TROUBLE CITY

The Thin Man Can Never Go Home Again

BlogsAdam CampbellComment

Ever since I saw The Big Sleep as a child, I’ve been a fan of Raymond Chandler. Knowing my affection for the film, one of the first presents my future sister-in-law gave me was a copy of Chandler’s collected works. A little later, on the strength of The Maltese Falcon, I tried Dashiell Hammett too, but honestly it never took. His Sam Spade was often the opposite of what I liked in Philip Marlowe. Where Marlowe was bargain basement, Spade (or the Continental Op) was a slick character. Where Marlowe sometimes talked himself into trouble, Hammett’s characters knew just where to stop. Where Marlowe wanted women but forbade himself them, Sam Spade was more a womaniser. There seemed to be many jobs a Hammett character might be suited to, but detective for hire was probably not one of them.

It was many years before I discovered Hammett again, and it turned out that I was not far wrong in my first analysis. Hard boiled detectives were not really Hammett’s thing, his real skill laid in the modern parlour mystery. The Thin Man, to me, is one of his greatest novels and the last one he ever wrote. The husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles are exactly what the author really knew, society types with a foot in the obscene. The novel was a huge success and sparked a wildly successful movie series, but Hammett never wrote again, thereafter entering the political scene, a pattern we’ll see again later.

Yes, while Hammett felt the best use of his energies for the last 30 years of his life was in anti-fascism and politics, Hollywood has never met a successful picture it didn’t want to see more of. The big screen adaptation of The Thin Man (released the same year as the novel!) was a resounding success. While long regarded as a classic, it’s been a while since I heard someone bring the picture up in discussion of great crime pictures. The film is a total triumph, carried with the excellent pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy. This was the first time the two worked together and they’d be paired 14 times before they retired from the industry.

The basic story behind the characters will tell you the plot to any of the films. William Powell plays Nick Charles, a former New York detective who has married a rich heiress and retired. Nick now spends most of his time at leisure, and almost always drinking. Myrna Loy plays the heiress, supporting Nick but utterly in love with his detective abilities and dangerous past. From time to time the police come to Nick and request his help with some particularly difficult case. Nick always manages to solve the cases without upsetting his cocktail schedule.

I loved the original The Thin Man film almost as much as The Big Sleep, in that they both captured two completely different moods perfectly. William Powell, a little sauced on Christmas morning, firing a BB gun at Christmas decorations is as much a summation of his character as down-at-heel Bogart playing Marlowe sauntering into a ritzy home and asking how these rich folks pay their butler. Where as Philip Marlowe has a distain for everyone he meets, usually a healthy one, Nick Charles no longer cares. He’s been paid off, he’s an old fat cat, and Two Finger Johnnies and Machine Gun Georges are something he doesn’t want to be bothered with. The first movie, The Thin Man, really is a classic and ought to be watched by any fan of detective or noir cinema.

Though I’d watched the sequel, I don’t claim to be any expert on the series. The Thin Man was strung out to an incredible extent, eventually making six films and 76 television shows out of the concept. The TV show, by the way, featured Peter Lawford in the William Powell part. Lawford is perhaps better known for his association with Frank Sinatra, as a member of the Rat Pack and as the man who both linked Frank to JFK and took the heat for their falling out. Anyway, I’d only before seen the sequel which is not as good as the first film but still rather good. One element of The Thin Man success we haven’t talked about is the other star, Myrna Loy. In fact, Myrna Loy is the main reason I watched The Thin Man Goes Home.

Myrna Loy is an interesting person. She reminds me a lot of Teresa Wright in that she was a very intelligent actress who was determined to speak her mind and dictate her own career. After The Thin Man she realised there was something with her and Powell, and appeared in 14 films with him. She also realised that her newfound fame gave her a greater platform than she’d ever had before. She soon decided to use this platform to speak out politically, about fascism.

Over the years, watching her performances, I’ve gained a great respect for Myrna Loy as a performer, often outclassing her male co-stars. But I’ve gained an even greater respect of her as an anti-fascist. I’ve often read of the list Hitler kept of people to be assassinated upon the invasion of the United Kingdom, “unreasonable” people who he thought must be wiped out. At one point Myrna Loy was high up on the American version of that list. What flattery to know a hatemonger wanted you dead! Loy continued on regardless, giving talks, speaking out at every chance against Hitler and his regime. When the Second World War began, and the years after when the UK alone fought the Nazis, Loy was at the forefront of the intervention crowd.

So my hopes for The Thin Man Goes Home were two fold. On one hand, I wanted a great Thin Man film, one that at least lived up to the first. And on the other hand, I was excited to see the only Thin Man film made in US war time. The Thin Man Goes Home was released in 1944, mightn’t we see some Nazi agents, etc? Hitchcock had been making films like that since before the war.

