Monday, December 26, 2011

The Clever Tippler

Myrna ___ (3 letters)
Nick and Nora's dog (4 letters)

It's now many years since I would do the crossword puzzle on a regular basis.  Yet I've still got recollections from when I did them.  One is about learning words that were puzzle regulars; they had no other use in the vocabulary, as far as I could tell.  Asta was one of those words.  I had never seen the movie starring William Powell and Myrna Loy nor had I read the novel by Dashiell Hammett.  But I did know Asta.  Some years later my wife and I watched one or two of The Thin Man movies on TV, though I don't recall which ones.  I remember it more for the gay repartee than for the story, a pleasing alternative to all those movies with big special effects that the kids seemed to like. This month Turner Classic Movies has been featuring William Powell and a few nights ago they aired all six of The Thin Man movies.  I recorded the first four, on the theory that eventually I would saturate watching those.  I've now watched two of the four and realize I made a mistake not recording the other two.

Robert Osborne's introductions to the films are very helpful.   The first film, The Thin Man, is from 1934.  Incidentally, the title does not refer to the William Powell character but rather to the first murder victim.   The film was intended as a minor work, something to show folks who went to the movies before the feature was shown.  But it was extremely popular in its own right and thereby became a franchise. As Nick and Nora Charles were members of the leisure class and the film debuted at the height of The Great Depression, one might reasonably ask what caused the film's great popularity.  Indeed, the question seems quite relevant today, as the super rich increasing appear as victimizers rather than heroes.  How did the super rich appear to the ordinary Joe during the Great Depression?

The story is first and foremost a whodunnit.  Nick Charles, a former gumshoe, has married Nora, a wealthy heiress.  So while Nick Charles is in a class with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, then later Perry Mason and  after that Adrian Monk, destined to solve the mystery, there is the unique aspect in how his relationship to Nora interplays with the rest of the story.  According to Wikipedia Dashiell Hammett's fiction is hard boiled.  Certainly, one would have that impression from viewing The Maltese Falcon.  Yet Powell and Loy play Nick and Nora as light farce, with the occasional quip and more frequent childish facial expression.

When we first confront Powell on the screen he seems a bit tipsy, apparently slurring his words, drink in hand, it's not clear whether he can make out what's going on.  The drinking is a kind of virtuous vice, a fitting activity for one of his station.  His playful devotion to Nora more than makes up for it.  She is his equal in loyalty and disposition.

Nick seemingly knows everyone - the police and many former or current hoodlums.  Among that latter group, he has sent many of them or their friends or relatives up the river.  They don't begrudge Nick for this.  He was a professional doing his work.  He treated them squarely and they got what they deserved.  Nick will drink with anyone, including the hoodlums.  Nora, by association, will do likewise.   She is interested in all things Nick.  Since detective work was so much of his past, she is fascinated by that.  She seems oblivious to the potential danger.

At various times when there is real investigating to be done, he gives her the slip, whether for her own protection or because as an amateur she'll get in the way.  He then appears to be serious minded and all business, in search of essential clues.  Before that, when they are in a social setting, he seems first and foremost to be after a good time.  Yet he is able to take in evidence even then.  In order to make sense of what is really going on, he needs to know everyone's story.  A good chunk of that story he learns en passant while socializing.

The actual police seem if not entirely witless then nevertheless none to bright.  They welcome having Nick as a partner because he is much better than they are at deciphering what the clues actually mean. That intelligence earns Nick respect.  Further, he does not put on airs about the case when he has figure out an important point but says what he means.  Yet there is an easy grace about his demeanor. 

Robert Osborne says that Powell's style of acting went out at the beginning of the 1950s, to be replaced by the realism of Marlon Brando and James Dean.  Undoubtedly, he is correct in that assertion.  The time is ripe, however, for the Nick Charles approach to make a comeback, and not just in the movies.

No comments: