Cocktails, comedy, and crime make a mix that'll go right to your head.
Above, a fantastic Czech poster for the 1934 romantic comedy-murder mystery The Thin Man, which there was titled Detektiv Nick v New Yorku. This is a photo-illustration, rather than the paintings we love, but it's still, in our book, as good as promo art gets. As far as the film goes, like Casablanca or Chinatown, there's no way to overrate it. Some of the humor is so modern that you'll have trouble believing it was made almost a century ago and wasn't cribbed from an episode of Friends or Seinfeld. Just goes to show that in the infinity of time we don't change as quickly as we think.
We adore the boozing party animals at the center of this tour de force—Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy—whose drunken interactions could easily be the inspiration for Jim and Jules of the hilarious television show Brockmire. Credit the director, actors, editors, and everyone else for this masterpiece, but give the biggest nod to Dashiell Hammett, who wrote the excellent source novel. There's no release date for Detektiv Nick v New Yorku in Czechoslovakia, but figure spring or early summer of 1935.
Nick and Nora Charles—never shaken, never stirred, and almost never sober.
1934's The Thin Man is what we like to think of of a palate cleanser. After reading a few less accomplished authors you grab a Hammett because you know he's great. It's pure fun following functional alcoholic Nick Charles and his equally hard drinking young wife Nora as they navigate deception and murder. How much do Nick and Nora Charles drink? At one point Nick wakes up feeling terrible and realizes it's because he'd gone to bed sober. Several cocktail sessions a day is about average. Maybe that's why danger doesn't faze them. Even being shot at is reason for a libation and a quip.
This edition of The Thin Man is a rare one. It's the Pocket Books paperback from 1945, with the type of art that was prevalent on paperbacks during the heyday of pulp. We can't tell you much about the book that hasn't already been written, including the fact that it's less a mystery than a comedy of manners, but there is one aspect that's rarely commented upon. Nick Charles is of Greek descent. His full last name is Charalambides. This was the ’30s, when there was open racism in the U.S. against Greeks. James M. Cain delves into this in The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which the Greek character Nick Papadakis is insulted behind his back and set apart as a non-white inferior.
So in The Thin Man Hammett was portraying Nick Charles not as the upper crust dilettante William Powell made famous in the film version, but as a tough guy outsider. People are a bit afraid of him. Filmgoers were definitely not afraid of pencil mustached William Powell. Hammett wanted the written Charles to possess street cred, to be a person who had been places and seen things others had not. Hammett was going for a different type of detective in more ways than merely his drinking habits. Charles' maverick role is just a little extra flavor in an already entertaining novel. The actual mystery is difficult to follow, but even so we highly recommend this if you haven't read it.
The most important safety precaution is to make sure the chamber on this baby is empty, or else disaster can—BANG!
The U.K. imprint Panther Books had some tasty covers during the mid-1950s, including this pretty effort by John Vernon for Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. We gave it a read and it involves Hammett's recurring character, a Continental Detective Agency operative, aka the Continental Op, being hired by a newspaper publisher who turns up dead before the two can meet. The subsequent investigation lifts the lid on corruption in a small town called Personville—but which locals call Poisonville. Hammett was a very solid genre author, with a spare, raw style, like this, from chapter seven:
It was half-past five. I walked around a few blocks until I came to an unlighted electric sign that said Hotel Crawford, climbed a flight of steps to the second floor office, registered, left a call for ten o'clock, was shown into a shabby room, moved some of the Scotch from my flask into my stomach, and took old Elihu's ten-thousand dollar check and my gun to bed with me.
After reading dozens of other (still very entertaining) authors since we last hefted a Hammett it was good to be reminded just how efficiently brutal he was. While the story is spiced up by a wisecracking femme fatale named Dinah Brand, the main element in Red Harvest is violence—a storm of it. By the end of the bloody reaping there are more than twenty five killings, as one player after another is knocked off. We rate Red Harvest the most lethal detective novel we've ever read. It was first published in 1929, with the above edition appearing in 1958.
I hear the falcon is nice and all, but darlin’, these ankle strap pumps of yours are to die for.
