The endless boozy charms of Nick and Nora and The Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles never worry about money, politics, or viruses. They sleep in, drink all day and solve crimes at night. Who wouldn’t want to be Nick and Nora? 

During the current troubles, I’ve found solace by rewatching all of the great 1930s-40s Thin Man series of films, featuring husband-and-wife detectives Nick and Nora (and of course their dog, Asta). I first saw these movies as a teenager, and the snappy banter and elegant charms of a vanished black-and-white world won me over instantly. 

The unforced charisma of William Powell and Myrna Loy are what elevate the Thin Man series of six films over dozens of other forgotten screwball pics of the ‘40s. Wisecracking and booze-soaked (in the first few movies particularly), but deeply in love, Nick and Nora are one of the few couples of old-time Hollywood you can actually imagine having a sex life. Powell and Loy’s chemistry is so strong many people assumed they were actually married in real life. 

The first Thin Man sets the stage for the entire series – someone dies in mysterious circumstances, hard-drinking, wealthy, sort-of-but-not-really retired detective Nick Charles and his plucky heiress wife Nora get involved, there’s lots of banter, and in the end the crime is solved. In all the movies, the mystery really is secondary to the boozy, flirty interplay of Nick and Nora. They’re formulaic to a fault – every movie ends with a “Clue” locked-room type showdown where Nick Charles assembles various suspects for this episode’s mystery and there’s a dramatic reveal. But you don’t watch these for the mystery – you watch for the banter and the style they ooze. The first movie features some of the catchiest lines and Nick and Nora are particularly young, sexy and smart.  

1936’s first sequel After The Thin Man might just be my favourite of the series – unlike the first film, it doesn’t take ages to get to Nick & Nora, and the mystery is genuinely engaging, led by a very young Jimmy Stewart in a supporting role. For Nick and Nora, crime fighting is more of a lark in between boozy parties, and After The Thin Man does the best job of the series of capturing their pleasant debauchery while also wrapping in a good yarn. 

1939’s Another Thin Man adds the wrinkle of a baby son to Nick and Nora’s lives. It works here because the baby clearly cramps Nick and Nora’s style, but not so much that the fundamental appeal of the series goes missing. There’s also a bit of pathos behind the scenes as Powell was diagnosed with cancer between films and was in pretty rough shape, physically, but he rises admirably to the challenge. (Dig that lengthy monologue at the end of the movie and imagine how well you could deliver that in his state!)

The series does go on a gentle downward trajectory after the superior first three movies, but every Thin Man flick is worth watching. Shadow of the Thin Man ages up Nick and Nora’s son to around 4 years old and features a rambling murder plot about a racetrack. They always say having a kid is the downfall of romantic couples on screen. Nick Jr is kind of annoying here, to be honest, although I do like seeing Nick adapt his drunken ways to parenthood. Nora, on the other hand, definitely loses some of her spark as a character with her new motherhood. There’s also a rather cringe, broadly portrayed African-American maid character who hasn’t aged well at all, making Shadow one of the lesser flicks. But there’s highly amusing scenes set at a wrestling match and a great restaurant brawl. 

The Thin Man Goes Home is considered the low point of the series by some, but I actually enjoyed it because it focuses a bit more on Nick and Nora’s characters, by bringing in Nick’s aging parents and a change of scene to the sleepy town he grew up in. It’s amusing seeing Nick attempt to go “dry” (by drinking nothing but cider), and Nora remains spunky as all hell, although unusually for the series, this instalment treats her a bit too sexist. (A comic scene where Nick mockingly “spanks” her did not age well.) Their child is nowhere to be seen in this one, thank god, although the murder mystery is even more complicated and incomprehensible than usual. Goes Home gives us an unexpected side of confident, cocky Nick Charles, showing he’s still a son trying to please an unimpressed father. 

Lastly came 1947’s Song of the Thin Man. After 13 years, Nick and Nora have aged a bit and they’re a long way from the boozy, sexy young couple of the first films – Powell was in his mid-50s by now. The son is back, but this time much less annoying, played by a young Dean Stockwell (!), and the mystery this time revolves around a murder in a jazz band. The most amusing parts of this one come from Nick and Nora being dropped into the bebop post-war jazz scene, and being utterly lost amongst the hep cats, daddy-o. Back in the first Thin Man, Nick and Nora were cutting-edge cool, but now, suddenly they’re the aging hipsters adrift in popular culture. It’s a clever move that acknowledges time passing in the series. Firmly positioned in the middle of the series, Song is still a nice little farewell. 

Nick’s last line? Once the murder is solved, Nick says, “Now Nick Charles is going to retire.” Nora asks, “You’re through with crime?” “No,” says Nick. “I’m going to bed.” I like to think of Nick Charles trapped in amber at that point, perpetually toddling off to bed with a stiff shot of bourbon in his hand, waiting for the inevitable midnight phone call of yet another murder in the city, a case that only he can solve.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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