THE RETURN OF THE THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett_Return-of-the-Thin-Man_hbAbsurd as it may seem, there are those who don’t think the delightful screwball mysteries featuring Nick and Nora Charles really belong in the oeuvre of hardboiled master, Dashiell Hammett. This has been exacerbated by the perceived devaluation of his work as the series of movie adaptations went on and on. But as this fascinating collection by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett shows, Hammett was heavily involved in writing the first 2 sequels.

I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links, click here); and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog.

Nick Charles: “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most fascinating woman this side of the Rockies?
Nora Charles: “Wait till you see me on the other side”

This critical edition, edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, brings together two substantial original prose pieces by Dashiell Hammett that served as the basis for the first two Thin Man sequels and a brief outline for another that was never made. While the latter is easy to dismiss, the other two are the last substantial pieces of fiction completed by Hammett. One must accept though that they are a curious screenplay and prose hybrid, very much a detailed treatment for the shooting script that would then be ultimately fashioned by the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

After the Thin Man (1936)
What we are presented with in the case of After the Thin Man is Hammett’s final draft, one that he developed off and on, for the best part of a year with Goodrich and Hackett under the supervision of producer Hunt Stromberg. It begins right where the original left off, as the title implies …

“Whaddya mean ‘illiterate’? My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!”

The ‘Thin Man’ soubriquet in the sequels is of course a well-known misnomer because in Hammett’s original 1933 novel the title character is in fact the murder victim. The book was a bestseller (not least for one rather outré passage that was used to drive sales by the clever marketing people at Knopf, discussed over at the Peel Slowly blog) and the movie rights were snapped up right away – the movie was an even bigger hit and a sequel started being planned within three months of the original’s release.

While the first deals with socialite Nora meeting her husband’s old friends during a Christmas visit to his old stomping grounds in New York, the second takes her home to San Francisco and reverses that situation – now it’s Nick meeting her old friends and family. He of course used to be a working stiff while they all come from old money, so there is plenty of resentment and contrast, but it turns out the family has serious problems (mainly the shape of an unfortunate marriage by Nora’s cousin to a wastrel and a philanderer who eventually turns up dead) and Nora gets a reluctant Nick to sort it all out. The draft presented here is pretty close to the finished film, though the finale has been altered (and improved) and the news of Nora’s pregnancy added as a capper for the final fadeout. However, the plot and dialogue and all the major sequences are to be found here. The movie, offering an early important role for James Stewart, is a big budget expansion on the original, a Warner Bros quickie in all but name. Indeed, what the film does so well, is absorb the social critique implicit in the Warners crime film with the gloss associated with MGM – the reason we love Nick and Nora is because they fit in everywhere, their delight in their lives and the world they inhabit becoming our delight too. As expressed so in the words of editor Julie M. Rivett in the afterword to the treatment for the film:

“Their ability to transform social dissonance into connubial delight also reflects on the economic realities of the Depression Era, when moviegoers welcomed an imaginative world in which  class barriers were permeable and wealth was not a precondition of happiness.”

After the Thin Man is about half an hour longer and looks much glossier – but amazingly it is almost as good and even has some genuine San Francisco location shooting. Enormous fun, almost the perfect sequel (though at 45 minutes it does take maybe too long for the first dead body to turn up), with Sam Levene in his classic detective role (I never, ever tire of watching this classy actor on screen).

“Oh, we had a lovely trip. Nick was sober in Kansas City”

Another Thin Man (1939)
The title for this second sequel – suggested by Hammett himself – is actually a reference to Nick Jr, who is an appealing toddler by the time we catch up with the Charles’ in this delayed entry tp the series (caused, inter-alia, by Powell’s long absence from the screen while he undertook successful cancer treatment).

Julian Symons in his book on Hammett claimed that this was his favourite of the sequels, liking the plot about a shady jail-bird (Sheldon Leonard, of course) who claims to be able to predict the future with dreams that come true. Symons’ affection may also be due to the fact that the script was the only one of the sequels derived from a published Hammett story, in this case, ‘The Farewell Murder’, the penultimate Continental Op tale originally published in Black Mask in 1930 (it was later collected in The Continental Op anthology). The case begins with the Op sighting, from a passing car, a body by a roadside that later vanishes; this is followed by a fire and the death of a dog and an encounter with the antagonist of the man who has hired the Op. He has held a grudge for ten years and now says he has dreamed of the death of the other man, the one he rightly holds responsible for his misfortune – and is apparently convinced that the dream will come true.  This closely mirrors the opening to the original short story when Op is sent to the town of ‘Farewell.’

“He says his name is Charles, but he looks to me like a pool parlor dude”

Hammett-Thin-ManThe sequel is set back in New York, albeit Long Island rather than the City, with Nat Pendleton reprising his role of Inspector Guild from the first film (‘Guild’ was also the name of the original detective in the early draft of Hammett’s Thin Man that he discarded in 1930). This is actually a surprisingly dark film (literally and figuratively) and Powell sometimes feels more like Philo Vance than Nick Charles, with more than a dash of Cornell Woolrich thrown in for a story that has a decidedly supernatural tinge. What makes the film slightly less effective, despite its often rowdy comedy interludes with Nick’s friends from criminal circles, is the reduction in the subversive humour and Nick and Nora’s carefree attitude – but then the first film belonged to the Depression and had a cross-class appeal. By the time this one was released, Europe was nearly at war (again). Indeed, in her afterword to the treatment in the book, Julie M. Rivett says of it:

“…whether influenced by the Charles’ transformation into parents, Hammett’s accommodation to the Thin Man formula, or the Hackett’s pragmatic modifications, the film is more domestic than decadent.”

