Nick-n-Nora-Charles

Nick and Nora Charles are fictional characters – a married couple who solve murder mysteries while exchanging sharp and witty repartee – in Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Thin Man”.

The characters later appeared in a highly successful series of movies between 1934 and 1947, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Radio adaptations were heard from 1941 to 1950, and television from 1957 through 1959. They also featured in a Broadway musical in 1991, and as a stage play in 2009.

Nick and Nora have become a model for the bantering, romantically involved detective duo, as seen in other literature and broadcast media.

“The Thin Man”

“The Thin Man” (1934) is a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in Redbook.

The story is set in Prohibition-era New York City. The main characters are a former private detective, Nick Charles, and his clever young wife, Nora.

Charles is drawn (mostly against his will) into investigating a murder. The case brings Nick and Nora into contact with the Wynants, an eccentric and rather grotesque family, and with an assortment of policemen and lowlifes.

The “Thin Man” title actually refers to Clyde Wynant, the mysterious and eccentric patriarch who is the pivotal figure of the plot.

A skeletonized body, found during the investigation, had been assumed to be that of a “fat man”, having been found in clothing from a much heavier individual. This clothing is discovered to be a diversion, and the identity of the body is finally revealed as that of a particular “thin man” instead – the missing Wynant.

The murder has been disguised as a means to frame Wynant, by people who have stolen a great deal of his money, then killed him, on the night he was last seen.

The novel is considered one of the seminal books of the “hard-boiled” sub-genre of mystery novels. Think Sam Spade (a Hammett creation), Phillip Marlowe, or Mike Hammer. But Hammett imbued this work with a touch of lightness and humor.

The story tumbles along to the sarcastic banter of the Charleses, as a reluctant and jaded Nick is dragged into solving the sensational murder, cheered on by the fascinated and thrill-seeking Nora.

The Not-so-Thin Man

Described in the novel as overweight and out of shape, Nick Charles (born Nick Charalambides, the son of a Greek immigrant) is an alcoholic former private detective and Pinkerton agent.

Nick is something of a celebrity among the criminal classes and those who associate with them (such as police, athletes, nightclub owners, etc.).

In the book, Nick retired when he married Nora, a wealthy Nob Hill heiress.

In the cinematic version, Charles is portrayed by the slim actor William Powell. This inevitably led the movie-going public to equate the Thin Man of the title with the film’s leading man. This association persisted through five sequels.

Here’s a trailer for the 1934 production, courtesy of YouTube:

The movies also rebadged Nick’s immigrant roots, making him the black sheep of a respectable WASP dynasty, from the fictional small town of Sycamore Springs in upstate New York. He turned his back on the family profession of medicine because of his passion for detective work.

The couple’s dog Asta – a female schnauzer, in the book – became a male wire fox terrier, for the movies.

Later, a child, Nick Jr., was added.

The Sparkling Lady

In the movies, Nora was portrayed by Myrna Loy. The films fleshed out her life story from the book version, considerably.

Nora is revealed to be the sole child of a deceased mining magnate from San Francisco. Now diversified into lumber, railroads, and such, Nora’s fortune is apparently vast, and is managed for the couple by her father’s former partner who lives in an estate on Long Island’s North Shore “Gold Coast”.

Nora is also seen to have a network of blue-blood relatives and friends in San Francisco society.

A lady with money to burn, and a nose for intrigue and adventure.

Good thing she married a detective.

The Chemistry

Those who knew the author maintain that the relationship between Nick and Nora closely mirrors that shared by Dashiell Hammett (himself a former Pinkerton detective, like Nick Charles) and his long-time partner, the playwright Lillian Hellman.

Sharp and witty, on the printed page, the Charleses went even further, on the screen.

The on-screen chemistry between Powell and Loy, who often improvised on the set, became a defining feature of the characters. And a key to the wild success of the series.

The films revolutionized the screen portrayal of marriage, which had previously been earnest, virtuous, and staid. They enlivened the institution with youth, irreverence, and sex appeal.

So strongly were Powell and Loy identified with the characters of Nick and Nora in the public mind, that many mistakenly assumed the actors were a couple in real life as well.

Much of that onscreen chemistry derived from fluids – alcohol, in particular.

Prohibition notwithstanding. Or Nick’s rehab, for that matter.

The Charleses would quip their way through murder investigations, swigging huge amounts of illegal hooch at home or various speakeasies.

Engaging in warm and witty banter, the whole time.

Some of that Banter…

Courtesy of YouTube. Some witty lines from the “Thin Man” series of movies:

Their Legacy

Nick and Nora set the standard, for romantically involved detective couples, to come.

Remember “Hart to Hart”?

Millionaires, Jonathan and Jennifer (Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers)?

Detective show, back in the early ’80s. A literal attempt to recreate the magic of Nick and Nora in a contemporary (well; then) setting.
Even down to the froofy little dog.

Successful enough, in its way. But nowhere near the originals.

Following the success of the movie version of “The Thin Man” in 1934, Dashiell Hammett was commissioned to work on screenplays for “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”.

There were five sequels, in all:

After the Thin Man (1936)
Another Thin Man (1939)
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)
Song of the Thin Man (1947)

With radio and TV adaptations, stage plays, and a musical, in later years.

Rumors have been flying for a while about a reboot of the franchise, with Johnny Depp as Nick Charles. So far, no sign of it.

If they do go ahead, let’s hope they steer clear of anyone involved in the production of “The Lone Ranger”…

Hmm.

Time for me to ride off, into the sunset.

And get a drink.

Till next time.

Peace.

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