Classic Scene: ‘Dinner Party’

The Dinner Party

The Thing Man (1934)

Directed by WS Van Dyke

The Scene: Former detective and current member of the alcohol-guzzling idle rich, Nick Charles has finally discovered what has happened to Clyde Wynant, the “Thin Man” who has gone missing. An ordinary person would naturally go to the police with this information, but Nick and his wife Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) have made it abundantly clear they are not ordinary people. With the help of an old police buddy, theyscenecvr invite all the suspects to a black-tie dinner party. For an added bit of muscle, a number of ex-cons and other unsavory characters he is acquainted with from his days on the police force are masquerading as the wait staff should things go south. Here with everyone gathered together, Nick drops the bombshell that the Thin Man is not on the run, but has in fact been murdered and the murderer is at the table with them. In a frantic pace he goes through each person seated at the table and establishes the evidence which points to them. Thanks to the big mouth of Wynant’s ex-wife, Nick knows she is at least in cahoots with the killer. As he points out everyone else who has worked with this unknown assassin has ended up dead, he challenged what she thought her chances would be. The sleuth ramps up the heat on the ex  filling the air with tension. All along under the table we see one of the diners is armed and their hands are tightening over the gun. In the quickest of instances, Wynant’s old business partner, the last person suspected, leaps up to shoot Nick who deftly takes his gun and knocks him out, revealing to everyone the identity of the killer.

The Deconstruction: Every good mystery needs the moment of the big reveal, and the Thin Man had one of the most memorable in movie history. What sets this one apart from so many others however, is the fact that the brilliant detective does not quite have all the answers just yet. He is so very close to figuring things out, he just needs to be surrounded by everyone involved in the case to talk through every detail until he eventually arrives at his conclusion. Actor William Powell agonized over the amount of dialogue he was forced to memorize because with the exception of others occasionally chiming in (including Myrna Loy as Nora throwing in her share of quips) it was all on him to carry the scene. With the rapid fire delivery he had established throughout the flick, he had to analyze every detail of the case while cracking jokes and keeping the audience entertained. While filming the Thin Man, director WS Van Dyke trusted his actors enough to deliver what he wanted in as few takes as possible. There were even scenes between leads, William Powell and Myrna Loy, where he felt their chemistry was so spot on that they nailed it on the first take. However during the famed dinner party, multiple takes were required to get everything right. When recounting this scene, Myrna Loy would discuss how under the heat of the stage lighting the oysters on the table began to putrefy and rot. She declared that it was a very long time after making the Thin Man before many of the actors would go near oysters again.

Best Bit: Naturally in a movie built so heavily on the chemistry and witty banter between it’s two stars Nora is not going to keep her mouth shut too long while her husband plays brilliant detective. Her quips while he is going through his routine during this tense but entertaining scene are brilliantly written and delivered perfectly by Myrna Loy.