Professor Wynant (Edward Ellis) is busy testing an invention when he is interrupted by his assistant. His daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) has dropped by to see him and invite him to her upcoming wedding, but he's not keen to go if his ex-wife, now Mrs Jorgenson (Minna Gombell), is going to be there with her husband (Cesar Romero). Anyway, the news prompts Wynant to want to find a large amount of money in bonds he has stashed away and wishes to give to Dorothy, but he can't seem to see where they are. He visits his secretary and mistress Julia (Natalie Moorhead) as he thinks she has taken them, and he's not wrong in that assumption - but is that enough excuse to murder her?
The first of The Thin Man films was a smash hit for audiences wanting a strong dose of escapism in the depressed nineteen-thirties, and proved that its stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, were not only adept at comedy but were a great screen couple as well. For the first half hour they aren't even the main characters, existing on the periphery of the case while the intrigue mounts up, as Nick, a retired detective now living off his rich wife, is extremely reluctant to be involved in any crime, now preferring to spend his days drinking.
And spending his nights drinking as well. One thing that is most noticeable is how much alcohol not only Nick, but Nora too, puts away, in fact when they don't have a drink to hand you wonder if anything is wrong. Life is just one long party now, and Nick even gets up in the middle of the night to imbibe - heaven knows what state his liver must be in. As a couple, they are one of the screen's finest, breezing through scenes that actually featured a lot of improvisation and few retakes, the reason for this being the studio had little faith in the project and wanted it finished as quickly and cheaply as possible.
The film was based on Dashiell Hammett's popular novel, adapted by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and the Thin Man of the title didn't refer to Nick but the Professor, although as the series went on the titles referred to Powell, nobody bothering to put the audiences right. There is a reason for Wynant being called the Thin Man, but I don't wish to spoil it, and it's a minor point anyway. The plotting is complicated, and it's easy to get lost in simply enjoying the humour and wisecracking, some of it surprisingly innuendo-laden ("What's that man doing in my drawers?!").
Nick and Nora, and their dog Asta (whose appeal started a craze for wire-haired terriers as pets) make a great team, and outshine everyone else in the movie. The supporting characters, Dorothy and the police apart, could all have motives for bumping off increasing numbers of the cast, and we aren't allowed to forget it. The story all leads up to the sort of dinner party that you only get in films like this, the "I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here" kind of dinner, that leaves room for more quips ("Waiter, would you serve the nuts? I mean...") and a display of Nick's quick wits to save the day. The Thin Man may be convoluted, but its presented with a lightness of touch and pace that makes it worthy of its reputation as one of the best of its genre. Music by William Axt.