Film: The Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles and Asta

The Thin Man is a 1934 (and thus, pre-Hays Code) movie based on a Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, and features William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a pair of hard-drinking, wisecracking, socializing types — except that Nick is also famous for being a tough detective, and no matter how hard he tries, he can't quite stop people (most especially including Nora) expecting him to solve crimes. Almost every single modern crime-solving-duo owes something to this film — everything from Castle to Warehouse 13, from Hart to Hart and Remington Steele to Moonlighting is, in part, a riff on a theme established in The Thin Man.

Despite Powell and Loy hamming it up to the best of their considerable acting ability, many a scene is stolen by their Fox Terrier Asta.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Oscars, including nominations for picture, director, and lead actor, but didn't win any. Powell and Loy's chemistry and charisma were obvious, and several sequels followed, to diminishing returns in later installments:

  • After The Thin Man (1936)
  • Another Thin Man (1939)
  • Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
  • The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)
  • Song of the Thin Man (1947)

After is noteworthy for an appearance by a disturbingly young James Stewart, playing what would prove to be a very atypical role, while an even-younger Dean Stockwell played the couple's son in Song. The Thin Man series constituted six of the fourteen movies Powell and Loy made together, which also included Manhattan Melodrama, and The Great Ziegfeld.

A Broadway musical adaptation, Nick & Nora, bombed in 1991, running only nine performances. Also spawned a short-lived TV series, and was one of the franchises parodied in Murder by Death. In 2011 a remake was reported to be in the works, with Johnny Depp attached to the project as Nick.

Not to be confused with Crispin Glover's character in the Charlie's Angels movies. Also, any relation to The Slender Man Mythos is purely speculative. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a Shout-Out to this but entirely unrelated as a story.

Tropes used in The Thin Man movies include:

