The Thin Man 1934

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Story: A former detective, now retired and married to an heiress, is reluctantly drawn back into detecting when an inventor’s mistress is murdered.

Detective: Nick Charles, abetted by his wife Nora, his dog Asta, and a lot of alcohol.  This is a very detective-centric story, and the movie version relies heavily on the chemistry of Powell and Loy which is legendary.  In fact, they were cast in this because the director noticed them bantering between takes on another movie.

Release Date: May 25.1934

Writer: Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich

Source: Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name

Mystery Analysis:
Detective as protagonist?

Jenny: Nick Charles is definitely the protagonist, but the screenwriters wanted the victim and all the suspects introduced first, a mistake that Hammett didn’t make.  His novel opens with:

“I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-Second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from a table where she was sitting with three other people and came over to me.”

That’s the right place to start the story, with the detective, especially a mystery like this one that is almost entirely dependent upon the charm of its main characters.

Lani: Nick is the protagonist, not that you’d know it much, because he doesn’t really have a dog in the fight. I think a good protagonist—even a detective in a mystery series—needs to need to solve the crime, even if it’s just for the paycheck. The fact that Nick doesn’t seem to care much for the first half of the movie makes me care even less. Plus, it’s a great lesson in “Start with your protagonist.”

Murderer as antagonist?
Jenny: Yes, but the plot is so confusing that it’s hard to tell.  I’d read the book a couple of times before so I knew what was going on, but I think it’d be tough if you were coming to this fresh.

Lani: Well, at first Nick doesn’t want to get involved, and Nora pushes him into it. Then Nick does get involved, and Nora tells him it’s too dangerous. The people who point guns at Nick (and they are legion) aren’t the antagonist, nor are they sent by the antagonist. They’ve just all got dogs in the fight, which again, Nick doesn’t. His dog is very laid back about the whole thing. So, a protagonist is trying to do something (which eventually, Nick is trying to find the murderer) and the antagonist is blocking him (the murderer trying to get away with it) but until the final scene, it’s really just everyone running around like headless chickens.

I would say the antagonist is the murderer, but it’s kind of slushy.

Conflict created by murder?

Jenny: The conflict begins because Nick doesn’t want to be a detective any more and Nora and others keep pushing him back to his old job, but the movie plot is so loose and confusing that the conflict isn’t significant.

Lani: The conflict—everyone wants Nick to solve the mystery, while Nick doesn’t—begins before the actual murder takes place. There is a murder, and we do want to find out who it is, so there’s that, but I’m not sure I’d say yes to this question.

Fair play with all the clues given?
Jenny: Nick cheats by recognizing the skeleton and not cluing the audience (or the police) in.

Lani: What Jenny said. Plus, the clues we had were as pickled as the protagonists.

Solved using deduction, not luck?
Jenny: Yep.

Lani: I don’t know. There’s that moment in the end where Nick turns to Nora and says he has no idea who did it, he’s just laying it out to make the murderer nervous until he revealed himself. That seems like luck to me. Jenny thinks he was just kidding, and maybe he was, but based on that, I’d say it was luck.

Story Analysis & Ratings:

Jenny says: 4 Pops
Mystery: 4, Craft: 3, Suspense: 3, Romance: 5, Comedy: 4

Lani says: 3 Pops
Mystery: 3,  Craft: 2, Suspense: 2, Romance: 4, Comedy: 5




20 responses to “The Thin Man 1934”

  1. I got a kick out of you laughing at the definitions, but I think it’s true – sometimes when writers are in the middle of the story, and things are just not working, it’s because they’ve made so many changes (or the story has evolved) that the writer forgets some of the basics. After hearing this, I’m definitely going to have to read the original. (It seems it was a _very_ short turn around from publication of the book to production of the movie, and the movie, apparently, was shot in just 12 days). In fact, I think some of the later movies of the series are actually a bit tighter in terms of plot. I remember being slightly confused by some of the dinner guests when the scene started the first time I watched it.
    Overall, I think my votes line up pretty closely to Jenny’s, although I think I’d also give the comedy a 5 as well.

  2. I agree with the problems you have with this, but it’s still one of my favorite movies. I read the book first, and several times since, and I think having that as background going in makes a difference. Need to reread it again, but I do remember that Nick doesn’t do the Poirot-style gathering of the suspects. The only people there are the people that Hammett needs there for Nick to figure it out. Also, it wasn’t until that last scene that he realizes that Wynant is dead and who the killer is, and he immediately tells Guild. So yeah, the screenwriters should have left well enough alone.

