- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

“The Thin Man” is not customarily regarded as a Hollywood Christmas classic, but a sound case can be made for including it in the Top Five, along with “The Shop Around the Corner,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” There’s no doubt that “The Thin Man” remains the merriest of holiday whodunits.

The movie version became an emphatic popular success after being released 75 years ago, on May 25, 1934.

Belatedly, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer perceived the wisdom of making the franchise a holiday affair: “After the Thin Man” opened on Christmas Day 1936 and “Another Thin Man” a week before Thanksgiving 1938. After a prologue invented for the movie by screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a marital team, the plot of “The Thin Man” reverted to the time frame of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, depicting a sequence of events that begins on Christmas Eve in New York City, where the former sleuth Nick Charles, played by William Powell, is vacationing with his wife Nora, played by Myrna Loy, heiress to several business enterprises based in San Francisco.

Acquaintances, the police, underworld types and an assortment of devious characters draw Nick, Nora and their dog Asta into a web of intrigue caused by the disappearance of a secretive, wraithlike inventor named Clyde Winant, the title character. There are no confirmed sightings of a living, breathing Winant in the novel, published in January 1934, making the film version a rapid as well as adroit feat of adaptation, so it was a clever stroke of infidelity to place him vividly before our eyes in the movie.

Indeed, the “thin man” is an unforgettable opening reel presence as embodied by the slim and acerbic character actor Edward Ellis, master of both a forbidding scowl and diabolical smile. The great cinematographer James Wong Howe exploits the character’s distinctive physiognomy with a splendid exit image, elongating Winant’s lamplit shadow along a sidewalk. Years later, this composition served as the fourth title in the series: “Shadow of the Thin Man.”

By that time Nick Charles was popularly thought of as “The Thin Man,” a misapprehension that had grown iconic. Although the prototype was shot quickly and inexpensively in April 1934, the Howe crew did itself proud in numerous sequences, particularly the climactic snooping excursion to the Winant workshop, where the beam of Nick’s flashlight becomes a virtuoso light source. There hadn’t been such a cleverly searching flashlight since Fritz Lang used one to chase and terrorize a character in “Metropolis.”

The pre-eminent Christmas episode in “The Thin Man” has nothing to do with cracking the Winant case. It depicts Nora watching Nick try out one of his presents in the living room of their hotel suite on Christmas morning. It’s a miniature air rifle, which Nick aims at balloons strung to a Christmas tree. He takes a variety of trick-shot positions and pops all his targets until the very last, when he misses and breaks a window. During this display of ultimately flawed marksmanship, Miss Loy sustains a priceless look of bemusement, suggesting that while impressed, there could come a time when her affection and tolerance give out.

“The Thin Man” was the last of Dashiell Hammett’s five famous mystery novels (the others were “Red Harvest,” “The Dain Curse,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Glass Key”), published in a streak between 1929 and 1934. Admirers later assumed that Nick and Nora were fanciful portraits of the author and his consort Lillian Hellman, but the movie incarnations probably reflect more of the rapport that existed between the screenwriters, who remained with the series through the 1930s, and the co-stars, matched in 14 movies, including all six of the “Thin Man” features.

The promising nature of a Powell-Loy alliance had been discovered a year earlier on “Manhattan Melodrama” by director W.S. Van Dyke, and he capitalized on a freshly attractive, entertaining showcase for their compatibility on “The Thin Man,” which was astutely compressed and enhanced as a movie.

Some of the wittier dialogue derives from Mr. Hammett, but most of the protracted interrogations have been trimmed and finessed. Moreover, a number of highlight sequences belong entirely to the filmmakers, notably Nick’s search of the Winant shop and the concluding, hilarious dinner party, at which the Charleses host all the surviving suspects in their suite, with police officers doubling as waiters.

In a way, the novel seems to invite a more jovial setting for unmasking the designated killer. The book’s final pages describe Nick explaining his solution of the case to Nora, whose curtain line is, “That may be, but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.” She was right. The movie came up with several variations that played better at the time and remain more satisfying; these improvements start with the casting choices for a vanishing Clyde Winant and an enduring Nick and Nora.

TITLE: “The Thin Man”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1934 before the advent of the film rating system; occasional violence and innuendo)

CREDITS: Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Produced by Hunt Stromberg. Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Cinematography by James Wong Howe. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons. Music by William Axt.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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