SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" invented a new kind of crime fiction. It was hard-boiled, but also light-hearted, funny, with a hint of homicide. Nick and Nora Charles and Asta, their wire-haired terrier were rich, witty and in love, when America was in the middle of the Depression and often depressed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE THIN MAN")
SIMON: They also drank a lot - Nick and Nora, not Asta, though he got an occasional leftover slurp. "The Thin Man" was made into a popular motion picture, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and a wire-haired terrier, which spawned five sequels, including "After the Thin Man" and "Another Thin man." And although the screenwriting couple of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich usually completed the screenplays, the MGM studio needed the stories and characters that only Dashiell Hammett could write. Now, for the first time, the stories of "After the Thin Man" and "Another Thin Man" have been published as novellas - "The Return of the Thin Man." They have been edited and published by Richard Layman, who joins us now from the studios of SEETV in Columbia, South Carolina. Richard, thanks so much for being with us.
RICHARD LAYMAN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: Where have these stories been?
LAYMAN: They've been in my file cabinet since 1981 roughly. Before that, they were in the archives at the legal office of MGM in Culver City.
SIMON: Tell us about these writing contracts that Hammett would get from MGM. I don't know if that kind of thing is done any more in Hollywood.
LAYMAN: After "The Thin Man" was first produced in 1934 by MGM but it was a B-movie. It was done on a $250,000 budget, and MGM expected it to be just another of the, you know, six-week wonders that they routinely produced. In fact, the movie was a big success. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it made the studio a lot of money. So, they decided immediately that they needed a second story in the series. They didn't have the talent to do it in-house, they didn't believe, so they went to Hammett.
SIMON: Let's try and set this up, the story, 'cause once again in this story, Nick Charles and Nora have sworn off crime solving, but they come home to San Francisco, find a body and get dragged back in. What happens?
LAYMAN: Well, Nick Charles is always reluctantly pulled into a murder. This time, the murder has associations with Nora's family, so he can't back away from it.
SIMON: Let's hear a reading from "After the Thin Man."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) They arrive at the house and they go up the front steps. Nora: Last one in bed is a sissy. They run into the house pulling off clothes. From the living room to meet them come Asta and the reporters they left at the Hall of Justice, the reporters asking questions. The police suspect Mrs. Landis. What connections did Pedro Dominguez have with the Landis killing, etc., etc.? Nick insists he knows nothing about it and has nothing to say as they go back into the living room winding up with: I'm going to give you boys one drink apiece and then put you out. One of the reporters asks, well, answer another question for us and we won't print it if you don't want us to. Is it true that you actually didn't retire as a detective but are working undercover? Nick, starting to pour drinks: No, it's not true, but don't print it, because I don't want my wife's relatives to know that I'm living on her money.
SIMON: What do you learn by working with Hammett words about Hammett dialogue?
LAYMAN: Oh, Hammett was a master of dialogue and that was why it was so important to MGM. You know, when Hammett was first attracted to Hollywood, he heard the first talkie and he knew that the talents that he had were in demand in Hollywood, and indeed they were. You know, Hollywood had gone from a formula by which action advanced a plot in the days of the silent movies to a formula in which dialogue and character advanced the plot. And the two things that Hammett did superbly was develop character and write dialogue.
SIMON: Were the screenplays, the stories that he wrote, darker than the movies that got made out of them?
LAYMAN: In some respects, they were darker. But the big difference that you see between the Hammett story and the produced movie has to do with the drinking and the sexuality, but especially the sexuality. It was a time in which the Motion Picture Association had developed a code of decency. A character named Joseph Breen was the appointed censor. When he saw Hammett's scripts, he must have had fits of apoplexy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE THIN MAN")
SIMON: Nick Charles drank from morning to midnight and seemed to grow more charming and clever with each sip. Was that true of Dashiell Hammett?
LAYMAN: It was indeed. You know, there was a famous photo session of all of the former writers for Black Mask magazine. Raymond Chandler was also a Black Mask writer. And this photo that was made in, what, 1935, 1936, one of the only known photos of Hammett and Chandler together. Afterwards, Chandler wrote to someone saying that Hammett had had at least 12 drinks during the time that they worked together and didn't show the least effect from them.
SIMON: And so that's a quality with which he invested Nick Charles.
LAYMAN: Yes, it was. Nick Charles is, in many respects, like Hammett, just as Nora is, in many respects, like Hammett's girlfriend Lillian Hellman, to whom "The Thin Man," the published book, is dedicated.
SIMON: Why did the studio eventually get tired of Dashiell Hammett?
LAYMAN: The studio got tired of him for two reasons, I think. First of all, because of his, quote, "irregular habits."
SIMON: Irregular habits meant regular drinking.
LAYMAN: Regular drinking. He had a reputation for not showing up at the appointed time, often because he was drunk, sometimes because he had been out partying all night and just didn't feel like getting out of bed. But more important than that, Hammett was, at that time, becoming political active and he was involved in the Screenwriters Guild, a unionization effort of the screenwriters, to force the studios to give the writers credit and money for the work that they did.
SIMON: And he'd also been at least briefly a communist.
LAYMAN: No. It wasn't briefly - it was a long-term commitment. He was a member of the Communist Party, card-carrying. He apparently joined the party in about 1935, at about the time he was - just before the time he was writing after "After the Thin Man." And he remained a member of the party, you know, for the next, what, two decades.
SIMON: How did he grow to feel about this franchise that he'd created?
LAYMAN: I think he was fed up with Nick and Nora Charles. Not fed up - he was tired of them pretty early on and he was fed up with the studios for the exploitation of the characters that he saw. Just before he finished the last draft for "Another Thin Man," MGM bought all rights to the characters Nick and Nora Charles and Asta so that they could develop the series without him. They paid $40,000 for those character rights. And Hammett wrote to Lillian Hellman just after that: There may be better writers than I am, but nobody ever created a more insufferably smug set of characters than the Charleses, and they can't take that away from me, even for $40,000.
SIMON: Richard Layman. He's edited two stories by Dashiell Hammett, featuring the beloved characters, Nick and Nora Charles and the little dog Asta...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
SIMON: They're published under the title "The Return of the Thin Man." Richard, thanks so much for being with us.
LAYMAN: Thank you.