  • The Alcoholic: Count how many times Nick had a drink. Or better yet, have a drink yourself whenever he does. (Note: Don't attempt to have a drink every time Nick or Nora have one. You will die.)
    • Also note how often Nick is shown drinking in the morning. Or how often he's stealing other people's drinks.
    • He quit by movie five, but circumstances make him look like he's off the wagon.
    • DirecTV's synopses of Thin Man movies often consist solely of the sentence "Nick Charles drinks scotch and solves murders," or variations thereof.
  • Always Someone Better: The motivation for the killer in Goes Home is that Nick had been this to him for their whole lives. He's taken away screaming about how he won't let Nick beat him again.
  • Animal Reaction Shot: Asta.
  • Artifact Title: In the original, the "thin man" was not Nick Charles, but a character named Clyde Winant, a missing person who was suspected of murder. However, movie goers started associating Nick Charles with the "thin man", and by The Thin Man Goes Home, which involved Nick going back to his hometown, the movie series did too.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: After the Thin Man has what can only be described as a very unfortunate Chinese stereotype character.
  • Bar Brawl: Nora starts one intentionally in the fifth movie, so she has an excuse to have two suspects arrested.
    • Believe it or not Asta starts one in Shadow.
  • Blowing Smoke Rings: In one scene in the original, William Powell can be seen blowing smoke rings as the policeman interrogates Nunheim.
  • Brought Home the Wrong Kid: Another Thin Man has some of Nick's hoodlum friends decide to throw Little Nicky a first birthday party, and bring all their own kids. One of them has to rent one to attend. The villain of the story, after being revealed, attempts to get away by claiming to have kidnapped Nicky. Nora goes to check and sure enough, there is another kid in his place. Turns out the villain was bluffing; Nick's friend had grabbed the wrong kid when he left, and the villain happened to notice before everyone else. The friend soon returns with Nicky, clearing it up.
  • Busman's Holiday: Nick and Nora never look for crimes to solve. In fact, Nick repeatedly insists that he is retired from detective work. He and Nora always stumble across murders while on vacation or simply socializing. Lampshaded in Shadow by Lt. Abrams: "Funny, I meet you two at all my homicides." (In the first movie, Nick explains that he retired from detective work to manage his wife's enormous fortune.)
    • Lampshaded even further in Another where the local police actually treat them as prime suspects (including seperating them for questioning) since this is the third time they "just happen" to be around when a murder occurs.
  • Chocolate Baby: In After the Thin Man, Asta the dog comes home to the missus to see she's got a litter of of which is too darkly colored to be his. He spies a nearby black Scottish Terrier sneaking through a hole under the fence and drives off the intruder angrily, then fills in the hole.
  • Continuity Nod: Early on in each sequel except Song, someone rattles off the cases Nick solved in each previous film.
  • Cousin Oliver: Making Nora pregnant at the end of After the Thin Man was a good gag but backfired to some extent in later installments, forcing Nick and Nora into a domesticity that didn't fit well with their urbane, martini-swilling style. In The Thin Man Goes Home Nick Jr. isn't included on a visit to his grandparents (supposedly he's at school).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both Nick and Nora, but especially Nora, who had a lot of the best lines.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: What The Reveal usually...revealed. Start with a murder, present a colorful parade of suspects, end by revealing the killer to be someone the audience had no reason to suspect. For modern audiences, After the Thin Man fits this trope best.
  • Drugs Are Good: Nick drinks and drinks and drinks, and it does nothing but make him more witty and charming.
  • Exact Words: In Shadow, Nick bets Abrams five dollars that "there was only one murderer" in the case of two seemingly unrelated shootings. Abrams can see no connection between the two and takes the bet. They're both right; the two deaths are unrelated, but Nick has already deduced that the first was an accident, so there was only one murderer.
  • Flanderization: The recurring police detective Lt. Abrams. In his first film, After, he came across as a competent cop who may be wrong in who he suspects for murder, but had good reasons for thinking he was right. In Shadow, his second and final film, he's more of a clumsy bumbler.
  • Follow That Car: Shadow does this gag.
  • Funny Background Event: In The Thin Man, when Nick has been persuaded to investigate Wynant's apparent fake suicide, he walks down the street while discussing the case with a policeman, accompanied by Nora and Asta. We only see them from the waist up, so we only see Asta's leash as it suddenly jerks in the direction of first a fire hydrant, then a lamppost.
  • Genre Savvy: By The Thin Man Goes Home, Nora has been through enough of these movies that she Lampshades the whole climax ahead of time; the Summation Gathering, The Reveal, The Perry Mason Method, even the guilty party's eventual attempt to shoot their way out ("I usually hide under the table for that part"). She's actually disappointed when Nick has the suspects searched for guns, because that means the last part won't happen (though it does). She still guesses the wrong suspect, though.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: New York version.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: A couple of jokes from the original.
    • Regarding Maureen O'Sullivan's character:
      Party Guest: Say, who's the little brunette?
      Nick (unamused): I used to bounce her on my knee.
      Party Guest: Which knee? Can I touch it?
    • There were also a fair number of implications that despite the series' use of the Sleeping Single trope, Nick and Nora had quite an "active" relationship. And that before he met her, Nick went through women like Kleenex.
    • Some of these would go over the heads of modern viewers, but were risque for their day. An example is this exchange that results when a policeman finds Nick carrying a concealed firearm:
      Police lieutenant: You got a pistol permit?
      Nick Charles: No.
      Police lieutenant: Ever heard of the Sullivan Act?
      Nora Charles: Oh, that's all right, we're married.note 
    • Nora Charles: I read you were shot twice in the tabloids.
      Nick Charles: It's a lie; he didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.
  • Going by the Matchbook: Played straight in Another, when Nick finds a matchbook from a nightclub in a suspect's coat, and follows the lead.
  • Grande Dame: Nora's aunt Katherine in After, who can't stand Nick, always pronouncing his name in a hyper-correct way as "Ni-cho-las".
  • Hangover Sensitivity: Nora has to deal with this in the original after trying to match Nick martini for martini. Nick, being Nick, is unaffected.
