Monday, December 14, 2020

Powell and Loy Ideally Pair to Track Down The Thin Man

           One of the biggest hits of its era, the 1934 comedy whodunit The Thin Man, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett and skillfully directed by the prolific W.S. Van Dyke, features a top-grade cast and A-1 MGM production values, highlighted by one of the most perfect onscreen pairings of its or any era- William Powell and Myrna Loy, who portray the urbane, witty, free-spirited Nick Charles and his well-to-do wife Nora with disarming ease and unmatched chemistry (the film came out hot on the heels of another MGM hit helmed by Van Dyke and starring Powell and Loy for the first time, Manhattan Melodrama, with Clark Gable). Over decades the film has kept its reputation as one of the top MGM offerings, and due to the Powell/Loy dynamic the film retains a freshness rare to find in a 1930’s movie. As a bonus, the movie also serves as a somewhat unorthodox (given the subject matter) but apt choice for holiday viewing, as much of the film takes place during the Christmas season. 

 Van Dyke does a supreme job navigating the able players through a tricky plot that at times comes close to rivaling The Big Sleep in complexity; Van Dyke keeps things on track though (aided by a quality screenplay crafted by husband-wife team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who mix comedy, mystery and marital elements with aplomb), and covers more ground in 91 minutes than most epics manage in 3-4 hours. Although the movie was shot on a tight schedule, Van Dyke carefully sets up each shot and maintains adept pacing in a manner that allows the audience to stay abreast of the array of suspects and the constantly-shifting focus on this largely untrustworthy group. Van Dyke also does a great job guiding the cast to give performances in keeping with the piece as a whole, with their colorful interactions managing to come across as less melodramatic than performances found in many films of the period.

Audiences had never seen a screen couple display such a spontaneous, off-handed approach in regards to their marriage vows before Powell and Loy’s surprising turns as Nick and Nora, who throughout the film appear to find good-naturedly ribbing each other as important as solving any murder, which was Nick’s stock in trade prior to his life of ease and cocktails with Nora. This iconic team is so bemused and in tune it’s hard to tell when the script is being adhered to, as opposed to them simply ad-libbing a line or gesture- it’s great to watch Powell and Loy’s reactions to each other’s shenanigans to try to determine when they’re playfully throwing a curveball in impish fashion. Powell is expert at delivering his dialogue with ace timing, and he knows exactly when to mug for the camera to hilarious effect right after a risqué line comes up. 

Myrna Loy makes such an impact in the film, alternately teasing and showing loving concern for Powell, it’s surprising during subsequent viewings of the movie to see how little screen time the character actually has, what with all the plot details to cover. Both stars seem so comfortable in their roles and with each other they hardly seem to be acting; making a pairing (and acting) look as easy onscreen as Powell and Loy consistently manage to do is actually no mean feat and deserves mention alongside many more highly-touted performances who took home awards for more serious-yet-pedestrian work. Fortunately the public grasped the value of Powell and Loy together, and it’s easy to understand how audiences immediately took to this uniquely in-sync teaming, leading to many other successes, both in the Thin Man vein and otherwise (1936 was a particularly good year for the Powell/Loy starrers, with After the Thin Man, Libeled Lady and The Great Ziegfeld all placing among the year’s top hits). 

In supporting roles, the reliable Nat Pendleton is both tough and endearing as John Guild, the frequently-perplexed police lieutenant who stays one step behind Nick and Nora in solving the primary crime, but apparently bears no grudge towards their more finely-honed sleuthing skills. Maureen O’Sullivan does a conventional ingénue job in a sizable role, abet with some of the genial charm seen to great advantage as Jane in the Tarzan series, while Minna Gombell puts her large eyes and often-florid emoting to good use as a nervous suspect. Porter Hall shows his skill for making a strong impression in a brief role as MacCaulay, a colleague of the missing title character, and Cesar Romero briefly shows up with not much to do, but looking like a template for an Art Deco-era lover. Most important among the supporting players is Asta, the most famous movie pooch this side of Toto, who knows when and when not to follow Nick and Nora’s instructions with uncanny canine sense. 

                Opening in May of 1934 after a swift shooting schedule saw the movie reach audiences within five months of the novel’s release, The Thin Man’s major box-office success led to four Oscar nominations (including ones for Powell, Van Dyke, the screenwriters and for Best Picture) and five sequels featuring Nick, Nora and Asta, as well as an eventual placement on the National Film Registry list of preserved films. Warner Archives has recently put out a great Blu-ray featuring a pristine print of the film that properly showcases James Wong Howe’s luscious cinematography and an awesome trailer with some pretty good visual effects wherein Powell meets Powell to discuss the movie. It’s nice to see The Thin Man looking this good over 85 years after the film first captivated a Depression-era public eager for the type of light, entertaining diversion the film and its irreplaceable stars so smoothly convey in their initial romp as the timelessly appealing Nick and Nora Charles. 


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