Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles has an adorable look when she scrunches her face like a badger in a knowing and casual embrace of her husband Nick’s drunken tom foolery. One time she does it while he’s poking fun at her over the phone, right after he’s sent her on a detour to Grant’s Tomb, and the two have such wonderful, good-hearted chemistry that you can bet he knows she’s doing it.
This is what most people liked best about “The Thin Man,” a delightful, smart and quick crime comedy that had a strong story and a clever concept but was almost completely overshadowed by Powell and Loy’s sparks. The pair of them communicate instantly that they are a married couple who knows each other very well and are capable of wittily snipping at one another without batting an eye. Instead they trade smirks and off-the-cuff remarks, and their swift wordplay and punch lines as dry as their martinis make them so easily likeable. They also have one of the cutest and most iconic movie dogs, the loveable Asta.
And whereas most crime comedies use their plots as filler for a comedy vehicle, “The Thin Man’s” story is never secondary to Powell and Loy’s good fun. It’s about a comfortably married couple so wealthy that the pair of them can lie around all day drinking and throwing parties for anyone who needs a quick pick-me-up. Nick is a retired detective from California dragged back into snooping based on his wife’s prodding that it’s probably a fun diversion. A family friend has gone missing and is suspected of murder, and everyone begs Nick to get involved, even though he confesses it’s getting in the way of his drinking.
I admire how the film can be surprisingly compelling in its suspenseful moments of detective work and gun play, and then cap it all with a quick one-liner. When one gangster breaks into the Charles’ home and holds Nick at gunpoint, he knocks Nora out of the way and tackles the gangster. She wakes with a shot of whiskey and without missing a beat says, “You darn fool! You didn’t have to knock me out. I knew you’d take him, but I wanted to see you do it.”
It’s also a fairly good-looking film. Director W.S. Van Dyke has put together a sharp, black and white aesthetic that predates film noir. His distant camera gives Nick and Nora a lot of breathing room to shoot knowing looks at each other without us forgetting they’re holding a drink.
“The Thin Man” is a rare classic comedy. It’s a movie that was so popular in its day in 1934 that it spawned five sequels over 13 years and likely had a hand in inspiring everything from “Charade” to “Austin Powers.” It was made on a B-movie, shoe-string budget in only two weeks time and became a smash. Now it’s even being remade by Rob Marshall with Johnny Depp in Powell’s role, and Screen Rant elaborates here on a short list of eight actresses lined up to play Nora.
Something with this many sequels, copycats and adaptations would typically soil and overshadow a comedy in today’s day and age, but “The Thin Man” holds its own as well as Nick Charles can hold his liquor.