The Thin Man (1934)

I guess a lot of people would think this an odd film to be reviewing on Christmas. But the fact of the matter is that over many years of reviewing rather more standard and predictable ‘Christmas films’, the sort that stress on the joy and goodwill of the festival, I’ve become a bit jaded to the whole idea—at least onscreen, where it more often than not tends to become a little too syrupy for my liking.

Therefore, for a change: a film that’s set around Christmas, and has lots of props, scenes, and more that reference the celebration of the festival—but is actually a murder mystery. The Thin Man is one I’ve been meaning to watch for many years now, since lots of people have recommended this to me, so it was high time anyway.

Based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, the film begins at the shop of an inventor named Clyde Wynant (Edward Ennant). Wynant is crotchety and impatient with his assistant, but a more affectionate side of him is revealed when his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) arrives, bringing with her her fiancé Tommy (Henry Wadsworth) and the news that they’re going to be married shortly after Christmas, a few days from now.

Wynant is very happy for the young couple, and promises that though he’s leaving immediately on a business trip, he’ll be back in time to give Dorothy away. While they’re there, Dorothy shows off to Tommy a unique watch chain: links of different metals, that her father possesses.

Just as Dorothy and Tommy are leaving, Wynant’s lawyer, MacCaulay (Porter Hall) arrives. He too is told that Wynant is going away on a business trip, and to him too Wynant gives no further details: in fact, Wynant goes out of his way to prevent MacCaulay discovering where he’s going. Wynant tells MacCaulay that if he (Wynant) needs any more money, MacCaulay should give it to Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead). Julia will make sure Wynant gets it.

The connection between Wynant and Julia isn’t merely of a boss and his secretary, though: Julia has been his lover for many years, and their affair caused the collapse of Wynant’s marriage. His ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell) is now married to a wastrel named Chris (Cesar Romero), who doesn’t even have a job. Dorothy and her younger brother, Gilbert (William Henry) live with Mimi and Chris, and it doesn’t seem like a very happy co-existence, with Mimi constantly having to shield her beloved husband from the snide remarks of his step-children.

Now, having seen MacCaulay off, Wynant goes to visit Julia—to confront her. He accuses her of embezzling thousands of dollars of his money over the years. Most recently, $50,000 worth of bonds which have gone missing. Julia, though initially denying the accusation, finally confesses, and is defiant about it: she has, after all, devoted her entire life to Wynant, and has nothing to show for it. She deserves this much, at least.

Wynant gets furious and Julia finally agrees to return $25,000; as for the rest of the money, she refuses to say where it is. Wynant suspects she has an accomplice, but Julia will not say who. Just then, the phone rings and Wynant picks it up. We are given a glimpse of the man at the other end…

… but as soon as he hears Wynant’s voice, he puts the phone down.

A livid Wynant leaves Julia’s home and goes away, down the street.

And, a few days later, at a Christmas Eve dance, Dorothy (who is there with Tommy), bumps into an old family friend, Nick Charles (William Powell). Powell was once a detective, and a very good one at that. But since his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) was bequeathed a lavish inheritance, Nick has been busy looking after her financial affairs. He hasn’t done any sleuthing in the past four years, but despite that Dorothy confides in him: her father has been missing these past few days. She hasn’t heard from him since she saw him last.

Even before a reluctant Nick can begin trying to find Wynant, MacCaulay comes calling. MacCaulay says he’s heard from Wynant: Wynant phoned and asked MacCaulay to give Julia Wolf $1,000 to send on to Wynant. This MacCaulay has done.

Basically, now no-one need worry about Wynant; he is not in any seeming danger, he is alive and well.

In the meantime, though, there is tension in Dorothy’s home. Given that Chris is jobless, the family’s financial situation is a little precarious, and the fat alimony Mimi had received from Wynant is all gone. Mimi is in dire financial straits. The only suggestion Chris can offer her is that she approach Julia Wolf, an idea which is (unsurprisingly) utterly distasteful to Mimi.

However, after giving it some thought, and realizing that she really doesn’t have an alternative, Mimi phones Julia and tells her that she’s coming over.

But when she arrives at Julia’s home, a man emerges from the back door, unseen by Mimi: the very same man we had seen ringing up Julia, when Wynant had taken the call. This man looks most suspicious, sneaking furtively out of Julia’s, and slinking away through a back alley.