    I did want to mention that After the Thin Man might be worth watching, because I think it actually follows your classic mystery rules somewhat better (although I don’t enjoy it as much as the first one). Nick does have a dog in the fight because Nora’s cousin is accused of murder, and it starts with Nick and Nora getting home from New York, so that’s two things done better right there.

  3. I had to start watching the movie about three times to get past the whole intro. Yeah, waiting to introduce N&N so long into the plot did not help. I tended to zone out when they weren’t on screen. And man, how long does it take us to find out Nora’s effing name? “My wife.” “My wife.” What, no name?

    Pretty much boils down to “who cares about the plot, but these two are cute.” That said, darned if they aren’t adorable, really. I love how they make faces at each other when Nora walks in on Nick with Dorothy, and yet there is no actual jealousy/pissiness going on whatsoever after that. They’re enjoying each other despite the silliness. And I want Nora’s striped party dress for some reason even though I suspect it probably looked awful in color in real life.

    Also, I love the randomness of Nick shooting a pop gun between his legs at the Christmas tree. What the hell is that?

  4. I’ve not read the book and hadn’t seen the movie before so this was all new – and confusing- to me. I’m no lightweight when it comes to boozing but even I was taken aback at how freely the alcohol flowed in this film. Although I have to say Nora won my heart in (what should have been the opening) scene at the bar and she orders 6 martinis so she can catch up. Classic.

    I found the mystery confusing, couldn’t tell most of the time if they were trying to solve the disappearance/murder of the father or his secretary/mistress. Brilliant dialogue but no plot didn’t keep me from nodding off in the middle to wake up at the dinner table scene where I recognized only half the players. I don’t feel qualified to give it a rating because I didn’t make it all the way through, but I might pick up the book and start there.

    BTW – I love the new breakdown post above. I hope y’all can keep that up because I think it’s what was missing from the Rom-Com series and it ties it all together for those of us who don’t always get a chance to listen to the full podcast every week.

  5. I haven’t read the book, but I think I’m going to need to! I *adored* Nick and Nora. I had a hard time caring about most of the rest of the characters.

    Two things that really bothered me:

    1) We have no idea why Nick and Nora were in New York. At one point, someone at the party asks Nick, but he jokingly says that Nora’s on a bender and he’s trying to sober her up, but beyond that, we don’t know what their story is, why they’re there, how Wynant’s disappearance and the subsequent murders are interfering with Nick and Nora’s lives.

    2. Timeline. I got the impression at the start of the movie that we were just a few days away from Christmas. when Dorothy and Tommy leave the shop, it’s snowing. Somewhere it is implied that five days pass to Christmas Eve, and Dorothy runs into Nick and expresses her concern. We watch the rather hilarious Christmas party, then Christmas Day, Nick and the detective interview the guy with the pot-throwing wife. The Christmas tree is still decorated when Nick and the dog go to Wynant’s shop, and suddenly, Wynant is a decomposed corpse who has been dead for two months. I watched the movie twice and I couldn’t make sense of the timeline.

    The second time through, I saw some potential puzzle pieces that connect the murder to MacCauley, but as the screenplay was written, I think it could have been any of them. All of them. It could be like the multiple endings to Clue!

  6. When you mention Nick not having a dog in the fight, I kept picturing Asta getting a “say what?” expression and going to hide behind Nick. (and that was a dog who could produce such a look.)

  7. I was also confused about stuff. In particualr who the protagonist was at the start of the film. Once it got going with Nick and Nora I didn’t really understand who everyone was.

    There is a scene especially with a woman and a man near the beginning who I think was accused of the murder, and I didn’t really get what they were doing in the film.

    It did get some stuff right with the murder, but I was compeltely mystfied who the antagonist was as the bookkeeper doesn’t really appear until the end. I did get the stuff about the money being forwarded and I suspected Julia of that until she ended up dead.

    I loved Nick and Nora but the mystery was confusing, I think though i would definately like to read the book after this.

  8. I’m really interested in seeing more; I want to see what happens when/if they get their sea legs with Nick and Nora. It is a shame that the book was properly structured and the screenwriters went in and made a mess. Definitely want to take a crack at that book, now.

    It’s a fun movie, but I think I might have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t watching with my analytical hat. It’s like The Philadelphia Story; I love that movie, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t really defend it, because cute isn’t story.

