Partners in Crime: The Thin Man (1934)

Myrna Loy and William Powell were a popular onscreen couple for decades

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.

The Story

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.

At the center of The Thin Man is a happy marriage, rather than a doomed love affair

The Adaptation

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.

The movie kept Nick and Nora’s faithful dog Asta, and made him a star

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.


Mother Knows Best: Psycho (1960)

It was the shower scene the made Hitchcock so determined to adapt the novel

When it comes to thrilling moments in movies, there are few masters like Alfred Hitchcock, and few movies as shocking as his masterpiece, Psycho(1960) Hitchcock’s secretary discovered Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, and Hitchcock was so taken by the plot twist that he had all the copies bought up so the ending couldn’t be given away. The result was a movie that is still terrifying and is often heralded as proof of Hitchcock as master of suspense. There’s a lot to say about his direction and the way it’s shot (the shower scene alone could be an entire article) but what’s interesting is that so much of what amazed audiences came straight from the novel. Hitchcock’s movie, for all its technical experimentation, was perhaps his most faithful adaptation yet.

Psycho spawned film and book sequels that were markedly inferior

The Story

Real estate secretary Mary Crane makes an impulsive decision to steal the $40,000 she was told to deposit and run away to her fiance, Sam, who needs money to marry her. Along the way, she gets lost and ends up at the lonely Bates motel, run by Norman Bates, a man dominated by his mother. He invites her to share a meal, but she finds him strange and returns to her room — only to be murdered in the shower. A month later, Mary’s sister Lila and her fiance Sam are looking for her, joined by private detective Arbogast, who is looking for the money. Arbogast traces Mary to Bates motel, only to be killed by Mrs. Bates. Sam and Lila decide to go to the motel to find out what happened to Mary and Arbogast — and end up confronting the murderer.

The Adaptation

Hitchcock’s movies are often adaptations of novels, but he rarely felt the need to be faithful to them. Psycho is an exception. The author of the novel, Robert Bloch was a prolific horror writer who was fascinated by the idea of twisted mass murderer living in a rural America (it’s a myth that he based the character on Ed Gein, who was only captured when Bloch was almost done with the novel). It’s a short novel with a simple premise based on multiple personalities, transvestitism (as it was understood in the 1960’s) and an Oedipus complex gone fatally wrong, with characters that are simply understood and quickly sketched. Norman Bates’s personality is more fully fleshed out; his bizarre interests in occultism, sexual impotence and blackout drinking provide the basis for his psychosis. Despite being classified as horror, the gore in the novel is minimal; the violent scenes are limited to a few sentences that are still graphic enough to pack a punch. It’s the mystery that dominates the story.

Anthony Perkins would became a star — and typecast — by his role as Norman Bates

Hitchcock, for once gave the author full credit, saying “Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book.” And it’s the truth. Except for the first scene and a few others, the movie is a scene-by-scene remake, down to the last scene at the mental institution where the psychiatrists explains Norman Bates’ crimes and why he committed them (a scene which was often panned by critics as ruining the pacing of the movie). Hitchcock had to fight to get Psycho made; the studio system didn’t understand why such an acclaimed director wanted to do a B-horror movie and refused to fund it even after he promised to cut costs by filming it in film in it black and white. What should have been a throwaway film by a director experimenting with shlock became a masterwork about the banality of evil.

Only a few changes were made. Hitchcock cast slender, handsome Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, making a change from the pasty, overweight, glasses-wearing, middle-aged man in the novel. He also eliminated Norman’s drinking; onscreen, his only vice appears to be candy, and Perkins’s performance is vulnerable enough to make audiences care for him, rather than be repelled by him. The ordinary frame house behind the hotel, where the Bates lived was changed into the archetypal spooky Victorian that still provokes chills today. Hitchcock cast Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, expanded her role so that it fills nearly a third of the movie; the audience begins the story with her, rather than with Norman Bates as in the book. The result is a shock for the audience as the only character they’ve really seen is killed off, leaving Norman Bates as the protagonist. Hitchcock also eliminated the budding romance between Sam and Lila, feeling it would be cheap, and unlike the novel, the audience never really gets to know or understand them, and they seem pale shadows from the studio era, while Norman Bates and Marion Crane are modern and realistic.

The Bates house was based on Edward Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad

Hitchcock’s other change was the emphasize the murders — the shower scene is brief in the novel, but is approximately 60–70 different shots in 52 seconds and is so iconic that it has its own documentary (78/52 Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) Arbogast’s murder is not a quick slicing of the throat, but an assault with butcher knife that causes him to fall down the stairs, with the murderer leaping on him to finish the job. The eerie music — high-pitched shrieks of string instruments that sound like enraged birds — only heighten terror, as the victim’s screams are drowned out. And he relishes the reveal of Mrs. Bates holding the camera on the mummified body while the lights swing back and forth.

But for the most part, Hitchcock’s narrative remained to the source, and the story is almost identical. It’s a testament to his skill that he was able to increase the sexuality and the violence of the novel — the point that censors complained — without adding or changing a scene. It’s tempting, as he did, to give credit to the novelist for coming up a good story. But as the Gus Van Sant remake clearly showed us, a good story can still be a bad movie with the wrong director. Bloch gets credit for the story that scares us; Hitchcock gets credit for making a horror film that’s a work of art.