‘Return of the Thin Man,’ by Dashiell Hammett

If you’re one of those underprivileged citizens who’s never enjoyed the Thin Man movie series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, you really owe it to yourself to watch them. The first two, at least, are almost perfect of their kind – a hybrid of hard-boiled crime story and screwball comedy, centering on a sophisticated, charming couple who adore each other and excel at repartee.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammet’s last and most successful novel, and was adapted (mostly by lightening its darker elements and cutting some stuff the censors wouldn’t approve) into a classic movie by film writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, themselves a married couple. It was so successful that the studio wanted a sequel, and offered Hammett a nice payday to come up with a story. Though delayed by drinking and blackouts, he delivered on time. The “story” he produced – basically a paragraph outline – became the movie After the Thin Man. Hammett’s story, combined with Hackett’s and Goodrich’s initial adjustments, constitute the first half of Return of the Thin Man. The second half is a similar story for the third film, Another Thin Man. At the end, Hammett’s proposal for a third sequel is included – it’s incoherent, inconsistent with the previous stories, and appears to show signs of Hammett’s advancing alcoholism.

The original Thin Man movie ends with our heroes, Nick and Nora Charles, in a Pullman car headed home from New York to San Francisco. After the Thin Man opens with them getting off the train (fans have chuckled for years over the fact that the trip took two years, so that clothing and car styles have changed). Arriving at their home, they find the place packed with Nick’s low-life friends from his days as a private eye – it’s a welcome home party, but nobody even notices their arrival for a while. The party is dampened by the appearance of a dead man on the doorstep, but Nick and Nora are summoned away to her grandmother’s grand mansion on Nob Hill. Her cousin’s dubious husband has disappeared, and she’s suspected of murdering him. Nora’s family strongly disapproves of Nick, but since he’s around, he must make himself useful by locating the errant husband and keeping the police off the premises. There is a murder, and the mystery that follows will involve a shady night club owner and multiple confidence games, before Nick can gather the suspects for the “payoff” scene, revealing the true culprit.

In Another Thin Man, Nick and Nora head back to New York state at the request of Nora’s father’s old business associate. He’s been threatened, and demands that Nick chase off the disgruntled former employee behind the threats. Nick also takes this opportunity to try to learn more about Nora’s family business – something he soon regrets (just out of boredom). Again, murder happens in spite of Nick’s efforts, but he will beat the police to the true solution.

I had looked forward to reading a couple of Thin Man novellas – which is what the publisher’s description calls these works. But that’s not what they are. “Stories” for movies are meant to be brief and spare and devoid of sparkle. Just the facts, ma’am. As such, these stories make rather dull reading.

I was surprised that I have no memory of Another Thin Man. It’s possible I’ve never seen it – or that it’s been so long I’ve forgotten it. Must remedy that.

I didn’t waste any money on Return of the Thin Man, since I got it free from Amazon Prime. But I can’t really recommend it, except to the hard-core Nick and Nora fan, who’ll be interested in the minor ways in which the narratives changed in the transition from story to screen.

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