Waiter, will you serve the nuts?
“To What Extent do the “Thin Man” Series of Films Parody the Film Noir Style of Crime Dramas of their Time?”
When one tries to picture Film Noir, one of the first images that springs to mind is of a fast-talking ‘Humphrey Bogart-esque’ detective, standing amidst the shadows of a dark, black and white diluted alleyway. The typical elements that go into the Film Noir style have been generated and regenerated throughout the centuries of cinema, and because of this the audience is subconsciously aware of the archetypal components that go into making a great film noir piece.
The term emerged in 1946 from French film critic Nino Frank, who used it to categorize all American crime and detective films from the late 1930s and early 1940s. The characteristics involved in these types of films usually include a highly melodramatic narrative and deep characterisation that focuses on motivation with emphasis on the tragic aspects of human life that dwell in the criminal underworld. It is believed that the style takes a lot from the German expressionist movement from the early 1900s (Silver, 2004, p186) which was defined by an emotional, nightmarish and hallucinatory style, however Film Noir has since become a cinematic movement within itself.
Films such as “Double Indemnity” (1944), “The Big Heat” (1953) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) have become classic examples of the Film Noir style, and thanks to these films the approach has become a genre. Characteristically this style is accomplished due to a very unique method of mise-en-scene. The lighting is usually chiaroscuro, giving a stark contrast between light and dark (as shown in the image above, taken from “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)). The camera angles are often low, wide and sometimes off-centre, primarily to give the audience feelings of paranoia, claustrophobia and hysteria. Setting and characters are also highly important aspects in the Film Noir. Usually this type of film is given an urban setting to add to the feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia, and within this setting places such as diners, motels and cheap nightclubs play important roles. The leading character tends to be a male hero but as Schrader (1972, cited in Belton, 1996, p15) points out there is normally three typical types of this hero; the sleazy private-eye or ragged detective, the unromantic hero, and the psychotic hero. As well as this lead role, there is almost always bound to be both a ‘princess’ character (lost or needs saving) a femme fatale (the epitome of the male fantasy, but has flaws) and a villain (evil, violent and out for revenge).
These aspects all contribute to what is quite possibly most important in the Film Noir style, and that is the narrative. More than any other genre, the Noir narrative is very intricate and sometimes quite difficult to follow – but this is purposefully done. They are designed to baffle and confuse the audience, with characters racing in and out of scenes and story lines shifting pace and intention to deliberately bewilder the viewer.
In 1934 Hollywood adapted a Dashiell Hammett detective novel for the big screen. “The Thin Man” had been Hammett’s final book and the film adaptation was both imminent and hugely anticipated after the success of his previous novels. After its critical and box-office successes, the film produced five sequels and with them a series of unforgettable motion picture performances, one-liners and charming bantur between its two leading characters; ex-detective Nick Charles (William Powell) and his adoring wife Nora (Myrna Loy). Although two of the films were made prior to Nino Frank’s labelling, the series quite often falls into the category of Film Noir. However due to several factors, they cannot possibly be completely Film Noir, and instead signify a lovingly recreated lampoon of the style.
Looking at three of the most significant films in the series, we shall analyse how “The Thin Man“, “After the Thin Man” and “The Thin Man Goes Home” represent a somewhat satirical take on the Film Noir methods of representation.
