Armchair Cinephile 

This week's Truth About Charlie, based on 1963's Charade, harks back to a movie mode that mixed murder with flirtation, using well-scripted zingers as lubricant. Warner Bros. has just reissued the prototype for this genre, The Thin Man. Based on the Dashiell Hammett novel and starring one of Hollywood's most perfect couples, William Powell and Myrna Loy, the 1934 film was fresh enough to spawn five sequels and a TV series.

Whatever the virtues of Hammett's whodunnit plot, the film owes its popularity entirely to the chemistry between its stars, who play Nick and Nora Charles - he a retired detective, she an heiress, both of them unashamed alcoholics. (To be fair, their dog Asta should get a little credit.) When we meet Nick, he's lecturing bartenders on mixology, and rather than roll their eyes, the youngsters listen like pupils who know they'll never match him for highballs poured or swilled. Nick is recruited to solve a mystery, but spends most of the film avoiding the task. Between Nora, for whom sleuthing is a novelty, and the concerned parties who keep bursting in on him, he eventually has no alternative; if he's ever to have another undisturbed cocktail, he'd better put someone behind bars.

Director W.S. Van Dyke reportedly shot the film in 12 days, and it shows in pedestrian performances from the supporting cast; these auxiliary characters don't shine like the ones in the Raymond Chandler-based The Big Sleep. But Powell and Loy are on the screen plenty, and they sparkle with barbed banter and racy repartee - as dry as a perfect martini, and just as intoxicating.

More by John DeFore



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