The screwball comedies of the 1930’s were an escape from the trials of the Depression, emphasizing glamour and fantasy that seemed very far away from the breadline. At the same time, the hard-boiled detective was born in fiction, immersed in mean urban streets and the criminal underworld that flourished after Prohibition. The two meet in The Thin Man (1934), the film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s last full novel.
Nick and Nora Charles drink and carouse through high class bars and nightclubs. He’s a former private investigator; she’s an old money heiress. It’s a match made in heaven until the dead bodies start piling up, and Nick is drawn back into a murder investigation. The mystery surrounds the disappearance of “the thin man” — inventor Claude Wynant, wanted for the possible murder of his girlfriend and secretary. Nick is retired and concentrating on his drinking, but circumstances — and Nora’s encouragement — propel him into the mystery regardless.
Along with Raymond Chandler and James Cain, Dashiell Hammett was one of the founders of the noir tradition, which brought a dark look at morality and was unafraid of sex or violence. The Thin Man was a marked departure from Hammett’s previous novels like Red Harvest and The Glass Key; it has a lightness and humor that isn’t present in his previous novels. The Thin Man lacks the despair of Hammett’s other novels, mostly because of the safe haven Nick and Nora’s marriage provides. It’s generally acknowledged that Nick and Nora stand in for Hammett and playwright Lillian Hellman, his longtime lover — but it’s an idealization. Nick and Nora’s relationship is one of trust and acceptance, while Hammett’s relationship with Hellman was notoriously stormy and troubled.
The Thin Man offered blends two favorite movie genres of the 1930’s: the detective story and the screwball comedy. And at a time where most movies were about getting to marriage rather than actually being married, The Thin Man offered the revolutionary idea that marriage might actually be a lot of fun. As Nick, Powell is perhaps too elegant to be a streetwise detective who married rich, but he’s a master of the witty repartee that gives the movie its zest. Glamorous, unflappable and ready for adventure, Myrna Loy’s Nora matches Nick word for word and drink for drink. A huge hit, The Thin Man became a franchise that spawned many sequels, none as well received as the first film.
As far as film adaptations of mystery novels go, The Thin Man is faithful enough to the mystery of Wynant’s disappearance and the solutions to the murder. There’s just enough family conflict and underworld violence to capture Hammett’s style and cynical view of human nature, though it does sanitize many of Hammett’s more brutal depictions of race and character. However, unlike the novel, Nick and Nora don’t appear until about 11 minutes into the movie; in the first 27 minutes of the film, they each get only about 5–7 minutes of screen time. It’s a marked weakness in the script, which drags without their sparkling interplay, and one that was not repeated in the sequels.
Some fans of the movie are sometimes disappointed in the book, largely because the relationship with Nick and Nora is spice rather than the main ingredient of the story. She’s mostly there to encourage and support Nick; her excitement about the mystery makes her a stand-in for the reader. However, while the cinematic Nora enthusiastically tries to investigate on her own Nick inevitably puts a stop to it, usually humiliating her along the way. It’s uncomfortable but a reminder that while they’re equals in wit and style, they still aren’t equals in detection.
Nonetheless, it takes both Nick and Nora to make this movie work. He’s dapper as a reluctant private eye, but she’s the one who made it sexy to be a wife. The murder mystery takes a back seat to their marriage, and compared to other detective movies, The Thin Man might seem a little light. But but its legacy is creating couples-as-detectives genre in screen and print, one that brought equality to the male-dominated genre of crime fiction.