  • Happily Married: The Charleses are one of the great screen examples of the trope.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In the first movie, Nick (briefly) sings a song with the line, "For tomorrow, we must be gay".
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Selma in After, whose husband was a lout that needed killing and whose supportive would-be boyfriend turns out to be a crazy murderer.
    Aunt Katherine: You sure can pick 'em!
  • Idle Rich: Nick and Nora want to be, but people around them just keep on dying.
  • Immediate Sequel: The Thin Man ends with Nick and Nora boarding a train back home; After the Thin Man begins with Nick and Nora aboard that same train, headed to San Francisco.
  • The Ingenue: Dorothy in the first film.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: A suspect in After claims he didn't shoot a murder victim...before it was revealed he was shot. Subverted in that this particular suspect didn't do it, though he was far from innocent.
  • Inconveniently Vanishing Exonerating Evidence: In After The Thin Man, the murderer throws away the gun of someone he wants to frame. (Testing the gun would prove the suspect's innocence.)
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: In The Thin Man Goes Home, Nora sets off to tail one of Nick's hoodlum friends, whom she incorrectly believes is the bad guy. Her idea of tailing a suspect is to walk directly behind him at a distance of about 15 feet. Hilariously, a bad guy decides to tail Nora in the exact same way, resulting in a little three-person parade through town.
  • Kayfabe: Shadow of the Thin Man has Nick and Nora attend a wrestling match. When the man running it says that they are in for a great match, Nick quips "How do you know? You at the rehearsal?". Later on they leave while the fight is still going on, with one wrestler in a painful looking hold and groaning with discomfort. As she passes the ring, Nora tells him that she hopes he gets out of it okay. The wrestler stops groaning and thanks her for her concern in a perfectly normal tone of voice.
  • Kinky Spanking: In The Thin Man Goes Home Nick, after making comments about woodsheds and razor strops, puts Nora over his knee and spanks her with a rolled up newspaper. It's a bit of Fanservice.
  • Knitting Pregnancy Announcement: Nick has just solved a very complicated mystery, but has yet to deduce that his wife Nora is expecting. Until he realizes that she is knitting a baby's sock.
    Nora: And you call yourself a detective.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: Asta. (Though "Loyal" is not the same thing as "Brave".)
  • Mama Bear: Seeing the villain about to shoot Nick in Shadow, Nora throws herself straight onto the guy and wrestles him into submission with a choke-hold, all the while screaming for Nick to run for it (keep in mind; the man had a gun which he was pointing straight at Nick and Nora). Granted, she then passed out and had no memory of it, and it turns out the gun was empty, but it's still pretty impressive.
  • Motive Rant: The villain in After, who was driven mad by jealousy after his girlfriend threw him over for her sleazy husband.
  • Never One Murder: In every film, there will be a couple of more murders after the first one to keep the plot zipping along.
  • Never Suicide: subverted in Shadow.
  • New Year Has Come: The murder that kicks off After the Thin Man takes place on New Year's, right after the parties.
  • New Year's Resolution: "Must scold, must nag, mustn't look too pretty in the morning."
  • Nice Hat: Nora wears one in Shadow. A Running Gag has everyone she meets describe it as "screwy". She gets fed up and hands it to the next person to do so.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Nick and Nora are adored by their servants, and many of Nick's friends are criminals he's arrested. In the first film several of Nick's hoodlum friends come to his Christmas party.
  • Old Retainer: Aunt Katherine's incredibly ancient butler in After, who nearly falls over when Nick hands him his coat.
  • Papa Wolf: In Another, Nicky Jr. is threatened by a gangster. Nick immediately stands up and slugs him, in one of the few times we see him with a completely serious look on his face.
  • The Perry Mason Method: How Nick elicits The Reveal in all six films.
  • Pretty in Mink: Being a wealthy couple, Nora wore quite a few furs. In The Thin Man Nick gives her one for Christmas.
  • Red Herring: Several examples, two of the more prominent being the Chinese nightclub owner in After and the senior Charles's housekeeper in Goes Home, who both skulk around acting suspicious but ultimately prove to be unconnected to the relevant murder(s).
  • The Reveal: The movies always ended with these.
  • Running Gag: Just about all of Nick's friends that he introduces to Nora are ex-cons that he put away.
  • Secondary Character Title: For the first two films at least, as the "thin man" is a supporting character in the first film. Averted for the last two films of the series; see Artifact Title above.
  • Shout-Out: In the first film, Nora hands Nick a tray of empty martini glasses, and Nick quips, "Grandma, what large glasses you have."
  • Sleeping Single: Except for that one time on the train, in the first film.
  • Spit Take: In the first movie, the cops are searching Nick and Nora's apartment, and start getting into Nora's cabinet.
    Nora: What's that man doing in my drawers?
    Nick: (spit take)
  • Stealing from the Till: The murderer in the original killed his boss when the boss found out that he was embezzling.
    • A minor suspect in the same film was doing it too. He gets caught by Nick breaking in to fix up the books so he isn't accused of the murder.
  • Summation Gathering: All six films.
  • Taking You with Me: After. "I've got six bullets in this gun. One for her, one for myself. One for myself, and the rest for anyone who tries to stop me."
  • Throwing the Fight: In Shadow the victim whose death starts the plot is a jockey who was forced by gangsters to throw a horse race.
  • Title Drop: In the first film, Clyde Wynant is referred to as "the thin man". In the second one, as Nick and Nora get off the train, reporters crowd around them and wonder if Nick is going to get "another Thin Man case".
  • Wacky Cravings: A relatively subtle version appears in After, hinting at Nora's condition before it is officially revealed at the very end of the film.
  • Walk This Way: After does this gag at one point with Nick and an elderly butler.
  • The Watson: Part of Nora's job, as Nick did most of the actual detecting. Nick lampshades this by calling her "Dr. Watson" at one point in the original.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Nick in The Thin Man Goes Home. Nora claims that if he ever got a pat on the back from his father, he'd burst a vest-button. It literally happens in the final scene.
  • Would Hit a Girl: A pretty weird instance of this trope in the original. A gun-wielding Mook has burst into Nick and Nora's bedroom. Nick gets Nora out of the line of fire by punching her in the face.