The image of the private detective in film is largely shaped by the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashielle Hammett: two-fisted heroes and tough-hearted cynics who come from the seedier sides of town. So it’s interesting to note that Hammett, who created one of the archetypes in Sam Spade (memorably played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon) also created one of the major subversions of it. In W.S. Van Dyke’s 1934 film The Thin Man — and its numerous sequels — the audience gets to see the detective work of Nick Charles… at least, once he can finally be convinced to do some detective work. It’s actually about halfway into the film before any of the other characters can convince him to take the case, but the film, much like Nick, gets by on charm.
The “Thin Man” of the title, despite the way the sequel films were titled, does not refer to Nick Charles himself (though William Powell is certainly thin enough to justify the confusion.) Rather, it’s an inventor played by Edward Ellis, who disappears a few weeks before Christmas and is soon suspected in the murder of his former lover and secretary. Maureen O’Sullivan plays the inventor’s distressed daughter, who reaches out to old family friend Nick Charles to investigate. But Nick is difficult to convince; he’s been out of the detective game for some time.
Nick Charles is a private detective of a different mold than the hard-boiled P.I.s of film noir. He’s an urbane socialite, witty and charming, and is happily married to heiress Nora. Myrna Loy plays Nora, and is perfectly cast as a foil to William Powell; the two playfully bicker about several things, and it’s Nora who eventually pushes Nick into taking the case. She’s curious what this detective business he used to be in is like. Nick seems to be happier out of it, socializing and drinking, but eventually can’t resist the dual temptations of finding out what’s going on and showing off that he’s figured it out. The character is a lot like a more affable Sherlock Holmes, in that he relates well to people but maintains the tendency to be a step ahead of everyone else. He’s not infallible, and he is no more physically competent than an average person, but his personality is much like what one could imagine Bruce Wayne being like if Batman actually enjoyed being the playboy persona and didn’t separate the detective work into another personality.
The millionaire mystery sleuth, minus the complexes.
The mystery in the film is of the classic whodunnit mold, even to the point of having it all come down to a last minute “the killer is at this party” reveal. Of course, this wasn’t a film cliche in 1934, but even today’s audiences aren’t likely to mind it, as it’s simply so much fun to watch it played out so skillfully. There’s a lot of wit in the dialogue and some situational humor, and even some animal antics on the part of the Charles’ dog Asta. In some mysteries, the humor could seem forced; here it feels like a natural development from the personalities involved. And even the minor characters are full of personality. Maureen O’Sullivan describes her mother’s side of the family as “all insane”, and she’s not unjust in the description. Her mother is conniving for more money, her step-father is an unambitious kept man, and her brother (William Henry) is a hilariously weird little fellow with entirely too much faith in his armchair psychology studies. He manages to stand out in several scenes even without dialogue simply from his unnerving boundary issues and the silent reactions of other characters to him.
The result of all this character humor is that even when the mystery isn’t being developed, there’s still plenty going on to keep the audience engaged. The solid supporting cast never outshines William Powell and Myrna Loy’s back-and-forth banter, but complement their performances with just enough eccentricities to strike the balance between being believable and being interesting. And Powell and Loy are in fine form, creating characters who always seem to know just a little bit more than they’re letting on.