The return of the thin white duke

The entire Thin Man series is now out in a 7-DVD box set. This is cause for great celebration, or at least several rounds of martinis. But what makes the original movie pop so, where the follow-ups threaten to fizzle? First of all, W.S. Van Dyke shot the entire thing in twelve days. Yes, one of the best movies ever made was shot in twelve days. Not for nothing was he called “one-take Woody”. You can feel the result of that briskness in the movie, there isn’t a single frame of film that doesn’t just simply advance the story. The film “watches” the way Dashiel Hammet “reads”. The last time I read one of his novels, I was struck by how bare it was, almost like reading a screenplay. Well, the movie is almost like watching a screenplay.

But wait, there’s more! And better yet, it contradicts what I seem to be saying two sentences ago. The acting is great, and perfectly suited to the unrealness of the characters. So now I’m getting into territory familiar to anyone who has ever talked about film with me. This film is all about artifice and staging. As are, I believe, all films—the good ones celebrate this fact and the bad ones fight it. All of the corny 1930s devices utilized, and there are quite a few, are there unapologetically and the actors pull them off. (Rather than smash you on the noggin with them the way Oliver Stone would. Or just exaggerate them beyond all recognition the way the Coen brothers do in Hudsucker Proxy.)

Moreover, the characters themselves are attractive in a cartoonish way. Nick Charles is an alcoholic Bugs Bunny, and Nora is a feminist Betty Boop. You can see the appeal of Nick to a 1930s audience, he’s a man of modest upbringing who has hit the big time. He’s witty, charming and sophisticated, but also down to earth and friendly with all manner of hoods he has sent up the river. And Nora is smart, independent, funny and of course beautiful and rich. As a couple, they are equals, partners and this even extends to their comedic roles—neither is the straight man. Role models of modern marriage, and what’s more, they really know how to throw a party!

A quick note to Nora Ephron, Johnny Depp, et al. The day you re-make this movie is the day I pack my bags for Mars.

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