' Cinema Romantico: The Thin Man

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Thin Man

"....the viewer is drawn in by one of the oldest and most compelling reasons there is to go to the movies: We'd like to be doing that, too and this is as close as we're ever gonna get." - Dana Stevens, Slate.com

The words above are something to which I often find myself relating when I see a movie I enjoy - not always, but often. But I don't know that I've ever felt it more strongly than I did during my recent viewing of the 1934 classic "The Thin Man". I want to be Nick Charles (William Powell) living in high syle with his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) and treating each and every hour like its cocktail hour and indulging in a little detective work on the side so long as it isn't - as Nick says at one point - "cutting into my drinking time."

The first time we see Nick is at a nightclub where he is lecturing the bartenders on the proper way to make a martini. This gives away the fact he's a man we should trust. Nora arrives and joins him at his table. He provides her a martini and she wonders how many he's already drank. "This will make six," he replies. And so she promptly asks the waiter to "bring me five more." This gives away the fact she's a woman we should trust.

If you were to give it a label I suppose "The Thin Man" would be a murder-mystery-comedy. As it starts a woman has come with her fiance to see her inventor father and advise him of their marriage. He has to leave for a few months to see to a new invention but promises to be back for the wedding at Christmas. But once Christmas has rolled around he still hasn't arrived and his daughter naturally becomes worried. It just so happens Nick is an old family friend and it just so happens she bumps into him one night and, somewhat against his will, Nick finds himself sleuthing - drink firmly in hand at all times.

But who murdered whom, and why, and how, and all that nonsense really isn't the point. Or, to say it another way, the result matters not as much as the process. And the process is the utterly delightful chemistry between Powell and Loy. I don't think an actor and actress could come across onscreen in this day and age as having as much as fun as these two without the movie being labeled as "indulgent" (see: "Oceans 12"). For instance, there is the scene on Christmas morning as the movie simply stops in its track and Nick sits on the couch in his robe and slippers using a tiny toy rile to shoot ornaments off the Christmas tree. Nora, meanwhile, sits beside him - indoors, mind you - in a gigantic fur coat. "Aren't you hot?" Nick wonders. "Yes, stifling," she responds. "But I look so pretty."

Who really cares if this particular scene (and there are more like it, believe me) accomplishes absolutely nothing in terms of plot? It's SO much fun to watch them just kicking back on Christmas morning that you get a smile and shake your head and just pray that next Christmas morning you're kicking back with Myrna Loy in a fur coat (or William Powell in a robe and slippers).

But when the end does come, and the murder is solved, it's the classic ploy of every character being in the same room at the same time and the script requires Powell to do nothing more than essentially sit and talk. But William Powell is so eloquent in reciting all his dialogue that it comes across as if he's merely saying all these things to toy with all his guests as opposed to a delivery device for exposition.

In his review for his book The Great Movies (which partially led me to checking the film out), Roger Ebert writes that it's, "like an all-dialogue version of an Astaire and Rogers musical." Boy, ain't that the truth. Watching Powell and Loy talk is essentially the same as watching Astaire and Rogers dance and since I can't dance, well, I think I found this one much more enjoyable. As a lover of quality dialogue -whether real or over-the-top - this is pretty much as good as it's ever been in any film in history.

"Is he working on a case?"
"Yes."
"What case?"
"A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him."


One formula used again and again (and again) by current moviemakers is to put two stars together in something, anything, regardless of whether or not there is a script, a treatment, an idea, half of an idea, probably even less, and let their charisma do the work the screenwriter and director and editor should be doing and - surprise! surprise! - usually these films wind up tanking. But "The Thin Man" shows that if you just give a couple of charasmatic stars some great lines, enough of a story and not get in their way with a bunch of show-offy camera work that the Two Stars formula can not only work, but provide one of Hollywood's greatest movies.

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