Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Nick and Nora Redux: Return of the Thin Man

Return of the Thin Man: Two never-before published novellas featuring Nick and Nora Charles by Dashiell Hammett

Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Asta in The Thin Man
Before Myrna Loy and William Powell starred in the hugely popular movies, or Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk in the 1950s television series, there was the book that started it all. Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, published in 1934, was instantly snapped up by Hollywood and became one of the Depression era's runaway box office hits, despite frequent tussles with the censors over the excessive drinking and wealth of sexual innuendos. Audiences who hardly knew where their next meal was coming from gladly plunked down their scarce quarters to immerse themselves for a few hours in the opulent and dangerous lives of this urbane detective from the wrong side of the tracks and his millionaire Nob Hill wife. Prohibition had been repealed just the previous year, and Hammett's uptown couple spent quite a bit of screen time quenching America's pent-up 14-year thirst.

Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk
The original movie was so successful that it spawned five sequels––of gradually decreasing quality, in my opinion. Hammett was involved in the production of the first three movies. This book, Return of the Thin Man, is actually the author's slightly padded screenplay treatments for the first two sequels, and the tales are pretty close to the final film versions. While they contain all of the sparkling dialogue and mystery plots, they are not really polished and filled-out novellas meant for reading by the public. Each of the stories is bracketed by Headnotes and Afterwords by the editors that indicate that Hammett was getting thoroughly tired of Nick and Nora.

The first story in this book, After the Thin Man, finds the couple returning home to San Francisco from New York by train, hoping to enjoy a quiet New Year's Eve at home. As Nick attempts to shave at the mirror on the back of the door, Nora slams into the compartment, calling for him. She looks around to see Nick, eyes bulging, "with his razor at his throat, smiling the sickly sweet grin of a man who has just escaped death." They dodge the reporters wanting to hear about Nick's New York murder case and arrive home to find a surprise welcome home party, thrown by Nick's disreputable friends, already well under way. They even know some of the guests, all of whom disappear rapidly when a man Nora recognizes as an old family gardener is shot dead on their doorstep. After dealing with the police, an imperious and urgent call from Nora's Aunt Katherine summons them to a Nob Hill formal dinner party with all of her stuffy relatives. Robert, husband of Nora's cousin Selma, has gone missing, and the collective family wants the despised Nick to find the philanderer.

I had forgotten just how relentlessly funny and outrageous these stories are; blink and you may have missed a wonderful sight gag, sneeze and you have lost a wonderful line. Hammett had a gift for witty, rapid-fire dialogue that has rarely been equaled, and he really let it rip in these stories. Reading the book, I could clearly imagine Loy and Powell in their respective roles. While I wish Hammett had written actual novels for the later stories, these beefed-up screenplays are a very acceptable substitute. And I never realized until just this minute how much William Powell resembled Dashiell Hammett! Hmmm.

Lillian Hellman
Dashiell Hammett
Hammett shared a strong social conscience with his lifelong friend and lover, playwright Lillian Hellman. Both flirted with the Communist Party, and Hammett, a veteran of both World Wars, was actually imprisoned in 1951 for contempt of court after refusing to name members of a group that funded bail and fines for social activists.

In her introduction to The Big Knockover, a reissue of Hammett's Continental Ops stories, Hellman says he wrote her from prison that "[h]e was cleaning bathrooms better than she had ever done" and that he had "learned to take pride in the work." He came out of prison very ill, partly as a result of the tuberculosis he had contracted in World War I. In 1953, he was again called before a Senate subcommittee, and again refused to implicate others. As a result he was blacklisted, unable to work in films for the rest of his life.

Johnny Depp as Nick Charles? Maybe...
As a tribute to the timeless popularity of the Nick and Nora stories, Johnny Depp has been signed to play Nick Charles in a remake of the original Thin Man, probably next year. He may be able to carry off the zany combination of tough guy and wisecracking bon vivant, but offhand I can't think of a single actress who could successfully play Nora to his Nick. If you have never heard of The Thin Man stories or movies but enjoy a bit of drawing room comedy/mystery/romance, you might want to emulate those Depression-era audiences who knew the value of laughter in the face of adversity, and lay in some Nick and Nora, as books or movies, for a rainy day.

Note: Return of the Thin Man was published by Mysterious Press and will be released on November 6, 2012. I received a free review copy of this book, and similar reviews may appear on other review sites under my user names there.

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