American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he's saying. That's certainly the case in "The Thin Man" (1934), a murder mystery in which the murder and the mystery are insignificant compared to the personal styles of the actors. Powell and Myrna Loy co-star as Nick and Nora Charles, a retired detective and his rich wife, playfully in love and both always a little drunk.
Nick Charles drinks steadily throughout the movie, with the kind of capacity and wit that real drunks fondly hope to master. When we first see him, he's teaching a bartender how to mix drinks ("Have rhythm in your shaking ... a dry martini, you always shake to waltz time"). Nora enters and he hands her a drink. She asks how much he's had. "This will make six martinis," he says. She orders five more, to keep up.
Powell plays the character with a lyrical alcoholic slur that waxes and wanes but never topples either way into inebriation or sobriety. The drinks are the lubricant for dialogue of elegant wit and wicked timing, used by a character who is decadent on the surface but fundamentally brave and brilliant. After Nick and Nora face down an armed intruder in their apartment one night, they read about it in the morning papers. "I was shot twice in theTribune," Nick observes. "I read you were shot five times in the tabloids," says Nora. "It's not true," says Nick. "He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."
After a prologue set three months earlier, most of the movie takes place over the holiday season, including cocktail parties on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and the exposure of the killer at a dinner party sometime around New Years' Eve. The movie is based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, one of the fathers of noir, and it does technically provide clues, suspects and a solution to a series of murders, but in tone and intent it's more like an all-dialogue version of an Astaire and Rogers musical, with elegant people in luxury hotel penthouses and no hint of the Depression anywhere in sight.