Martinis & Wit: The Thin Man’s Enduring Effect on Cocktail Culture
Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 novel and its movie adaptation irrevocably changed the course of cocktail culture.
“The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”-Nick Charles
Over the past two decades, the revival of the cocktail has inspired bartenders and drinkers to rediscover a wealth of old recipes and techniques. It’s also roused an interest in the wonderfully boozy films and literature of the early 20th century, including the classic film series, The Thin Man.
The first film, which came out in 1934, features William Powell and Myrna Loy as the quick-witted, perpetually tipsy Nick and Nora Charles. The couple, who drink cocktails day and night and solve crimes at their leisure, offered an escape from the turmoil of daily life.
“I think you come for the ostensible mystery but what you leave with is really the story of a marriage,” says Howard A. Rodman, author of novel The Great Eastern, professor in the writing division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and artistic director of the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Labs. “Two people who are utterly delightful, mostly pixelated, at each other’s throats in the most charming way. I think Nick and Nora as a model for what a wondrously complex marriage might be like with a lot of cocktails, endures far longer.”
The movies were based on a book by Dashiell Hammett who is perhaps most well-known for his gritty, hard-boiled crime novels. From Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon to the Continental Op in Red Harvest, he tells the stories of multifaceted detectives who take on crime bosses and corrupt police forces in seedy parts of town while inevitably falling for a woman who’s mixed up in it all.
The Thin Man, his fifth and final published novel, was a real departure from the gritty, blood-soaked dramas he had written up to that point. It originally appeared as a story in the December, 1933, issue of Redbook Magazine—the same month the Volstead Act was repealed—The Thin Man’s title page warned audiences: “As hard-boiled and thrilling a murder-shocker as you’ve ever read—written by a man who was once a Pinkerton detective, and knows more about real murder than any other living writer.”
Set at the close of Prohibition in December, 1932, the story follows retired detective Nick Charles, his wealthy socialite wife, Nora, and their trusty dog Asta as they—out of sheer boredom, morbid curiosity, and the insistence of a worried daughter—help solve the disappearance of the “screwy” and hot-tempered inventor Clyde Wynant and the murders that take place in his wake. (It was no coincidence that Nick, well-groomed with tailored suits and an endless supply of wit, was loosely modeled on Hammett’s life in New York and his relationship with famous playwright Lillian Hellman.)
Knopf published the work as a standalone novel less than a month later and MGM quickly acquired the rights for $21,000. That amount was a fortune given that the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. The studio tapped the legendary Hollywood screenwriting couple, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, to transform the book into a film, which included lightening the plot up just enough for its silver screen debut a few months later.
“The book is a little darker,” says Julie Rivett, Hammett’s granddaughter and trustee of his estate, adding that her grandfather was a political activist and was always deeply conscious of social and economic issues. “There are a couple of references to the Depression and there’s also this dark sexuality in it. It’s a little edgier than the movie. [Hollywood] scrubbed that out of it.”
It’s hard to deny the role cocktails play in the dynamic between Nick and Nora, as well as in subtly addressing some of the social issues of the time—including the country’s class hierarchy and the women’s lib movement.
“I think the fact that it comes out of Prohibition culture just made it a little bit naughtier, but it’s very clear from the book that no one took Prohibition seriously in that milieu,” says Rodman.
In the screenplay, Hammett, Hackett and Goodrich hardly wrote a scene that didn’t include some sort of drinking, beginning with Nick and Nora’s first appearance on screen.
The camera finds Nick Charles standing at the bar, giving the bartenders a lesson on shaking and uttering the now-famous line: “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”
He’s interrupted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of the missing Thin Man, who recognizes Nick from a case he helped her father with when she was young. He orders her a Martini and she implores him for help. As she leaves to make a phone call, Nora makes a grand—if somewhat unwieldy—entrance with their ornery wire fox terrier, Asta (who, it’s worth noting, also starred in a number of other films, including Bringing Up Baby).
Before long, the duo takes a seat at a table. Nick’s already six Martinis in—but that’s no problem: Nora requests five more Martinis (shaken to waltz time, of course) lined up right in front of her. The scene cuts out, and you next see her lying in bed with a hot water bottle strapped against her pin curls. Six Martinis was at least one too many. This introductory scene is likely why that smaller, slightly rounded Martini glass is now referred to as a Nick & Nora glass in craft cocktail bars around the world.