When Julia doesn’t open the door despite Mimi’s repeated knocking, Mimi pushes the door open and goes inside—only to find Julia lying dead in her bedroom, something clutched in her hand. Mimi, looking closely, bends down and forces Julia’s hand open, to retrieve what the dead woman is holding. This thing (the audience is not shown it) she puts into her bag and scurries out to the telephone, from where she phones for help.

Later, once the police have done some preliminary questioning and sent Mimi home, it is revealed that the $1,000 that MacCaulay had handed over to Julia to pass on to Wynant has disappeared. Dorothy, entering the room where her mother has just opened the wall safe to transfer something from her bag into it, immediately suspects that Mimi has stolen the money. After all, they’re always hard up, aren’t they? And Mimi was there, with the time, the opportunity, and the incentive, so to say.

But no. Mimi, incensed at her daughter’s suspicion, shows Dorothy what she wrenched out of Julia’s hand: Wynant’s distinctive watch chain, with its different metal links.

Did Wynant murder Julia? And where is Wynant, anyway?

This is just the start: there are more murders to come, more mysteries, more people hurling accusations at each other. And there’s Nick, pulled and pushed (the latter by Nora, who is eager to see him in the starring role of clever sleuth) into investigating the crime.

I found the mystery angle of The Thin Man a little confusing (not as much as, say, The Maltese Falcon, though), with far too many characters and some very convoluted plotting – far too many red herrings that I didn’t quite understand, for one. As a mystery, this was okay: not great, not terrible either.

What I liked about this film:

The humour, especially in the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles. William Powell and Myrna Loy share some absolutely delightful banter: the sort of dry wit that can be so delicious in some of these old films. Even when they’re not talking to each other, there are dialogues that made me grin anyway. Like this:

At the climactic dinner party, Nora: “Waiter, will you serve the nuts?”

Then, with a swift glance down the banquet table, “I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”

And much more.

There is not much Christmas here, really. A party or two. A large (and rather untidy) tree, festooned with huge balloons, in the Charles’ drawing room. Some wreaths and baubles here and there.

Still, this was an enjoyable film. Myrna Loy, especially, was a joy to watch: lovely, her character so witty and down to earth despite her wealth.

Oh, and before I forget: the dog Asta. I am not a pet person, really, but I warmed to this dog.

And while we’re at it, another delightful episode: in a tense, possibly dangerous moment when Nick is inside Wynant’s shop after dark. A man enters the shop surreptitiously, and Nick, challenging him, threatens to let “the dog” loose on him: the dog will “tear you to shreds”, as Nick says. In response to which Asta, tail between her legs, quickly slinks away and hides behind the first somewhat large object she can find.

What I didn’t like:

The seeming urge to set up so many red herrings that it becomes confusing to keep it all straight. The furtive people sneaking in and out of Wynant’s shop, the people taking pot shots at each other, and so on: after a while, it got very difficult to remember who was who and why they were behaving the way they were.

Also, where was Wynant headed in the beginning of the story, that he was so cagey about it? While his ‘going away’ fits in neatly with what happens, it is never explained why he was so close-mouthed about revealing his destination.

Still, all said and done, entertaining enough.

Merry Christmas, all!


12 thoughts on “The Thin Man (1934)

  1. Wishing you and your beloveds a merry Christmas and a very happy new year 2022, I liked your thinking expressed in the beginning lines of this post regarding selecting a movie on the occasion of Christmas. This movie appears to be a good one as I have inferred from your narration. If you want to watch a really good Hindi movie revolving around the Christmas day (25th December), you can watch Bada Din (1998) provided you haven’t already watched it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Madhu.
    [Just to let you know – my review of this film was scheduled for the 31st! Now, I will push it back for a few months. Suffice it to say, it’s too close to yours.]

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, it was a shock to see this review on my side bar. :) I had to quickly revert the scheduled date of publication and schedule another post to end the year. I’ll keep my review for a rainy day when I am out of posts and don’t have the time/energy to write one.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Madhuji, Wishing a very happy Christmas to you and your family. Like in the past, you have posted a elegant review of a movie which I hadn’t heard of. Enough to make us watch it too. God bless you and your family. Have a great 2023 with many more interesting movies to fascinate your readers.
    KB Patil

    Liked by 1 person

  4. These rich playboys live Wynant want to have the cake and eat it too without paying the price. You gotta pay ifor your follies and consider it an education, men are such stupid animals.


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