THE THIN MAN is one of my go-to movies when I’m in a bad mood, which means I’ve watched it about 187 times. Reading the book is a nice little lesson in how to translate a novel into a screenplay, and how to re-frame scenes and actions for an audio-visual medium for maximum punch.
Nick and Nora Charles–our hero and his rich wife–are not introduced until ten minutes into the movie. Those first ten minutes are like a short subject on Dr. Wynant, an inventor with an improbably active love life for such a cadaverous-looking scientist. It sets up the murder victims and suspects. THEN we meet Nick and Nora.
The book opens with that first scene of Nick in the bar. We learn about the disappearance of Wynant and the murder of his girlfriend as Nick learns–the book is told from Nick’s P.O.V. The movie jumps outside of Nick’s story, efficiently filling us in on things like Wynant’s ex-wife’s discovery of a key piece of evidence. The book seems stuck in Nick and Nora’s hotel room for a good chunk of the book. I suspect if Hammett could, he’d have incorporated some of the shuffling and cutting done by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.
Hackett and Goodrich were husband and wife, and their screenwriting career had some major credits: The Thing Man, After the Thin Man, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Father of the Bride, Easter Parade, The Long Long Trailer, Another Thin Man. They won a Pulitzer for their play The Diary of Anne Frank. Those credits would make a director famous, but no one ever talks about this hugely successful couple today.
The crime story follows more or less the same plot in book and movie. THE THIN MAN was pre-Code, but even so the high living and slang were toned down a bit for the movie. The use of The Lord’s Name and the N word had me running to the fainting couch.
It’s a brisk novel. You can see what a stylish shock it was, a kind of post-Fitzgerald idea of crime. For someone who gets deserved credit for bringing crime into the streets, Hammett’s fun married couple of lushes make for cozy mystery reading. You like spending time with these two, and don’t think they are in much danger. Nick eases into becoming involved in the murder mystery much more gradually than he does in the movie, which is understandable. Nora is much more assertive in the movie, too, doing little more than fetch drinks and tell Nick what an awesome person he is. Her calling him a Greek is charmingly non-P.C.
The biggest shock in reading the book is how clearly padded it is. There’s too much hanging around with Nick and his Runyonesque friends for me. There’s also a section on cannibalism that shouldn’t have been used–it goes on for four pages, and could be reduced to “I gave Gilbert something to read about cannibals” without impacting the book. Gilbert is as important a character in the book as his sister is in the movie, where he’s a minor character handy for being goofy to show what a goofy family he’s part of. The book devotes a lot of time to red herrings, and Gilbert exists to distract.
It’s a very talky novel compared to the crime fiction Hammett, Chandler, Cain and company inspired. So much of it consists of Nick and someone else sitting around talking out the back story and relating conversations. In comparison, the movie jumps along, dropping in scenes like Nunheim’s shooting and Nick’s exploration of Wynant’s closed lab to add excitement and, most importantly, viewer involvement. The second half of the book really starts to drag.
The quibbles are important, but the book survives them. It’s a stylish, fun read. Reading it and then watching the movie would make a fine lesson in adaptation. And The Hacketts are more efficient plotters than Hammett, I’m surprised to say.