“There was a man in New York one time,” reminisces Kingsley Amis in his book Everyday Drinking, “who bet he could drink fifteen double Martinis in an hour. He got there all right and collected his money but within another minute fell dead off his bar stool.” It’s a pity Amis never met Nick Charles (William Powell) or his wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), who down a half-dozen martinis apiece within The Thin Man’s opening minutes; they’d have doubtless won the bet and swiftly ordered more. Nick and Nora remain Dashiell Hammett’s most enduring pair of private detectives, and The Thin Man, adapted by W.S. Van Dyke from the mystery novel of the same name, is an exemplary film noir. Hammett’s story of a vanishing family patriarch and the murders his disappearance entrains is a thriller of great intrigue and intricacy, still compelling 80 years on.
But this is also, in tone and spirit, the quintessential screwball comedy — a fizzy and exuberant romance. Powell and Loy are irrepressible, irresistible; they are The Thin Man’s main attraction, its animating force, and much of the film’s appeal lay in relishing their glamor and chemistry. They are remembered, of course, for their rapid-fire quips and sallies — repartee of peerless élan and velocity. No less dazzling are the silences in between: Powell’s wry smile and raised eyebrow, infinitely suggestive, returned in every glance of Loy’s heart-shaped face. Hammett never wrote a better mystery; the ’30s never had a better comedy; and the cinema never had a better pair.