The Thin Man ★★★★½

"You wouldn't be a widow for long."
"You bet I wouldn't."

Upgrade. The Thin Man is a persuasive and sympathetic portrait of a good marriage because it's so unsentimental, with no goopy assurance needed of the pair's mutual devotion, no evidence floated that we're "safe" in status quo normalcy because husband is the provider and wife knows her place. Nick and Nora direct none of the jealousy, resentment or insecurity at one another that a lesser story would lazily harness for artificial conflict -- in fact, the film (with Dashiel Hammett's novel adapted skillfully by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a husband and wife team) deliberately takes time out to mock such conventions. I know I harp on this constantly but it's such a relief compared with Hollywood's perception of long-term relationships as some laborious process of people grudgingly accepting abuse from their spouse as the eternities pass. And with only vague (though unmistakable, this being pre-Code) markers of their sexuality available, we get the studio-picture stand-in for same: banter -- constant, balletic, still snappy and uproarious after 80+ years. The banter has its origin in Hammett, who based it on his much more fractious relationship with Lillian Hellman, but it's mutated marvelously first by the screenwriters and then by William Powell and Myrna Loy, a couple of geniuses walking a tightrope in such a way that you know they're showing off but somehow you can't get annoyed at them for it, permitted by W.S. Van Dyke to improvise individually and jointly, and boasting some of the best chemistry of any pair of actors ever thrown together, especially incredible in the context of peak-stable MGM. Van Dyke's rapid shooting style overcomes its relative artlessness through its feeling of lively spontaneity; you even envy the guests at that terminally awkward suspect dinner party.

But let's not forget, this is actually a whodunit -- and while it's interesting and full of intriguing characterizations and performances, the mystery elements certainly take a back seat to the real story, of ex-detective Nick letting Nora talk him into trying his hand at a case post-retirement. It's set up strongly and remains engrossing at the rare points when it's our focus, but the big revelation is wholly anticlimactic and makes little logical sense, which scarcely matters because this resolution isn't truthfully why we're here. I suppose this could be more seamlessly integrated, apart from demonstrating how Nick knows what he's doing only marginally more than the police. On the show Moonlighting the cases the detectives solved always were used as ironic comments on the state of their relationship; perhaps this is a sort of commentary as well, letting us remember how irrelevant the larger world can appear when your company is this good. Like a lot of really bold, adventurous studio films from the first half of the '30s, this really makes you wonder what-if and why-not.

Nathan liked this review