Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Thin Man (1934)

WHO: Dashiell Hammett wrote the novel this was based upon, first published in six consecutive issues of Redbook magazine in 1933 and early 1934.

WHAT: The Thin Man is one of those classic Hollywood movies that has little to no formal notability, but that stands out from the sea of studio-system potboilers by dint of character and tone. Its central characters are a married couple: a retired detective (William Powell) and his equally sleuth-like wife (Myrna Loy). Their marriage is one of the screen's most unique and beloved, for reasons that Brian Eggert gets into very well:
Nick and Nora’s blissful union is a rarity for onscreen marriages, even more so upon the film’s release in 1934, just two years after the end of Prohibition. Cinemas were filled with morality tales, further restricted by the recently established Production Code. But Nick and Nora’s penchant for drink isn’t represented as a kink in their marriage or a grand social problem; rather, it’s a social lubricant that greases the film’s funniest lines. A reporter asks Nick about the murder mystery: "Can't you tell us anything about the case?" and Nick replies, "Yes, it's putting me way behind in my drinking." Alcohol fuels their carefree party lifestyle, sustained by Nora’s moneyed background and Nick’s plan to live happily off his wife’s bank account. None of the usual insecurities apply—he’s comfortable with the fact that his wife’s the breadwinner, and her only complaint might be that her husband is less exciting when he’s not serving as a private detective.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Castro Theatre today at 3:00 and 7:00, and, presented as part of the thirteenth annual Noir City festival on January 19th at 2:00 and 7:00. Also at the Balboa Theatre January 22nd at 7:30 PM.

WHY: It's been almost two weeks since the Noir City XIII program was announced at an annual Christmas-themed screening at the Castro. With ten different holiday-connected mid-twentieth-century films screened in five Decembers, one might wonder if Noir City impresario Eddie Muller and his curatorial companion Anita Monga are running out of "noir" films appropriate to the occasion. And indeed, the "noir" elements to this year's pairing of O. Henry's Full House and The Curse of the Cat People were clearly outweighed by their seasonal elements. Three out of five of the O. Henry adaptations are winter-set, and one explicitly about Christmas, while only one contains a character we might expect to see in a "straight" noir- Richard Widmark's safecracker in "The Clarion Call", often cited as a reprise of his career-launching Tommy Udo character from Kiss of Death. Meanwhile The Curse of the Cat People, while a beautiful depiction of a family experiencing shifting seasons in New England, resists all classification usually attempted on it, whether as a horror picture, a sequel, or as Muller noted from the stage in his introduction, a B-movie; it wears the "noir" label no more comfortably.

So it's a bit of a surprise to see a Yuletime-set detective film like The Thin Man programmed as part of Noir City's main event in January, knowing it could've been "saved up" for a future December showing. I'm guessing it's also unprecedented for a Noir City selection to be shown so shortly after a Castro booking arranged by the "regular" venue programming team headed up by Keith Arnold. But there's surely a reason or two why The Thin Man simply had to be screened at this year's edition of Noir City and I'm here to tease out some possible culprits. 

First, The Thin Man has never screened at a Noir City festival before, not even at the daylong Dashiell Hammett tribute in 2012. What better year for it to make its debut than a year in which the festival theme is "'Til Death Do Us Part"? In the midst of a week and a half of nearly two dozen films celebrating some of the worst marriages in cinema history, it may be necessary to have a day set aside for perhaps the most memorably positive matrimonial depiction dreamed up by Hollywood. Contra the information in the first sentence of the last paragraph of this preview article, Muller and Monga have placed The Thin Man a third of the way into the festival, timed perfectly as a breather after a weekend of infidelities, murders, and other impediments to wedded bliss. 

