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 the Tribune,” 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.”
And Pauline Kael’s blurb:
Directed by the whirl-wind W.S. Van Dyke, the Dashiell Hammett detective novel took only 16 days to film, and the result was one of the most popular pictures of its era. New audiences aren’t likely to find it as sparkling as the public did then, because new audiences aren’t fed up, as that public was, with what the picture broke away from. It started a new cycle in screen entertainment (as well as a Thin Man series, and later, a TV series and countless TV imitations) by demonstrating that a murder mystery could also be a sophisticated screwball comedy. And it turned several decades of movies upside down by showing a suave man of the world (William Powell) who made love to his own rich, funny, and good-humored wife (Myrna Loy); as Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Loy startled and delighted the country by their heavy drinking (without remorse) and unconventional diversions. In one scene Nick takes the air-gun his complaisant wife has just given him for Christmas and shoots the baubles off the Christmas tree. (In the ’70s Lillian Hellman, who by then had written about her long relationship with Hammett, reported that Nora was based on her.) A married couple, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, wrote the script; James Wong Howe was the cinematographer. The cast includes the lovely Maureen O’Sullivan (not wildly talented here), the thoroughly depressing Minna Gombell (her nagging voice always hangs in the air), and Cesar Romero, Porter Hall, Harold Huber, Edward Brophy, Nat Pendleton, Edward Ellis (in the title role), and a famous wirehaired terrier, called Asta here. Warning: There’s a lot of plot exposition and by modern standards the storytelling is very leisurely. Produced by Hunt Stromberg, for MGM.
It’s the most cheerful drinking movie ever and one that is still a pure joy.
Once in a while, of course, someone really gets it right. Once in a while there’s a movie that takes a book, slaps it on the big screen, and works like a charm even as it reflects the writer’s vision. The most vivid recent example would be the Coens’ remake of True Grit. I’d read the Charles Portis novel first, then saw and enjoyed the Henry Hathaway film with John Wayne and Kim Darby. It wasn’t the book, but I thought it was a pretty good movie.
But the Coen brothers went back to Portis’s book, and took the revolutionary step of putting that story on the screen, using his scenes and dialogue pretty much as written. And blew the earlier picture out of the water.
Oddly, something very similar happened seventy years ago. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon succeeded so utterly that not many of us realize it was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. (The 1931 version starred Ricardo Cortez; the 1936 remake, called Satan Met a Lady, had Alison Skipworth playing the Sydney Greenstreet role.)
It’s also not widely known that Hammett deliberately wrote the book in the form of a prose screenplay, with nothing on the page that couldn’t be shown or spoken on the screen. It was his notion that movies were the future, that writers were best advised to write books that could be filmed, and that the ideal tactic would be to do the screenwriters’ work for them while writing the book. After this was conveniently overlooked by two sets of filmmakers, Huston did what should have been done in the first place, and put Hammett’s lines, essentially verbatim, in the mouths of the perfect cast. There’s a reason the film gets better every time you see it.
Amen, to that. It’s a near perfect movie.