by Sandra Murphy
Dashiell Hammett only wrote five novels in his lifetime but mention Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man and there’s instant recognition. Hammett had a lean writing style that brought gangster slang to everyday language. He started with the hard-boiled detective, a man with no family, few friends, and a self-designed code of honor and with it, he changed the face of detective stories.
In 1930, The Maltese Falcon was in its first year and seventh printing. Its popularity propelled Hammett into Hollywood’s elite where he met aspiring playwright, Lillian Hellman. Their relationship showed him how the rich and famous live and she became his inspiration for Nora Charles. Hellman was quoted as saying he told her that she also inspired the silly girl and the villainess.
The Thin Man’s Nick Charles is far from the hard-boiled Sam Spade. He’s debonair, well dressed, and moves in polite society. He’s married but has a past as a womanizer—in fact, The Thin Man was censored because Nick and Nora were seen to be in an open marriage. William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as his wife, Nora, were popular enough at the box office to inspire five more movies. Look for familiar faces like Maureen O’Sullivan, Jimmy Stewart, Caesar Romero and Shemp Howard (one of the Stooges).
Nick Charles is characterized as a man who is maybe not drunk but not exactly sober most of the time. He’s a retired detective, now managing his wife’s inheritance and enjoying a life of leisure. Still, wherever he is, the press, the police and the bad guys, assume he’s on a case. Soon, he is, to the delight of all who want to go back to visit a time when ladies wore long, slinky dresses and went to speakeasies with handsome men who bought them cocktails.
Typical Nick and Nora
In The Thin Man, Nick is at the bar, demonstrating the rhythm needed to properly shake a martini—waltz time is perfect for a martini. Nora arrives, carrying Christmas packages and being dragged by Asta. She falls, packages scatter and it’s suggested she take the dog and leave. Nick’s reply?
Nick: Oh, it’s all right, Joe. It’s all right. It’s my dog. And uh, my wife.
Nora: Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing.
Nick: The dog’s well-trained. He’ll behave himself.
Just a few lines, but it sums up their relationship, especially when it’s followed with:
Nora: Say, how many drinks have you had?
Nick: This will make six martinis.
Nora (to waiter): All right. Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo? And line them right up here.
For a 78 year old movie, it holds up well.
Thin Man Trivia
In the book
Asta is a female Schnauzer
In the movie
Asta is a male wire-haired Fox Terrier
In the book
The thin man is already missing
In the movie
Dorothy tells him of her engagement.
The thin man is not Nick. He’s the missing inventor, described by Nick as “the thinnest man I ever saw.” The public insisted on referring to Nick as the thin man and finally even Hammett went along with the idea.
The movie was made in twelve days with a budget of $231,000. It became a box office hit and made 1.4 million.
Louis B. Mayer okayed Powell as Nick since he’d played a detective in prior films but didn’t want Myrna Loy as Nora. Director W. S. Van Dyke knew their on-film chemistry from working with the pair in the making of Manhattan Melodrama. Loy got the part and was able to create a new image.
Warner Brothers is reported to have signed Johnny Depp to play Nick Charles in a remake with Rob Marshall directing. No word on Nora or a release date.
The Thin Man (1934), d. W. S. Van Dyke
After the Thin Man (1936), d. W.S. Van Dyke – a Best Picture nominee
Another Thin Man (1939), d. W.S. Van Dyke; introduced a new character, Nicky Charles, Jr.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), d. W.S. Van Dyke
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), d. Richard Thorpe
The Song of the Thin Man (1947), d. Edward Buzzell
Nick and Nora’s witty banter is reflected in television series too:
The Thin Man from 1957-1959, in 72 30-minute episodes starring Peter Lawford, Phyllis Kirk.
McMillan and Wife (1971-1977), on NBC, with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James
Hart to Hart (1979-1984), on ABC, with Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers
Remington Steele (1982-1987), on NBC, with Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist
Moonlighting (1985-1989), on ABC, with Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd
The Thin Man was also a radio show.
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