    I still love it, though. 🙂

  9. Yep, as Lani said, the mystery was pretty much a stage that Nick and Nora danced across. THey’re worth the price of admission, but a good mystery, it isn’t.

    The next three this month are boh good movies and good mysteries, so that should make for good discussion. Evil Under the Sun is camp Agatha Christie, but it’s a lot of fun and Agatha Christie is always good.

  10. Upon rewatching the beginning (like I said, 3 times), Wynant says he’s going away for a few months and should be back by Christmas. So the opening scene, snowing or not, should be taking place in the first few months of fall.

  11. Yes, the time delay is almost a throw-away line. In the bar when Dorothy asks Nick to help, she says she her father promised he’d be back in time for the wedding, and Christmas is only a few days away, and he never breaks his promises to her. It’s very rapid, but that’s really the only clue 3 months have passed from the intro to the start of the story.

    Also, I don’t believe Nick recognized the corpse when he saw it. I believe it is later learned that the corpse has the metal in the leg. But, I’d have to listen again to be sure. (One would think I know it – we’ve watched the movies many times.)

  12. Also I do think they mysteries play out better in some of the next movies. But, I haven’t seen them through the PopD lenses yet. And Lani, I’m with you. Even though Philadelphia Story is messed up; I still love it because of the characters.

  13. I’m not quite done with the podcast but I’m gonna weigh in before I forget.

    First off, I love the book. It is short and it is a classic for many reasons. Second, I love the movie. It’s a classic but not for the same reasons as the book:) It’s great because William Powell and Myrna Loy steal the show. Oh, and Asta. He’s great. Every time she scrunches her face at him or he sticks his tongue out at her – well, I just love it. And it’s wonderful, too, because these two had to make this movie because they each had one movie left in their studio contract. They were stuck together and The Thin Man was born! Yep, a thing of beauty.

    I’ll agree with Katie, After The Thin Man, is a much better plot. It starts off with the protagonists first, it’s a closed house story and, if I remember correctly, there’s some good misdirection thrown in. Of course, the alcohol flows freely still and the Nick and Nora are still great – especially as they ride off into the sunset. In fact, I think all the other Thin Man’s that I’ve seen are better plots than this on… especially the one where Asta is the star! I think that does say something. The writers were better at original content than at adapting content.

    One thing I don’t remember from the book to the movie [and I realize we’re not rating the book] is Nick’s goofball nature. The book was part American gumshoe/ NY Socialite. The movie is goofball Detective/ socialite. I like the combination since I think it keeps the movie from getting too heavy and it certainly worked well with Powell/ Loy but it’s a different animal.

    @Jenny – I just realized something, each of the movies in this part of the series are adapted works. Is this something we can add to the conversation in the chat at the end of January?

  14. We can add anything we want to the chats. Aside from being on writing mystery, it’s pretty open.

    This month was classic detective fiction–Nick Charles, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes–so they all came from print originals. Later on when we get into subgenres, there’ll be a lot more original screenplays which I think probably makes for better film stories since screenplay is an entirely different language from book.

  15. I just finished the podcast…one of the comments was that Nick didn’t play fair and held the info about Wynant’s injury/ shrapnel in his leg. Actually, we knew that from a very early scene when Dorothy is in Wynant’s shop. Wynant reaches down to rub his right leg and grimaces. Dorothy says, “That old injury still bothering you?” Wynant says something like, “Only in bad weather” or “just like a barometer” and then when Dorothy and Tommy leave it’s snowing. This feeds us the information that he has an old war injury or something similar. Sure, we’re not spoon fed, but the mystery is an intellectual puzzle. You’re supposed to have some mental work to do. Besides, there is a convention to these things…. a shorthand, if you want, that writers use. Romance writers do it, too. Certain clues, or motifs, or locations, all generally mean the same thing and readers know this, too. We expect that if there’s shrapnel then there is an ache or if there’s an ache there must be shrapnel. We don’t even care anymore if it’s true:) We saw it on TV or read it in a book [tons of books] so it must be true.

  16. Good point Stephanie. This may have been one of the reasons why the screenwriters tried to set the movie up this way. I really _am_ going to have to read the book to try to figure out what they were thinking.

  17. I don’t remember Nick’s reaction to the injury of the skeleton. If he didn’t share that with us, or if the coroner didn’t share it with Nick/ the screenwriters didn’t play fair with us.