Myrna Loy makes her entrance as Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) preceded by a dog’s butt. It’s a fine mutt derriere, a twitching compass arrow of nervous energy, and it belongs to the fox terrier Asta; he’s making his way through a crowded bar, with Nora in tow at the other end of his leash. Asta is eager to find his master and Nora’s husband, Nick Charles (played by William Powell), who has already begun to partake in the fine and eminently civilized ritual of late-afternoon cocktails. Nora has been Christmas shopping, and she can barely see where she’s going—partly because she’s laden with packages, partly because she’s at the mercy of Asta’s magnetic pull. She stumbles, is helped up by a retinue of handsome gentlemen and greets her husband (who has scooped Asta into his arms) not with anything so pedestrian as a kiss, but with an amused, defiant glare. Nora’s profile—an urbane, alabaster cameo with a hometown-sweetheart nose—meets Nick’s: too much schnozz, not enough chin and sexy as hell. And so one of the most pleasurable movie partnerships in history begins, with one great butt and two great faces.
The Thin Man, based on the 1933 Dashiell Hammett novel, is overall the best and most crisply made picture in a series that endured for more than a decade. It’s most certainly the one that hangs together best as a whodunit. But then, Powell and Loy saw to it that nobody ever really cared about the Thin Man movies’ plots: Audiences came for Nick and Nora, to get a glimpse into this partnership between two stylish, quick-witted equals, to enter a world in which married life looked more like fun than like drudgery. But the true secret to their appeal may be that their dialogue isn’t just banter (face it, anybody can engage in banter): It’s honest-to-God flirtation—often of a prickly sort, but flirtation nonetheless.
This wasn’t just something new; the sight of married people flirting with one another, in the movies or in real life, is still a novelty. And as the series progresses—the other pictures are After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) and Song of the Thin Man (1947)—we get a sense of how the kinship between Nick and Nora toughens and deepens, but also of the ways in which the two always remain like newlyweds who genuinely enjoy each other’s company. The junky plots orchestrated around Nick and Nora don’t matter: We have eyes only for them.
There’s no possessiveness in the Nick and Nora equation. Their relationship is predicated on the acknowledgment that each had a life before marriage—Nick as a playboy detective, Nora as a freewheeling, freethinking heiress—and the success of their union depends on preserving their individuality, not muting it. This is happily-ever-after as a beginning: In fact, studio heads at MGM were nervous about The Thin Man because they weren’t sure that a romantic comedy featuring an already-married couple would fly. What they didn’t realize—even though Powell and Loy, married to each other only onscreen, seemed to recognize it in their bones—is that a married couple who actually like each other is the sexiest thing in the world.
Nick flirts openly in front of Nora; she responds either by ignoring him or laughing in his face. So what if his eyes wander? She knows his heart belongs to her. Likewise, Nick can’t turn his back for a moment without finding his charismatically charming wife surrounded by potential suitors. In Another Thin Man, he disperses one of these masculine gaggles with a single line, delivered with an eloquently raised eyebrow. Professing surprise at seeing his wife out of bed, he exclaims, “What if the doctors find out? They’ll put you right back in quarantine.” Nora plays along, more interested in running with the joke than she is in these male admirers who are nowhere near as much fun as her own husband.
And we know a lot about what Nick and Nora are like in bed, even though we see them in bed—separate beds, actually—only fleetingly. One of the loveliest things about the Thin Man movies, taken as a whole, with all of their pleasures and flaws, is that Nick and Nora aren’t newlyweds, in the strict sense of that word, forever: They have a child together. (In the last picture in the franchise, Song of the Thin Man, he’s played by the very young Dean Stockwell.) In Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick urges Nora to stay out of the way while he investigates a case (an entreaty she ignores, as always): He tells her to go home, put some cold cream on her lovely face and slip into an exciting negligee—“and I’ll see you at breakfast,” he adds with an air of disappointment. In Song of the Thin Man, Nora sits at her dressing table and asks Nick to pick out a dress for her to wear that day. He holds up a filmy thing, declaring it his favorite. She tells him it’s a nightgown. “It’s still my favorite,” he says without missing a beat. The suggestion is that Nick and Nora have always had, and continue to have, a firecracker of a sex life, one that may have changed over the years, but that has never withered or soured.
In a scene in The Thin Man Goes Home (the best of the sequels), Nick and Nora’s intimate life is alluded to in a moment that’s both breezy and thrillingly erotic: The two are visiting Nick’s parents in the small town he left years ago. Nick lounges in a hammock; Nora has tried to set up a lawn chair nearby, but it keeps collapsing, ultimately with her in it. The two fall together on the lawn, laughing, and Nick leans over to kiss and nuzzle Nora, covering her body with his own.
It’s a moment that’s at once hilarious and electric; it’s also interrupted by Nick’s elderly mom (played by Lucile Watson), who appears at the door, calling sharply, “Children!” The grand but subtle joke that wends through every movie in the Thin Man series is that as sophisticated and worldly as Nick and Nora are, nothing delights them more than the act of discovering each other again and again. As the series progresses, we watch as they grow older, though no less attractive: Nick gets a tad thicker through the waist, but he always sports that mustache groomed into elegant little points, like the peaked roof of a pagoda. Nora may wear a few more practical, mom-like tailored dresses, but she never loses her taste for silky dressing gowns. They’re the grownups we all want to be, without being anything so boring as adult.
The Complete Thin Man Collection. (Warner Home Video), $59.92.