Criterion Prediction #165: The Thin Man Series, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Thin Man Series
Year(s): 1934, 1936, 1939, 1941, 1945, 1947
Director(s): W.S. Van Dyke, Richard Thorpe, Edward Buzzell
Cast: Myrna Loy, William Powell, Maureen O’ Sullivan, James Stewart, Barry Nelson, Lucile Watson, Dean Stockwell
Synopsis: Nick Charles (Powell), a retired detective, and his wife, Nora (Loy), a wealthy heiress, reluctantly embark on a mystery when an inventor/family friend of Nora goes missing. This case makes the pair minor celebrities and they continue on a series of misadventures with the help of their plucky dog Asta and a never-ending stream of cocktails.
Critique: The Thin Man series is a treasure trove for so many reasons. Like the martinis Nick and Nora slam down, the series is like a well-made cocktail.
You’ve got Dashiell Hammett’s source material (thankfully, strike-breaking and union-busting were omitted from the screenplay) jiggered by writers Hackett and Goodrich who combined elements of the crime serial with Agatha Christie-inspired dramatism. Then you toss in the crackling screen chemistry of Powell, Loy, a Rolodex of supporting players and a cute dog for good measure and what you have is a recipe for inspired filmic merriment. Is it cinematic perfection? Hell no. But The Thin Man films are so damn fun, which is more rewarding than refinement. It’s that fast-and-loose, rough-hewn, spirited sensibility that makes these movies so indelible and endlessly rewatchable. I might forget who the killer is, or how the slurred sleuths ferreted out the mystery but I’ll never forget the humorous diversions. Whether it’s Nick shooting balloons with an air gun Christmas morning, the couple navigating a crowded train concealing their dog Asta, or seeing the varied cast members parry their punchy lines of dialogue and quips through some warbling facial expressions because they’re (likely) on the verge of bursting out in laughter–suffice it to say, these titles never disappoint.
William Powell is the epitome of classic stardom. Cary Grant might be the man from dream city but Powell feels like his goofier, more fun older brother who doesn’t sweat under the gun but still trips over his barstool. Loy is as clever as she is cherubic with a great combination of smart elegance and an ability to act volumes with her eyes while retaining the natural pragmatism that fuels comedic banter and charm. While veteran director W.S. Van Dyke hit a brilliant stride with the first four films, Richard Thorpe (The Thin Man Goes Home) and Edward Buzzell (The Song of The Thin Man) carry the well-lit torch for two more entries, that might not burn as bright as the entries beforehand but continued and illuminating series that we’re all the better for having, six is better than four, right?
Why They Belong in the Collection: An endearing and classic series such as The Thin Man movies would be right at home in The Criterion Collection. While the Warner DVD set is serviceable, at this point in time, the films are in need of a new coat of paint regarding distribution and given Criterion’s relationship with TCM and Warner it would be a treat to see these movies get the Criterion treatment. In previous Criterion newsletters, the wacky drawings have hinted at what people interpret as an overture to an eventual unveiling of The Thin Man films. Or are they suggesting a possible release of the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There? Either would be fine but the exploits of Nick and Nora would be the preferable choice. Who knows? Maybe we’ll luck out and get both.