After this experience, Hammett walked away from the movies almost for good and produced no more prose fiction in his lifetime. A complex and difficult man, one who clearly and literally never seemed to expect to live beyond next Thursday, his standing as a founder of both the hardboiled and screwball mystery tradition now pretty much unassailable – and this collection makes for a fascination addenda to that.

The Thin Man series

  • The Thin Man (1934)
  • After the Thin Man (1936)
  • Another Thin Man (1939)
  • Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
  • The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)
  • Song of the Thin Man (1947)

DVD Availability: There is a very nice DVD box set with all six movies and a bonus disc that includes documentaries on Powell and Loy and an episode of the 1950s TV versions tarring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk (rather a dull one I’m afraid, despite a guest appearance by Robbie the Robot).

The Thin Man films (1934-39)
Director: WS Van Dyke
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenplays: Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (and Dashiell Hammett)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe (1), Oliver T. Marsh (2-3)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt (1), Herbert Stothart (2), Edward Ward (2-3)
Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Asta (aka Skippy), Maureen O’Sullivan (1), Harold Huber (1), Nat Pendleton (1 + 3), James Stewart (2), Sam Levene (2), Virginia Grey (3), Sheldon Leonard (3), C. Aubrey Smith (3)

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘size in the title’ category:



***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Dashiell Hammett, New York, San Francisco, Screwball, The Thin Man and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to THE RETURN OF THE THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – These really are great little films. And I do like that dialogue. I’m glad you highlighted them here. And of course I admire so much your cinematic knowledge. I had no idea that Hammett was involved in these screenplays – interesting!

  2. Jose Ignacio says:

    Sergio – Thanks for this post. You just remind me that if my mother was an Agatha Christie fan, I now remember that my father was very fond of the Nora and Nick Charles fims. In fact I saw a few of those films on tv when I was young (at least younger than today)

  3. Colin says:

    The films did fall off a bit as the series went on but not that much for me, not enough to make me any less fond of them at any rate. It’s the mix of good writing and perfect casting that makes them hold up so well and they’re always a pleasure to revisit.

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    The charm of those two stars and the brilliant creation of its writer makes them timlessly enjoyable. I was quite old before I realized William Powell wasn’t devastatingly handsome.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    That box set is tempting…. I just love the fact they seem to be permanently drinking!! 🙂

  6. Giles says:

    Great article – and fun to click on the link to the filthy ‘erection’ line too. I have to say, with the exception of Another Thin Man (which I thought weak), I loved all of the sequels, and even consider the second superior to the first:

    • Thanks Giles – I like the second one a lot too, but like the slightly roughrer quality fo the first, which to me feels mire like Warners New Deal type of quickie than the second, which oozes that (undeniably wonderous) polished high sheen of MGM

  7. I’m a fan of those old screwball mysteries… really liked the novel but haven’t seen all the Thin Man movies yet. I may have to dig them out of the basement and watch them after reading your post.

  8. Fascinating look at the Thin Man – count me amongst those who had no idea Dashiell Hammett had such a big hand in the sequels.

    • Thanks Moira – and I really think you can tell the difference, though the contribution of the Goodrich and Hackett husband-and-wife writing team can’t be overlooked either (they were very, very successful in their day).

  9. michaels says:

    Just checked out my copy of the book published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. Imagine my surprise to discover it was edited with the excited used instead of erection. Having Frederic Dannay edit Hammet’s short stories was bad enough, but you would think today we would get to read the original versions of Hammett’s work.

  10. Yvette says:

    Great post, Sergio. I’ve seen all these Thin Man movies at various times over the years – most especially when they seemed to be on all the time on late-night TV. Those were the good old days of old movie heaven.

    I always did like the first one best, though the others were not overlooked by yours truly when they came on. The one with the dead dog upset me greatly – the murderer being so repugnant in style and personage. What on earth? Talk about a viper in the bosom. But I can say no more.

    The first Thin Man movie always did seem to me almost like a burlesque of a murder mystery. Most of the cast is so funnily alien looking. Except for Nick, Nora and Asta and Maureen O’Sullivan of course.

    • Thanks Yvette – yes, the third one with the dead pooch is easily the darkest (not as cold and brutal as the original short story it was derived from though). Well, at least we can now watch them on DVD with no ad breaks (except those we make ourselves) 🙂

  11. tracybham says:

    I have been leaning towards getting a copy of this book, not sure whether I will like the screenplay / prose blend. But I am fascinated by the fact that Hammett was so involved in those two films.

    • Thanmks TracyK – I found it very interesting but admittedly the prose / screenplay style wonlt win any literary prizes! It’s a very useful volume if you want to have an idea how these films were put together though – really glad I have it.

      • tracybham says:

        I did go purchase the book recently. Found an inexpensive copy. Don’t know when I will read it but I am sure I will enjoy it when I do. Glad you featured it here to give me that push.

  12. Sergio, I had no idea about this Dashiell Hammett inspired films and I absolutely enjoyed reading your detailed overview. Many thanks.

  13. michaels says:

    My favorite part of “Return of the Thin Man” was the introduction and other background notes about Hammett and his involvement with Hollywood and the film series. Learning the writers wanting out of their commitment to write more sequels gave the Charles a baby hoping it would kill the series popularity.

  14. Bev Hankins says:

    I love, love, love The Thin Man movies! Powell and Loy are just magic together in my opinion.

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