Richard J. Leskosky | Memorable mystery coming to the Virginia

Richard J. Leskosky | Memorable mystery coming to the Virginia

The traditional Hollywood detective was single or had a marriage on the rocks because of his job's demands. A sprightly exception, however, turns up in 1934's "The Thin Man," the next entry in the News-Gazette Film Series, screening at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

Based on Dashiell Hammett's best-seller, "The Thin Man" introduced film audiences to charming and bibulous Nick and Nora Charles. Former detective Nick (William Powell) had the luck and good sense to marry wealthy and witty Nora (Myrna Loy) and then retire.

But on a Christmas trip to New York, they find themselves involved in a twisted family drama when Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan), daughter of inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), a former client of Nick's, begs him to find her missing father.

Nick wants nothing more to do with detecting, but Nora thinks it would be fascinating and also wants to get involved in the case. When Nick discovers a skeleton under the floor of Wynant's lab, the police begin searching for the missing inventor in earnest as a suspected murderer. Nick keeps denying he's on the case, but personal involvements, mainly at Nora's instigation, keep dragging him back in.

Hammett was probably America's most influential mystery writer, highly regarded by both readers and critics. His five novels, written in the space of five years (1929-1934), and his many short stories have spawned numerous film adaptations, and his tough writing style with its memorable characters and realistic dialogue shaped subsequent detective fiction for decades.

Most of his stories and two of his novels, "Red Harvest" and "The Dain Curse," featured a nameless detective, or operative, working for the Continental Detective Agency (so the detective was known as "the Continental Op") and drew on Hammett's own experience as a detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Those titles might not ring a bell with you, but "Red Harvest" inspired Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic "Yojimbo," on which Sergio Leone based "A Fistful of Dollars."

"The Maltese Falcon" became a classic, defining film noir, and its detective, Sam Spade, provided a model for Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Hammett's fifth and most commercially successful novel, "The Thin Man," was lighter in tone and introduced the concept of a happily married couple investigating a crime in tandem. MGM bought the film rights only eight days after the publication date.

The studio assigned the film to director W.S. Van Dyke, known as "one-shot Woody" because of his ability to get a take just right and move on quickly to the next, thus keeping production costs down. Filming took just 16 days, and it succeeded at the box office far beyond the studio's expectations. It ranked among the top 10 box office hits of the year and earned four Oscar nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actor in a Leading Role.

A large part of its success owes to the happy casting of Nick and Nora. Powell and Loy, individually always engrossing on screen, together became the ideal representation of on-screen "chemistry."

"The Thin Man" was their second of three pairings in 1934. They performed together for the first time in that year's crime drama, "Manhattan Melodrama" (the film John Dillinger saw before the FBI shot him down outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre). They went on to make a total of six films in the Thin Man series, but they ultimately starred together a total of 14 times.

Nick Charles was not Powell's first detective role; he'd already appeared as Philo Vance in five films. The 1930s were busy years for both him and Loy. He appeared in 35 films that decade, including five in 1934 alone, as well as the screwball classic "My Man Godfrey" in 1936. His output declined toward the end of the decade after he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Myrna Loy breezed past him, though, with 59 film roles in the 1930s. She would go on to a memorable dramatic role in "The Best Years of Our Lives" in 1946 and classic screwball comedy performances in "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer" (1947) and "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948), both opposite Cary Grant.

The charismatic casting did not end with Powell and Loy. Nick and Nora's wire-hair terrier, Asta, played by Skippy, so beguiled audiences that wire-hair terriers became a favored pet and also consequently overbred. Skippy appeared in more than 20 films over the course of his career, including the first two Thin Man sequels and the screwball comedy classics "The Awful Truth" (1937) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938).

Another odd consequence of the film's popularity was the perpetuation of an audience misperception. The "thin man" of the title is not Nick Charles; he is the inventor Nick is asked to find. Hammett helped foster the error when he called the sequel, for which he wrote the story (married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett wrote the scripts for the first three films in the series), "After the Thin Man." That title made sense in that the second film took place only a few days after the action in the first film. Calling the third film "Another Thin Man," though, only cemented the identification of Nick as "Thin Man" because it not only had nothing to do with the characters or actions of the first film but also introduced Nick and Nora's infant son — that is, another Nick or "thin man."

MGM was apparently so pleased with the results of the early Thin Man films that they tried a couple of other married detectives.

In 1939's "Fast and Loose," Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell played a rare book dealer and his wife who investigate book crimes.

And in 1940's "Haunted Honeymoon," Montgomery and Constance Cummings play Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, mystery writer Harriet Vane, in an adaptation of Dorothy Sayers' play and novel "Busman's Honeymoon." Neither aroused enough interest to generate any sequels, however.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for over 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net. He will be on hand at the Virginia after the 7 p.m. screening to discuss the film with the audience and answer questions.

What's next?

What: "On The Waterfront" (1954)

When: 1 and 7 p.m. June 22

Tickets: $6

About the film: Nominated for 12 Academy Awards (winning 8, including best picture, actor, director and supporting actress). A longshoreman and wannabe prize fighter (Marlon Brando) witnesses a murder at the hands of his crooked boss' cronies and finds himself tangled up with the mob, struggling to stand up to a corrupt union. It's drawn from the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of Malcolm Johnson, with original story by Budd Schulberg.

Topics (1):Film
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