Well unfortunately the film disappoints on all levels. The most obvious problem is that the entire creative team has changed. This was the first Thin Man movie not to be directed by W.S Van Dyke. It does not feel like the old movies, the rhythm of jokes is all wrong, it lurches along, painfully. A movie like The Thin Man Goes Home would not be released today, most likely. This movie was released ten years after the original, four sequels later.

One thing that always amuses me about these films I feel I should get out of the way now. Nick Charles is not the Thin Man in these films, the Thin Man was a character in the first picture. But since so many people assumed that The Thin Man related to the main character, the sequels were forced to take the name on. So the sequel was After The Thin Man, taking the double meaning of being subsequent to and chasing after this Thin Man. Shadow of the Thin Man also keeps this ambiguous titling going. Is the crime that happens in the shadow of Nick Charles, or is this something that has happened in the shadow of the Thin Man case? But by the time of The Thin Man Goes Home, they had certainly gave up on any trickery with the title, and acknowledged that audiences believed the Thin Man to be Powell. This is like imagining that Bogart is a Maltese Falcon or Joseph Cotton is The Third Man, but by the time of The Thin Man Goes Home, they could fight against it nomore.

The story of The Thin Man Goes Home is quite flimsy. Nick and Nora Charles return back to small town Sycamore Springs to visit Nick’s family. In the novel, Nick is a Greek and his surname Charles is a false contraction. In the film, his father is a local doctor and of course an Anglo Saxon Charles. Two of the most interesting developments are dissolved too quickly. One is that Nick’s father doesn’t drink and doesn’t approve of Nick’s job as a detective, so Nick (although nearly 50) must cover up aspects of his own life. The other is that his wife Nora is a city girl and is not at home in the country. Well it’s not too long before all that is settled, and Nick, who’s on holiday, spends all his time denying that he’s back home on a case, which Nora is all too happy about. Until a case falls in his lap.

You only need to watch a few moments to work out where the new crew have gone wrong. We open with a prat fall instead of some wit. That’s followed up with having to squeeze past a fat man in a crowded car corridor. I’m sure you can feel the pens at work in this scene. The Thin Man Goes Home will raise giggles but never a big laugh, and the glances into Nick’s childhood would be all the better if they related to how he is as a grown up, but they don’t. It’s just all an excuse for an adventure that isn’t half as clever as the ones they had before.

Oh there’s innuendo and a bit of pulp thrill, but never a story that’ll ever fool even the daftest of pulp fans, who’ve all seen hotel room numbers turned upside down a million times before. Don’t expect anything too political either, the filmmakers must have thought even 1944 was too early to pick sides. Powell has a few clever lines, but it’s more a shadow of The Thin Man than The Shadow Of The Thin Man!

Several times in the films they are in danger of being out acted by the dog and I think in this picture, the dog finally manages it. It took Loy several years to be convinced to appear in this film, but if you ask me, she could have used a little more time. She doesn’t seem more than barely half convinced, with her unexcitable performance. She does get a few good scenes though, including my favourite, where she explains in 40s crime slang all the gory details of some gruesome case Nick has solved to his parents. This involves the elegant Ms Loy spouting out words like shiv, jabbing an old man in the ribs and twisting her arms to demonstrate someone's handicap.

There’s also a scene later on, that won’t probably won't please anyone, in which Loy is put over her husbands knee and spanked in front of his parents. This was embarrassing to watch and seemed to go against what we knew before as the Nick and Nora relationship, in which her comments inform Nick’s final analysis and certainly he never beats his wife while his father looks on and giggles. The whole section is a bit disturbing now and it’s not helped by the fact Loy protests throughout.

Honestly, The Thin Man Goes Home is perhaps the worst Thin Man film ever made. Though I’ve yet to see the entire series, I honestly don’t have any trouble confirming this. Unless Song Of The Thin Man features a live monkey being dissected, it will be hard for it to be less funny than The Thin Man Goes Home. In many years since, studios have tried to continue franchises on, even when the original team would rather die than continue the legacy. The Thin Man Goes Home is an example of what happens when you challenge Mother Nature.

Producers of the world. When you want a sequel without an idea for one. When you want 6 films where 3 would have been too much. Please think of The Thin Man Goes Home. This is certainly a film in which the greater story is of the production of the pictures rather than what is contained in the films themselves and, unfortunately, audiences had their confidences betrayed and dragged out to see a movie that would satisfy nobody. In the grand finale all we are left with are some wasted chances, of director Richard Thorpe to restart the franchise and certainly of Myrna Loy to make her return mean something. The worst verdict on The Thin Man Goes Home is that it’s just passable when it could have been so much more for all involved.