The Thin Man


Rating *5*

Directed by W S Van Dyke

Written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett

Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Henry Wandsworth, William Henry, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brophy, Cyril Thornton and Edward Ellis

Inventor and industrialist Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) announces his plans to leave on a secret business trip on the day that his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) gets engaged. On that same day, he discovers that $50,000 worth of bonds have been stolen from his safe. When he fails to return on the agreed date, Dorothy expresses her concerns to Nick Charles (William Powell), who is in town for Christmas. Nick, a former private detective who once worked on a case for Wynant, is now married to wealthy socialite Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) and happily spends his days getting drunk. When Wynant’s mistress Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead) is murdered, the missing industrialist becomes the prime suspect and Nick reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation.


“I read you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
“That’s not true. He never came near my tabloids.”

This celebrated comedy thriller is based on a novel by the famous crime thriller writer and Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett, whose other literary creations include Sam Spade in the novel ‘The Maltese Falcon’. ‘The Thin Man’ was his last novel and was first published in 1934, the same year that the film was made.

William Powell had been a successful film actor during the silent age, before making the transition to sound films. He was signed to Paramount Pictures, before moving to MGM, where he appeared in ‘Manhattan Melodrama’ alongside Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. That film achieved notoriety when the gangster John Dillinger was shot dead by police outside a Chicago movie theatre after watching it.

Director W S Van Dyke had observed the screen chemistry of Powell and Loy and cast them together again immediately afterwards in ‘The Thin Man’, a low-budget support feature (what would now be called a b-movie). The film, which took just sixteen days to make (twelve days according to some sources), was an instant success, both with critics and cinemagoers, grossing $1.4 million at the box office against a production budget of $230,000. It received four Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Powell and Loy are, probably, the most celebrated screen couple in American film history. Their on-screen chemistry is apparent instantly, especially in ‘The Thin Man’ and its five sequels as the wisecracking Nick and Nora Charles. The first film, in particular, includes some sparkling comic sparring. They appeared in fourteen films together all told.

Myrna Loy was one of the most popular and highest paid actresses in Hollywood during the late 1930s, when she was dubbed “The Queen of Hollywood”. She worked for the Red Cross during the Second World War and for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) later on in life. She died in 1993 at the age of 88. William Powell was a three times Best Actor Academy Award nominee. He was married to the actress Carole Lombard between 1931 and 1933 and was in a relationship with Jean Harlow at the time of her death in 1937, a period during which he was receiving treatment for colon cancer. He retired from acting in 1955 and died in 1984 at the age of 91.

The reputation of ‘The Thin Man’ is now almost entirely based on the performances of Powell and Loy and the wisecracking characters they play. Without them, it is probably not an especially memorable film. With them, it is one of the greatest films of its time. Also featured in the film are Maureen O’Sullivan, the mother of actress Mia Farrow, and Cesar Romero, who became an iconic figure to many for his role as the Joker in the 1960s television series ‘Batman’.

Review posted 17 February 2009


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