to the drunken atmosphere. While his direction is raw, Van Dyke was smart enough to know his real assets were Powell and Loy and he lets them control his frame every chance he gets.
The unstoppable duo of William Powell and Myrna Loy give two of the most infectiously witty and audacious screen performances ever in The Thin Man and the film works as a mystery, a romantic comedy and a subversive commentary on the dynamics of a married couple. With a drink constantly in hand, Powell’s Nick Charles has a wonderfully bruised, but nowhere near defeated quality, about him and its easy to see why he would become one of the most popular characters of this tough period in American history. Loy’s Nora Charles is even better, with her constant comebacks and warm sexual charm, and her performance in The Thin Man is positively groundbreaking and is very much ahead of its time.
With a marvelous supporting cast of memorable actors including Margaret O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Porter Hall, Cesar Romero and the ever-present Fox-Terrier Skippy as the unforgettable Asta, The Thin Man is still such an absolute joy to watch and its ability to make an audience laugh hasn't been diminished in the decades since its release. Van Dyke’s film would spawn a number of sequels but none of them came close to measuring up to the success of the first. The Thin Man series would ultimately derail itself by sobering up Powell and domesticating Loy, but the delightful spirit of the initial outing was thankfully unharmed. Van Dyke's film is available as a stand alone DVD or as part of a box-set containing all The Thin Man films.