“I love that scene when Nora comes in and orders Martinis,” says Rivett. “She was kind of an early women’s lib figure. It was one of the first times on film where you have a woman who is a partner to her husband. She’s the one with the money and the social background and she’s standing up to him, standing up for herself. When you put that in the 1930s, that’s pretty revolutionary.” Especially when you consider that before Prohibition, proper ladies, like Nora, didn’t drink in bars.
The film also showcases a few of the other effects that the previous 13 dry years had on cocktail culture. For one thing, the best bartenders had either fled the United States to continue their craft abroad or changed careers altogether. That led drinkers like Nick and Nora to make drinks at home, which was a fairly new trend and caused a boom in the sale of cocktail shakers and bar tools. Drinkers also had to make do with whatever liquor they had been able to squirrel away before the Volstead Act went into effect or risk their lives by using bootleg bottles. As a result, many traditional techniques and historic recipes began to fade away.
“It’s already been bastardized—everything was in a shaker and it’s only 1934,” says Frank Caiafa, beverage director at The Stayton Room in The Lexington Hotel and author of The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book. Nick Charles “was just a reflection of the time and how proper methodology was already forgotten—Prohibition quickly wiped out the proper way to do things.”
And as is to be expected, cocktails now look different than they did 85 years ago when The Thin Man was released. For one, they were smaller, as you see every time Nick or Nora drinks a Martini.
“For the geeks out there, it’s worth mentioning the smaller cocktail glasses with two or two-and-a-half ounce builds,” says Caiafa. “I was looking up some of these cocktails and revisiting old recipes. Some of them only work that size—the Alaska comes to mind. I think two ounces is all you can take for it to be well balanced and remain cold enough.”
Charles certainly doesn’t have any problem with his cocktails and he drinks them throughout the movie, mirroring Hammett’s own capacity for booze. Amazingly, he never lags behind the conversation and always has the last laugh. On plenty of occasions throughout the film, Nick and Nora find themselves in situations when a well-timed cocktail provides a dose of levity. Nick gets shot? He throws back a Highball. The perp they’re questioning escapes? He helps himself to the bootleg booze on the table.
“I’m pretty good, but if I hit it like Nick Charles I’d have to take a nap by 2 o’clock,” admits Caiafa.
The Thin Man became a huge hit, but its rampant drinking, dirty jokes and all that followed were not lost on the Hollywood gatekeepers when it came to making sequels. Prohibition and its pitfalls were, for all intents and purposes, over, but the newly instituted Hays Code sought to prevent immoral behavior from being portrayed on screen.
“The very first movie came out when the production office codes had just been put in place, but they really hadn’t worked out the logistics of how they were going to be managed,” says Rivett. But soon the rules “became very systematic. There were changes to the later films, they were tempered by the Hays Code.”
After the second film, Hammett and his fellow writers hoped to end the Charles’ mystery solving adventures. So, the franchise’s second film, After the Thin Man, ends with Nora knitting a pair of baby socks.
The screenwriters “actually wanted to kill off Nick and Nora, so they’d never have to write another sequel, but MGM put their foot down,” says Rivett. So, they decided to give the couple a baby, which they thought would “quash the series. But it backfired because people wanted to see the baby.”
The franchise eventually ended 13 years later with a total of six films: The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) and Song of the Thin Man (1947).
According to Rivett, who in 2012 helped turn the screenplays of the second and third sequels into novellas, by the end of it all Hammett was fed up with his cocktail guzzling duo: “Later in his life he did call Nick and Nora ‘insufferably smug.’”
Despite the complicated relationship the author had with Nick and Nora, however, the couple has endured remarkably well and his legacy lives on through this wise-cracking duo. Today, they’re just as welcome an escape from daily life as they were nearly a century earlier, whether you’re watching the films or enjoying a Martini.
“I think when you go to a place like Musso & Frank, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year or any of the more contemporary takes on it, of course, you’re thinking about the Hammett generation and you’re invoking it,” says Rodman. “There was an undissolvable bond of putting your fingers on typewriter keys and the act of curling your fingers around the stem of a cocktail glass.”