Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.”

So, if you took a detective novel written by Dashiell Hammett and adapted it to the screen in 1941, you’d get film noir classic The Maltese Falcon. If you took a detective novel written by Dashiell Hammett and adapted it to the screen in 1934, then you’d have The Thin Man, which is not at all film noir, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

So there’s a scientist who’s kind of a jerk to everyone except his daughter, and he vanishes right after she announces her engagement. Some time later, shady characters he was connected to start dying and the daughter drags in a family friend who happens to be a former detective to figure out what’s going on. Oh yeah, and it’s a Christmas movie. Trust me when I say hilarity ensues.

Nick Charles: William Powell is our hero. Recently married and living the high life on his wife’s fortune, he is smart, laid back and easily the world’s most functional alcoholic. The guy is sauced from start to finish the entire movie and he rolls with martinis and cocktails, because he’s rich and beer isn’t alcoholic enough. Its not a hyperbole either. Drinking a cocktail whenever Nick does would be inadvisable for a drinking game, unless you like to see the floor from a closer vantage.

Nora Charles: Myrna Loy is the other half of the screen pair, and the chemistry they have is astoundingly good. She comes from money, but she’s no shrinking violet. She’s a spot on foil for Nick verbally and can almost keep up with his drinking. The dialog flies fast and the two are collectively the badass of the film.

Asta: The Charles’s dog/franchise mascot and often Nick’s partner in crime(solving).

Clyde Wynant: Edward Ellis is the titular Thin Man. When he goes missing, so does some money, and then his mistress ends up dead, making him the most wanted man in New York.

Dorothy Wynant: Maureen O’Sullivan is Wynant’s daughter, and aside from being the catalyst that gets the Charleses in on the case, is your standard issue 1930s secondary character.

Lieutenant John Guild: Nat Pendelton plays the New York cop who’s in charge of the investigation. He’s no match for Nick’s observations and makes a good comic sidekick for him. What he lacks in brain power, he makes up for in blunt force.

Julia Wolfe: Natalie Moorhead is Wynant’s secretary and mistress who was the last person to see him. She’s also the first corpse.

Mimi Jorgenson nee Wynant: Minna Gombell plays Wynant’s harpy of an ex-wife. She’s eager to find out where he is for money reasons.

Chris Jorgenson: Cesar Romero (Yes, THAT one) is Mimi’s younger husband, who happens to be a gigolo (the movie skirts around it, but the book’s pretty clear about it). A small role.

Gilbert: William Henry is Mimi’s headcase of a son who is morbidly fascinated with crime and dead bodies.

Herbert MacCaulay: Porter Hall is Wynant’s lawyer who’s also trying to figure out what’s going on.

W.S. Van Dyke, a director nicknamed “One-take Woody” because of his fast shooting schedule (at least I hope that’s the reason) & James Wong Howe the director of photography made an incredibly smartly shot film for the low budget. Its not noir, that was still a good couple of years away, but the film does go into a “noir-ish” mode when Nick goes off to do some legitimate detective work.

Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett and adapted by Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich, the story is damn near perfect in terms of juggling characters and plot. The dialogue, however, is beyond top notch. Nick & Nora spar with words the way Errol Flynn & Basil Rathbone did with swords in Robin Hood. Sure, you could criticize Nick Charles for being a Mary Sue character, but Powell just plays it all up with a wink in his eyes and you totally accept that this former guy from the streets has a banter-based marriage with a beautiful woman, money out the wazoo, the adoration of law enforcement AND petty criminals everywhere, and he solves baffling murders in his spare time while plastered. Nick Charles is living the dream. The movie is a lot more lighthearted than the book, which doesn't shy away from some of the seedy themes, but it also happens to be a lot funnier while lifting most of the good bits from the novel.

William Axt provided the score, and it works really well with the movie, balancing comedy and intrigue when necessary.

I love this movie. I really do. Its light and airy and ballsy with a little edge all at once. Sure, there’s fun to be had in the criminal investigation and the supporting characters, but the real draw of it is in watching Powell & Loy drink and waltz through the film effortlessly together, especially since they became the archetype for pretty much every crime-solving couple to follow.

There's just something likable about old school movie trailers that completely play around with the fourth wall

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