“Return of the Thin Man” is a peculiar and rather revealing hybrid of a book. It’s advertised as containing two novellas, the last extended prose fiction Dashiell Hammett produced. What we find between the covers are hardly novellas. Instead we have two film treatments, no more than sketches really with extended patches of dialogue along with some scene setting. These treatments eventually found their way to the films “After the Thin Man” (1936) and “Another Thin Man (1939).”
As a throwaway bonus, we get an eight-page treatment for an unproduced “Sequel to the Thin Man,” a project all involved were thoroughly sick of. The movies, “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man” still circulate, occupying obscure time slots on TCM.
The popular success of the “Thin Man” novel got turned in a matter of months into an even more popular film. In the early ’30s, talkies were new and Hollywood needed talk. Hammett’s great gift was dialogue that had the slang and mood of the times right. He produced lines with snap and sparkle quite easily when he set his mind to it. Piggy-backing on the success of the original “Thin Man” movie, Hammett went to Hollywood seduced by the money and flattered by his celebrity.
The idea was to turn the “Thin Man” into a franchise. For a period of about four years from 1934 to about 1938 Hammett shuttled by train – New York to Hollywood and back to New York, often to dry out between writing stints. While in Hollywood Hammett drank a lot and repeatedly bit the hand of MGM that was feeding him.
The two treatments between the covers here are finally inconsequential piffle, however charming the conception of Nick and Nora Charles, however cute the wirehair terrier Asta. We get idle, perpetually tipsy banter even while a corpse is underfoot. If the screen treatments are of little intrinsic interest, the multiple introductions, forewords and afterwords, by Richard Layman (Hammett’s biographer and executor of Hammett’s literary estate) and Julie M. Rivett (Hammett’s granddaughter) reach beyond merely keeping the flame alive and filling out Hammett’s literary canon. The ancillary material gives one far more to chew on than do the screen treatments themselves.
Richard Layman’s introduction lays out in granular detail the process of Hammett’s haggling with MGM over contract provisions, deadlines, script changes and always money and money and money. The studio bosses do not come off particularly well but neither does Hammett. He was quarrelsome, an unreliable alcoholic, sometimes working dutifully, other times going off on benders and partying ferociously.
For the general reader Layman’s introduction is reminiscent of those excruciating civics classes in middle school with the teacher droning on about “how a bill becomes a law,” while the boy in the back of the class day-dreams about little Susie in the next row just starting to fill out her sweater. For the specialist and the aficionado the back-story evoked by the ancillary material is revealing and quite provocative.
Hammett in Hollywood loved the people, his fellow writers and the stars and celebrities he partied with. He hated the studio system and he understood that the script treatments he turned out for MGM were finally hackwork for hire. He was restless and often bored. But above all, he loved the money and he was paid lots of it. Finally in 1937 Hammett decided that enough was enough. He sold MGM all the rights in perpetuity to the franchise figures of Nick and Nora Charles and Asta for $40,000 (about $625,000 in today’s dollars). The project of turning The Thin Man into a franchise lost its charm. At the end of his introduction, Layman tells us “Hammett never looked back. There is no record of his having even viewed the late Thin Man movies.” Like Flitcraft in “The Maltese Falcon” he simply walks out of one kind of life and assumes another.
Hammett stopped writing fiction and spent the last quarter century of his life advocating left wing causes. For a while he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He was instrumental in the formation of the Screen Writers Guild and like the more famous members of the Screen Actors Guild he was hounded for decades by congressional committees and the federal courts to name names. For his trouble in not betraying colleagues and comrades he ended up doing actual jail time. Not much really, six months. But as he writes his longtime mistress Lillian Hellman, he spent the time constructively — cleaning toilets.
Insofar as Hammett is remembered now as culturally important, it’s in consequence of his signature creation of the hard-boiled private eye. (Of course the credit goes as well to Raymond Chandler.) What Hammett created was brought to life in the movies of Humphrey Bogart, starting with the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon.“
“The Maltese Falcon” has an entirely new and different texture in hard-edged contrast to “The Thin Man.” “The Thin Man” still looks like a ’30s film: people in tuxedos and evening gowns swanking around formal dinner parties and drinking a good deal. In “The Maltese Falcon” the tuxedos are gone (with the exception of Peter Lorre’s inimitable Joel Cairo and his lavender-scented hankie). Instead what we get feels quite new. In an early sequence where Bogart is awakened by a phone call, before we see the phone being answered the camera lingers by the windowsill. A breeze off the Pacific wafts in, stirring the curtain. We get atmospherics just before we get action. The phone rings and Bogart wades into the world of what has come to be called film noir: skullduggery in the dark alley, low-key, high-contrast lighting, a manner and an attitude we recognize instantly.
More importantly, “The Maltese Falcon” inaugurates Bogart’s darkly luminous performance style. He’s become the archetype and prototype of every cop figure with a troubled past. Descendants are too many to count. But one example can suffice: In George Pelecanos’ “Hard Revolution” (2005) Derek Strange is a black ex-cop now working as a private eye, always traveling those ruined streets of Washington, D.C., where tourists are afraid to go.
Beyond that of the tough guy PI, Bogart’s image is that of a free-standing international icon: Recall Godard’s “Breathless” (1960): Jean-Paul Belmondo, a small time unsuccessful Parisian hood, pauses before a movie poster of Bogart. Belmondo draws a finger across his lip and murmurs reverently … ”Bogie.”
Return of the Thin Man
By Dashiell Hammett
256 pages. $25
Stefan Fleischer is a former University at Buffalo English professor now living in Houston.