Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Limits of the Word

I re-read Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man last week for the first time in ages. I have one of those old omnibus editions that has Hammett's five novels on really thin paper. It had been a while. The Thin Man has always struck me as Hammett's least accomplished novel--certainly not in the same ballpark, to say the least of the same league or sport--as, say, Red Harvest. But it's entertaining. It's Hammett's most conventional mystery. Omit the hard-boiled banter between Nick and Nora Charles, and you have a fairly standard drawing room mystery. I doubt very seriously that this book would be well-remembered if the movies hadn't gotten involved. I also took a look at the 1934 movie version, and, in a rare case of transmogrification, the movie adaptation is superior in just about every respect. This doesn't happen very often.

The main problem with the novel is that Nick Charles, our nominal detective, doesn't actually DO anything. He and Nora just talk a lot. They talk to suspects, they talk to cops, they talk to doormen and taxi-drivers. Charles, who claims to be retired, doesn't actually do any actual detecting. The movie changes this. It also takes advantage of Asta, the dog, in a way that never occurs to Hammett. I'll come back to this in a second.

The advantage of the movie is that it has a pair of actors for Nick and Nora that forever steal the characters from the reader's imagination. I challenge ANYONE who has seen one of the Thin Man movies to read the book without casting William Powell and Myrna Loy in the roles. Although there are many and varied reasons that Hammett stopped writing after The Thin Man, I can't help wonder if having his characters--two characters ostensibly based on himself and his longtime partner, Lillian Hellman--completely stolen from him by the movies wasn't a contributing factor. I know that John Le Carre` stopped writing about spymaster George Smiley after Alec Guinness played the role for this very reason.

Film, of course, is a director's medium, and all good directors literalized the dictum of "show don't tell" far more adroitly than the written word. I'm not going to call W. S. Van Dyke a great director, but he knew where to put the camera. The scene that convinced me that Hammett was talking too damned much while the film struck a balance of word and image comes near the end. In the movie, Nick decides to go for a look-see in the murdered man's basement, where Asta starts clawing at a bit of floor. Sure enough, there's a body buried under the floor which proves key to the case. The poking around in the dark provides the film with a small element of danger, too. The book doesn't even bother with it. In the book, Nick suggests to the police that they check the workshop and all of it happens off stage.

The movie is as witty as the book. In some cases, it's wittier, because it has to work around the newly enforced production code while making its double entendres hit home. "Ain't you heard of the Sullivan Act," a cop asks Nick and Nora in their bedroom. "That's alright," Nora says, "We're married." The book does have a bit more freedom to be salacious, but the absence isn't even felt in the movie.

I suppose I should mention, as all literature about The Thin Man movies must, that Nick Charles ISN'T the title character. But just as Frankenstein's monster appropriated his creator's name, William Powell became "The Thin Man," and the character became forever his.


Keith said...

Great post. I've never actually read The Thin Man for some reason. I love the film. It's one of my favorite classic movies. This is my first time at your blog. I really like it.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Keith. Thanks for stopping in. The Thin Man movies have always been favorites of mine, though I'll admit that my favorite is the second film, After the Thin Man, mainly for a very young James Stewart.