THE THIN MAN (1934)
Having already proved himself a capable and talented director, W.S. Van Dyke pleaded with the heads of MGM to let him use two of his prior stars in his latest film. William Powell had starred in Van Dyke’s previous venture (a very stereotypical Film Noir) “Manhattan Melodrama” and his straight-lace performance alongside Myrna Loy meant the pair were the perfect choice for “The Thin Man“. Starring as retired detective Nick Charles and his long suffering yet devoted wife Nora, the duo had a chemistry that sits at the base of this film. From the first shot to the final frame there are continuing themes and impersonations of Noir techniques that give this screwball comedy a deeper and more fascinating quality than its initial face value. To begin with, the mise-en-scene of the film is immensely Noir and uses a typical lighting technique throughout. By means of “lighting even daytime scenes as if it were night-time” (Bould, 2005, p20-21) the film produces a highly unique and gothic style, which would immediately identify the film as Noir had it not been for one critical thing. Comedy (see Clip 1 below). “The Thin Man” is first and foremost a comedic film, with humour running throughout. This goes against one of the most pivotal Film Noir methods of representation – namely the belief in realism and a strong urgency to not give the audience a happy ending (for example: “The Lady from Shanghai“‘s very unhappy finale). Here the director is clearly making good use of his Noir background, by applying the filming techniques but disregarding the ‘realism’ approach. The narrative structure IS however very convoluted, and this goes for every film in the series. There are murders, a daughter in distress who needs Nick to find her father, a villainous femme-fatale out for money, and a whole load of seedy gin joints and nightclubs thanks to Nick and Nora’s ongoing ‘problem’ with alcoholism (see Clip 2 below). The first film in the series sets the tone for the collection, and that is a somewhat humorous spin on the very serious and drama-filled Noir style.
AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)
Clearly no one told the makers of these films that The Thin Man is not in fact the character of Nick Charles, but was instead the nickname given to the victim in the first story. However audiences and critics kept referring to Nick Charles as The Thin Man, and consequently after the original film we are presented with a series of inaccurate film titles. Nonetheless, the second film in the series is by far both the most comedic and yet most Noir of the collection. We have all the right characters and settings. Taking place primarily in a nightclub on New Years eve, there is the disreputable nightclub owner (villain) the seductive nightclub singer (femme fatale) and Nora’s female cousin who is framed for murder (princess). The roles are acted very over the top, and constantly with a hint of dry wit, which prevents the film from being a full-on Film Noir. The narrative is once again designed to confuse and baffle the audience, adding to the unique atmosphere of this first sequel. Nick himself at one point in the film says “This is the craziest case” (click for a clip!), almost looking into the camera as if knowingly adding to the audience’s bemusement at the convoluted storyline. Once again we have a strong contrast between light and dark throughout the film, and during chase scenes and scenes of high drama the camera angles are always unusually distinctive from the rest of the film.
Primarily every male character in the story wears a federo hat, and the ongoing joke about Nick knowing all the crooks and gangsters who he has previously convicted make reference to the typical crime dramas of the time. The returning director, Van Dyke, has once again managed to create a comedy mystery film, whilst seamlessly weaving an obvious Film Noir style throughout – not so much creating a new genre, but instead paying homage to the brilliant crime films of the era.
THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1945)
After four madcap sequels, a decline in audience numbers and a failed attempt to reinvent the series by introducing Nick and Nora’s son, a new director Richard Thorpe was brought in to rejuvenate the series with the fifth film in the collection. Having the plot evolve around Nick and Nora returning to Nick’s home town to visit his parents, this film not only went back to it’s storyline roots, but also the basic roots of the first film’s dark and mysterious yet engaging narrative.
Getting past the opening scene aboard a crowded train (where one- liners and pratfalls come thick and fast) the audience is presented with the most emotionally fuelled and complex of the Thin Man story lines. A winning plot that is a lot more heavy and intricate than previous Thin Man outings, involves a crazy woman, who gave up her baby years ago, finding out the grown up son has been murdered. It is hugely emotional and very dark in places, and due to the wartime liquor rationing there are fewer alcohol jokes running throughout the film. The strong narrative, coupled with the once again ever present Noir lighting and camera techniques, makes “The Thin Man Goes Home” the most serious and absorbing film in the series. The setting is most important in this film, as it relates heavily to the urban transposition to the rural setting (Dimendberg, 2004), leaving the cityscape behind and evolving the Noir theme into the countryside means the audience are seeing a completely different aspect of Film Noir played out through this unique parodical style.
Overall it seems that “The Thin Man” series is not so much a ‘parody’, but more of a nod to, and appreciation of, the crime dramas of the time, providing a tongue in cheek look at the style of film by using some of the same techniques and themes, but putting a comedic twist on them; it could be said that “The Thin Man” is a delightful, drunken example of Film Noir…