Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olde Review: The Thin Man

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a bit of a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Friday's ASUW films in 130 Kane are examples of "The Thriller," and they are W.S. Van Dyke's "The Thin Man" and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown."

"The Thin Man" (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934) First of all, let's clear up a falsehood: the name "The Thin Man" does not refer to detective Nick Charles as it has been thought, but to a murder suspect in the film. You have been informed, trivia fanatics!*

Well, now the film. It was released in 1934 (approximately the time that "Chinatown" is set) and so the film will certainly appear dated, and this shows more prominently in some of the stereotyped "suspects," for instance the young couple that are usually included in the films of this period (they quite regularly disrupt Marx Brothers movies--which isn't the easiest thing to do!) But then, you might be surprised by some of the risque dialog, the very funny verbal sparring that goes on between Nick and Nora Charles, and the extremely light touch that inhabits what is supposed to be a murder mystery (the same thing was attempted in "Murder on the Orient Express," but didn't work due to Sidney Lumet's heavy-handedness). The late James Wong Howe's expert cinematography provides the mystery. The loony script by Goodrich and Hackett, and the "let's-do-this-fast" direction of W.S. Van Dyke provide the seeming effortlessness of the humor.

And one can't ignore the superb talents of
William Powell as the perpetually soused Nick Charles, or Myrna Loy, the woman with the iciest glare you could wish to see (or even Asta, for that matter). Effortlessness is their best asset. It is also the film's.

A thriller? No. But good? Yes!

Broadcast on KCMU-FM November 11th and 12th, 1975

"The Thin Man" is, and always will be, an entertaining film. Based on Dashiell Hammett's last novel (some have speculated Nick and Nora were inspired by Hammett and constant companion, Lillian Hellman) it skirts the issue of alcoholism (the two drink CONSTANTLY but are always witty and entertaining--The magic of Hollywood) but other than that, it is one of the perpetual crowd-pleasers that came out of Hollywood's glamorous age.

Screening it again with K was interesting--she remarked that all the female characters seemed to be semi-hysterical (they are) and that the costuming for the women never ceased to be flamboyant (it doesn't). I took note of James Wong Howe's amazing cinematography, especially his night shooting, and how the rhythm of the thing might be better served if there weren't insert shots of shocked reactions to bon mots. Still the best thing about it is William Powell's seeming ability to make things up as they go along, and Myrna Loy's vivaciousness and innate ability to play it straight no matter how outrageous.

* But that's about as useful to folks calling it "The Thin Man" series, as it is to fans of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. And...it's not entirely accurate.

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