Of the many covers for Dashiell Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon, this version painted by Stanley Meltzoff is one of our favorites. It’s from 1945 and is a dust sleeve for a paperback, a rarity that explains why it goes for $100 and up, generally. We’ve even seen it listed for $250. Beneath the Meltzoff sleeve is a cover by Leo Manso, the famed collagist and abstract artist, which he first painted for the 1944 paperback edition. You can see an example of that here. The Meltzoff sleeve was supposedly controversial at the time due to the Brigid O’Shaughnessy character removing her bra. We didn’t notice that at first, to tell you the truth—our eyes moved right to that triangle of darkness where we see Sam Spade’s hands as he assesses a pair of red pumps. Lovingly, we think. Almost like he wants to keep them. Or are we reading too much into this one?
It may be the second version but it’s first rate.
Above is French poster art for La Clé de verre, aka The Glass Key, the second Hollywood adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s 1931 novel. We’ve shared other Glass Key materials, but never talked about the film. Suffice to say this Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake vehicle is excellent—much better than This Gun for Hire, which starred the same beautiful pair (Ladd and Lake appeared together in seven movies). Complicated, engrossing, and liberally spiced with excellent action and Hammett’s wit chanelled through Jonathan Latimer's screenplay—“My first wife was a second cook at a third rate joint on Fourth Street”—The Glass Key is mandatory viewing. It’s also interesting for its cynical look at American politics, portrayed as corrupt, built on lies, and fueled by legalized bribery. That much hasn’t changed. The first Glass Key was made in 1935 with George Raft in the lead, but this remake from 1942 is the one to watch. Its French premiere, delayed for years due to World War II and its aftermath, was today in 1948.
Always digging up trouble.
We really like this 1944 Dell paperback cover for Dashiell Hammett’s A Man Called Spade. The book contains three Sam Spade stories, plus two other tales. The art is by Gerald Gregg, an illustrator who avoided titillation in his work. While some of his pieces don’t catch the eye the way typical good girl art did, certain pieces—like this one—are really good. The map back by Ruth Belew and four-page Introduction “Meet Sam Spade” by Ellery Queen make this edition highly collectible.
Way down Argentine way Bogart fronts the era’s definitive detective novel.
Leoplán was an Argentine magazine published by Ramón Sopena’s eponymous company Editorial Sopena from 1934 to 1965. This issue features a complete Spanish language reprint of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and is fronted by a nice Manuel Olivas painting of Humphrey Bogart and the bird. It’s from 1949.
Glass Key paperback art is tops thanks to another Italian master.
Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake’s film noir The Glass Key, which was Hollywood’s second try at Dashiell Hammett’s novel, premiered this month in 1942. To be exact, it opened yesterday in New York City and throughout the U.S. on October 23. The poster most often seen online is the theatrical release version we showed you several years ago, but alternates were produced and two of them appear below. What we really wanted to share, though, is this great paperback cover from UK-based Digit Books. It’s from 1961 and features the art of Italian illustrator Enrico de Seta, who we’ve mentioned before. If you haven’t watched The Glass Key we recommend it, and if you haven’t read the book, just know that it was Hammett’s personal favorite.
She wore an off-the-shoulder organza, neatly accessorized with a .38.
There have been many covers for Dashiell Hammett’s great novel The Thin Man. This is one of the best..
Update: A reader sent in an email not long after we posted the above pointing out that the artist copied Robert Maguire's cover art for Jack Webb's The Brass Halo. Though not completely identical, it's fair to say the second artist more or less just changed the colors and reversed the image. In fact, maybe he just changed the colors, since the reversal could have been done during the pre-press process. There are many examples of copying out there. We even dedicated a previous post to it. We also shared a collection that featured one copy in a group of eight covers. With this third example we have a mind to dig into the phenomenon a bit more. We're really curious now who the copycats are. We'll get back to you later on it, assuming we find out anything. Thanks to Miga for writing in and locating the below image.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1989—Anti-Feminist Gunman Kills 14
In Montreal, Canada, at the École Polytechnique, a gunman shoots twenty-eight young women with a semi-automatic rifle, killing fourteen. The gunman claimed to be fighting feminism, which he believed had ruined his life. After the killings he turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
1933—Prohibition Ends in United States
Utah becomes the 36th U.S. state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, thus establishing the required 75% of states needed to overturn the 18th Amendment which had made the sale of alcohol illegal. But the criminal gangs that had gained power during Prohibition are now firmly established, and maintain an influence that continues unabated for decades.
1945—Flight 19 Vanishes without a Trace
During an overwater navigation training flight from Fort Lauderdale, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers lose radio contact with their base and vanish. The disappearance takes place in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
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