Second, The Thin Man and especially its double-bill-mate sequel After the Thin Man fit snugly into a sub-theme running through much of this year's festival: San Francisco. After last year's international noir celebration in which almost all of the 27 films shown were set (and often shot) abroad, it was a natural to make Noir City XIII a real homecoming, with more films made in or about Northern California than any festival since 2003's inaugural edition. The festival kicks January 16th off with the big discovery from that festival, Woman on the Run, which I expect will permanently solidify its place in the canon of San Francisco noirs with this newly-premiering restoration funded by the Film Noir Foundation (and Noir City ticket sales). Also on that bill is the 1950 Nick Ray film Born To Be Bad, which is set in San Francisco but, unlike Woman on the Run, was not filmed here. Other films that either a) were set partially in San Francisco, Monterey, or otherwise north of the San Luis Obispo county line, b) were at least in part filmed in this region, or c) both, include both halves of the January 17 Joan Fontaine matinee of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and Ida Lupino's The Bigamist, of the can't-miss January 21 Barbara Stanwyck pairing of Clash By Night and Crime of Passion, and, I'm told, the January 24th Doris Day noir Julie. There may be other San Francisco connections throughout the festival (I've been clued in that my hometown somehow figures into another Stanwyck selection I've yet to see for myself called No Man of Her Own). The Thin Man's protagonists are, like Hammett himself, San Francisco residents, but in the original film the action is all in New York City, where they are vacationing. It's not until After the Thin Man that they return home and we get to see unprocessed shots of William Powell and Myrna Loy walking up Telegraph Hill and driving down Market Street.

Finallly, for the first time since 2006 the Noir City festival will be held during the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, meaning that unlike in recent years in which Monday night selections were often obscurities aimed at hardcore noir-heads, it makes sense to program a famous, crowd-pleasing title on a day which many potential attendees will be able to attend as a weekday matinee if they prefer that to evening showings. And those who might wish the Castro was screening films that wrangle with issues of civil rights and the ideals of Dr. King on his honorary day may at least approve that The Thin Man was shot by pioneering Asian-American cinematographer James Wong Howe, and that some of its key creators like Hammett and Loy were involved as white allies in civil rights struggles. But though Noir City has in the past hosted an "African-American noir" night, and even once planned to bring Harry Belafonte to town for screenings of Odds Against Tomorrow and Kansas City (he sent his regrets over video instead), the first few early years of the festival never involved thematic programs on the MLK holiday itself, and this year's programming above all continues that pattern.

HOW: Todays screening of The Thin Man is on a double-bill with a Marx Brothers comedy that I probably wouldn't want to see on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, A Day at the Races. Both films screen in 35mm.

The format for next month's Noir City screening of The Thin Man has not yet been revealed on the program website, nor via the reliable Bay Area Film Calendar. Curiously, only six of the twenty-five Noir City XIII film titles are listed on the Film Noir Foundation website as involving 35mm film: Woman on the Run and its fellow FNF restoration The Guilty, an archival print of Born to Be Bad, and restorations of The Bigamist, Douglas Sirk's Sleep, My Love, and the Max Ophüls masterpiece Caught. It's too early to read too much into this, as there are plenty of reasons why it might be so (including an uncharacteristic sloppiness on the part of designers). 

Perhaps these six prints are merely the ones with the most interesting pedigrees; other films in the program might be 35mm but simple release prints and not archival or restorations. It's also possible that these six are the only ones confirmed as 35mm, and that other formats are up in the air at this time, although it would surprise me to find out that rarities like, say, Joseph Losey's The Sleeping Tiger (part of an "American expatriate directors in Britain" night Jan. 22) or Luchino Visconti's career-launching James M. Cain adaptation Ossessione (screening with Les Diabolique Jan. 24 as an extension of last year's international noir foray) might be available in both high-quality 35mm and digital versions. But it's perhaps preferable to leave a format unannounced than to announce a 35mm print that might turn out not to appear (like the Castro did when listing this Sunday's Age of Innocence screening as 35mm on its "coming soon" page, only for it to become DCP when the actual January calendar was published). The possibility that the six mentioned titles will be the only ones screened on 35mm in the whole festival would be a rude shock for the many celluloid-loyal dwellers of Noir City's alleyways, but seems highly doubtful if only for the fact that a 35mm print of one of the other nineteen films on the program, The Thin Man, is screening today at the very same venue, if under a different aegis.

I believe the Balboa Theatre screening of The Thin Man will be digital, as the series of classics the venue is presenting is made up entirely of movies available via DCP. But the Balboa does retain 35mm capability and occasionally utilizes it, so it would be best to double-check the Bay Area Film Calendar shortly before the show date to see if it appears on it. If it does, expect a print after all.

UPDATE January 1, 2015: According to the Film On Film Foundation all Noir City screenings but one (No Man of Her Own on Friday, January 23) are expected to screen in 35mm, including The Thin Man!

1 comment:

  1. Nice anticipatory round-up, as ever, Brian. See you at NC.