BrianNaas’s review published on Letterboxd:
By the time Dashiell Hammett finished The Thin Man in 1934 he already had written four crime novels - Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key. They are all considered classics - not just as crime novels but as American novels. Hammett was up there with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. His writing is so clean, concise and to the point. As they say, he took murder out of the parlor to the back alley where it belonged. Hard boiled noir had been around for a while but it was generally considered pulp and not highly regarded. Till Hammett. Film versions of all of them have been made. The basic premise behind Red Harvest has been made into Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. The Maltese Falcon was made in 1931 and then later with Bogart in 1941. The Glass Key was adapted twice as well in 1935 and in 1942 with Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and a brutal William Bendix. The Dain Curse only once in a TV mini-series with James Coburn. Sam Spade the quintessential detective of our collective imagination is Hammett's.
Part of the reason that he wrote so authentically about the world of murder and crooks is because he spent seven years with Pinkerton, the famous national detective agency - with a leave to enlist into WWI where he got TB. One of his duties in the agency was breaking strikes - something he so regretted later on that he became a card carrying Communist. After the success of The Glass Key, Hammett was enticed to Hollywood to write scripts or fix others (often not credited). He was also trying to finish The Thin Man. But like Nick Charles in the Thin Man who detects between bouts of drinking, Hammett wrote between bouts of drinking. The Hollywood life style and having a lot of money for that Depression period, threw him off the rails. Partying, drinking and a steady flow of prostitutes left him little time for working. When he went on a bender it could last weeks. He had also begun an affair with Lillian Hellman. Much of this is echoed in The Thin Man. More so than the film, the book is a non-stop drinking binge - never drunk but always with a drink in the hand and the witty equal relationship between Nick and Nora is clearly patterned after his with Hellman.
Hollywood basically destroyed Hammett's career as a writer. The first four novels plus lots of short stories took him three years. The Thin Man also took him three years. It shows in the writing. It is a very popular novel but it meanders, has scenes that seem to be there only for the sake of color - his weakest novel for sure - though the dialogue is still sharp and funny and was used in the film. MGM bought the rights before the book was finished for $21,000 - now $350,000 in today's money. More money for drinking and whoring. And that was basically it for Hammett. He never wrote another thing for publication - and only worked when not drinking on the screenplays for the next two Thin Man films. And he lived many more years but just could not write. One of the more tragic cases of writer's block ever.
Now MGM had to cast the film. This was not considered a high profile film and was given a medium budget. A few steps above a B film. Nat Pendleton as the main cop was a good indication of this. He was in loads of B films usually as a not so smart cop or criminal but not here where he is a solid cop but still needs Charles to figure it out. MGM had to find the right couple with the right chemistry. They had just signed William Powell who had been Philo Vance in a few films early in his career. He had looked good with Gable in Manhattan Melodrama which had just been released. Famous for the film that Dillinger went to see when the cops shot him dead. In that same film was Myrna Loy. Powell and Loy had something there. Loy had spent most of her career in exotic hell playing an assortment of ethnic characters often with an evil intent. Her best has to be in The Mask of Fu Manchu in 1932 in which she plays the daughter of Fu Manchu and enjoys torturing people. It is an amazing film actually. Now though she was finally stepping out of those roles and they chose her for Nora. Nora was the beginning of her being the perfect wife image that culminated in The Best Years of Our Lives (which should have had Powell playing the character that Fredric March had). No one can say anything wrong about Loy as far as I am concerned - not her career or her life in which she did many good deeds. I don't know about being the perfect wife but she was pretty damn close to being perfect.
There were no expectations for the film by MGM. A solid mystery. But the chemistry and the clever repartee between Nick and Nora and the enormous charm of the actors made it into a big hit. It is a lovely film. The writers cut out all the meandering scenes in the book and focused on the really good scenes like the cocktail party, the guy who comes in with a gun, the dinner denouement party and the affection between the two characters. They went on to make five sequels over thirteen years - none as good as the first but still it is Nick and Nora and Powell and Loy. Powell and Loy were to be matched up by MGM in a number of other films. Hammett said of his characters "Nobody ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters". Well they kept him out of hock for a lot of years.
Plot wise the film sticks closely to the book. The only real difference I noticed was the character that Maureen O'Sullivan plays. In the book she is a total party girl, drunk much of the time or suffering a hangover - while the film's character is none of that. A sweet gentle loyal to her father girl. She is the one who goes to Nick while he is showing bartenders the right way to make a martini and asks him to look into her father's disappearance. He is not really interested though as he is in NYC for a vacation and drinking is his main priority. And his wife who shows up being dragged by Asta. Nora is also very rich. And does these cute things with her nose. But everyone thinks he is involved so he is slowly drawn in and the murders pile up. It is a good mystery though not something by now we haven't seen a hundred times - in the book there are even more red herrings - it is simply Nick and Nora. They are wonderful. Great timing and in the last shot of the film on the train Asta is put into the top bunk and hides his eyes letting you know what is going on in the bottom bunk. Not Code watchable. Also a few other names you may recognize - Cesar Romero, Porter Hall, Harold Huber and Edward Brophy - again an indication that this was close to B film territory. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.