The Thin Man (1934): James Wong Howe’s Noir Counterpoint

When director W.S. Van Dyke commissioned a screenplay from Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man, a throw-away story about a retired gumshoe drawn back into the business to investigate a series of murders in NYC, he asked for a comic script.  He got an enjoyable if innocuous screwball comedy playing on the dick, Nick Charles, being married to a wealthy dame, both of them being lushes, and having an eccentric mutt.

The casting is perfect with William Powell as Nick and the saucy Myrna Loy playing Nora his better-half.  The mutt is played by a wire fox terrier called Asta – think ‘Eddie’ from TV’s Frasier. A frothy mix of mystery, sleuthing, and wry banter delivers a diverting movie which has you smiling if not laughing.

DP James Wong Howe is integral to sustaining interest. While the comic antics are fun and add spritz to a weak story, and true both leads are delightful, it is the darkly lit mystery scenes set-up by Howe that impress cinematically. It is of course hard to delineate where the DP’s contribution starts and ends, though I would venture to say that with a less talented DP I doubt there would have been the same fluid camera work and darkly expressionist counterpoint that sustains the narrative.

Some  additional frames from the movie to support my case:



6 thoughts on “The Thin Man (1934): James Wong Howe’s Noir Counterpoint”

  1. Excellent addition here to THE THIN MAN literature by insightfully bringing in the work of an exceptional director of photography, one who worked with both deep-focus and wide-angle, and who was nicknamed “low key” by his peers, not for his personality, but for his arresting employment of dramatic lighting and deep shadow. This was of course most evident in THE THIN MAN as you astutely note here, and it almost seems Wong Howe is taken for granted, what with the weak to average story being carried along by the chemistry of the leads and the famed screwball humor. Wong Howe’s most notable achievements in a distinguished career include: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, KING’S ROW, BODY AND SOUL, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, HUD, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, PINIC, THE ROSE TATTOO, and THE MOLLY MAGUIRES. The last film named here features a scene where Wong Howe films by candlelight.

    Splendid, pointed review here!


  2. Hi, Tony. It’s been a long time, but I wanted to say hello and extend my apologies after some bumpy dialogue a few years ago. I’d like to go on the record as saying that my insecurities at the time led me to overcompensating, in turn leading to poor communication and an unproductive attitude. All that to say: my fault. I’d be grateful for your forgiveness. We may have different styles of analysis and different audiences for our writing, but there’s no reason for that to create arrogance or, as you once said, hubris. Again, I’m sorry for my insensitivity. All the best to you.


    1. No worries Zach. I have visited PBF from time to time and I am always impressed with your writing and your ongoing commitment. A pleasant surprise in an otherwise shitty day 🙂 Tony


  3. I love the breathtaking beauty of James Wong Howe’s photography in ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ What he has accomplished in ‘The Thin Man’ shows he’s a diverse talent, and seems to feel as much as home in noir as in any other genre. This is a vital addition.


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