#87. The Thin Man (1934)

Tonight for some reason after arriving home in a perfectly good mood I felt, suddenly, like kicking the windows out. The house felt claustrophobic, too familiar, the weeknight routine of it suddenly oppressive: driving the same route home so I could take the dog out, then going to my hands and knees and cleaning the urine he couldn’t hold while I was at work. Bothered by the fact that there’s nothing to eat except DiGiorno pizzas. I eat three or four of these fucking things in a week. And, thinking of this, I get caught up in worrying about the fucking couldrons of coffee and beer that I consume from one Sunday to the next and then I start stressing about what it’s probably doing to my health (2 p.m. palpitations are status quo) and, vanity being what it is, stressing even more about what it’s doing to my physique. Then I start stressing about money because my paycheck comes in at midnight and it’s gonna be lighter than usual because I missed some days from the last pay period. Tonsillitis. Christimas is two weeks away and I haven’t bought a single gift. I’ve got a ten-hour shift tomorrow, and a ten-hour shift the next day, and a seven-hour shift the day after that.  How many frozen pizzas will pop up in that time? I work like a fucking dog and still don’t even clear $30k a year. I spend years working on these novels that don’t attract agents, my home situation is frustrating and sad…

thin man rifle.jpg         Just on and on. First world problems, I know. I guess that’s how it falls into my thinking about The Thin Man, a very charming whodunnit from 1934. It’s a good story that kept me guessing at the killer’s identity until it’s reavealed in the last act…but I’m not sure if it was a much better mystery than the sort you see on Law & Order every week. Or Monk. Surely it’s only just as good as Columbo

If I was the writer or director of The Thin Man I’d probably bristle at such a comparison. That you should suggest my big Hollywood production bears no greater tact nor artistry than some assembly-line chapter of weekly entertainment – be gone!

It reminds me of an interview with Kurt Vonnegut toward the end of his life. He was talking about a week he spent at his daughter’s house, recovering from smoke inhalation, in which time he just watched TV all day. He says of that period, with regard to the constant TV-watching, “it was almost life enough.” He claimed, too, that virtually any episode of Law & Order “would have been a hit play in the ‘30s or ‘40s. The playwrite would have become famous.”

While the writer who considers herself an artist might hate to hear that her work reads (or plays out) like a formulaic primetime drama, there’s a definite sanctity to such stories. The primetime weekly whodunnit or procedural. They absorb the viewer. Maybe they don’t make many great artistic statements about God or morality, try as they might, but, shit, such dramas are engrossing enough to distract an audience from the fact that they’re chewing on the fourth DiGiorno that week. All these characters and motives that The Thin Man (or a particularly good episode of Columbo) makes you keep in your head – it’s transcendent. In order to follow along with its chatty, squiggly plot, you have to drop everything and focus.

thin man drinks in train.jpg

Something I probably don’t need to see, considering my own habits, is how The Thin Man glorifies drinking. Our married sleiths, William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, are drinking constantly, but never appear to get drunk. They never spout some inappropriate thought. Never stumble into harm, nor slur, nor doze off in the middle of a conversation or sex. It’s a sterilized Old Hollywood portrayal of cocktails – like cigarettes – as esteeming staples of fashion and personality. To a certain degree they might still have that mystique. But, given the modern cultural savviness toward the realities of alcoholism, of the myriad mysteries resulting from cigarettes, their constant drinking probably wouldn’t come off as a romantic quirk if the film were re-made today. Although today even just the title might prove offensive. Who’s to say what’s thin? Why even talk about it? Why draw attention to people’s sizes?

Anyway. It’s a good movie, charming and funny, and I think it might actually lend well to a second and third viewing. Try to see where the clues are strewn.

thin man poster 2


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