Friday, November 15, 2019

Past Misdeeds: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Sportsman and collector Archer Coe (Robert Barrat) dies in what at first looks like suicide to investigating Detective Heath (Eugene Pallette) and District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade), but amateur detective Philo Vance (William Powell, shortly before Nick met Nora) soon sets the two straight, for what we have here is a rather complicated case of murder that just happens to be a real locked room mystery, too.

Finding suspects is quite easy in this case, for Coe must have been the most hated, and surely the least pleasant, man in town. Possible suspects are (and I might forget one or two here, given their sheer number): Archer’s brother Brisbane (Frank Conroy), the kind of guy who carries around a book called “Unsolved Murders” when suspect in a murder investigation; Archer’s niece Hilda Lake (Mary Astor), terrorized by her uncle’s oh so cruel holding of the purse strings as well as by the fact that he’s standing in the way of her marriage plans, and, the film suggests not particularly subtly, sex life; Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh), the marriage plan embodied; Archer’s secretary Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan), also interested in marrying Hilda, though she doesn’t want to; Archer’s cook Liang (James Lee), a highly educated Chinese gentleman who helped Archer out in some shady antiques dealings and now finds himself not only relegated to his cook but also further betrayed; Eduardo Grassi (Jack La Rue), a near business partner of Archer’s who sees himself spurned after Archer finds out he has an affair with his girlfriend Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson); and something’s off about the butler Gamble (Arthur Hohl), too.

As if being spoiled for choice weren’t difficult enough for Vance, it’s also devilishly complicated to actually establish what happened the night of Archer’s death. After a while, there’s another corpse to deal with, and as many obfuscation attempts as there are suspects. Now wonder Nick Charles would start to drink so many martinis.

It is rather seductive to pretend that Philo Vance changed his name to Nick Charles after this particularly stressful case, started drinking too much, and married Myrna Loy. At least William Powell’s performance here, in his last and – as I’m told - best Philo Vance film, isn’t far off from type, just sober. Did someone by any chance write a meta-detective novel with this plot? Someone should.

Anyhow, Michael Curtiz’ The Kennel Murder Case has not only the reputation of being the best Powell-starring Van Dine adaptation, but also of being the best of the Philo Vance mysteries, which I find difficult to doubt, given how perfect an example of its style this is, with little room for improvement except for the film being an over-constructed “golden age” mystery. But complaining about that would be idiotic, my general dislike for that part of mystery history notwithstanding. Particularly when it turns out that, when they are executed this well, I don’t mind the tropes of the sub-genre at all.

This is one of the films where all elements come together so well, it can turn even someone not particularly fond of a (sub-)genre like me into a believer. The film’s virtues start with Robert N. Lee’s and Peter Milne’s excellently paced script that has a point-on rhythm so well realized, not only are various revelations here actually exciting even whole new film languages and mystery sub-genres later, even the comic relief sequences seem to belong in the movie instead of being their usual, squeezed-in selves. There are also some surprisingly pleasant elements to the film not very typical of its time, with a Chinese character, played by a Chinese American who doesn’t have to speak in pidgin or bizarre folksy metaphors, and who isn’t our detective’s main suspect just because of his race. In fact, there’s even a short bit where Vance reacts to Heath’s casual racism with a nice little eye-roll. Why, the film treats Liang like a human being not qualitatively different from anyone around him, and actually seems a bit sympathetic towards a man having to live quite below his abilities because of his skin colour. The film doesn’t make a big thing out of this, but it’s very pleasant to witness in a film of this age nonetheless; it beats me if this is part of Van Dine’s novel, too, though I very much doubt it, going by the man’s general hateful snobbery.

The script is full of these little touches that give its stock characters more life (as does the fine cast), and just make the - well-constructed yet contrived, as it should probably be in this sub-genre – plot quite a bit more interesting because it seems to involve people with actual social and personal relations; I found the mystery itself pretty satisfying and fun to watch unravelling too.

Curtiz’ direction is also something special, for most of the minor productions of big houses of the time were directed either with carelessness or with a by-the-book style that never seems to even aspire to provide an audience with something to look at beyond groups of people who might as well be assembled on a theatre stage. Curtiz approach here is much more dynamic, with many an expressive camera angle, movements that explore the film’s sets as physical spaces, and a clear and concise idea of how to make the most out of the actors’ performances, as well as how to deepen an inevitably dialogue-heavy story through the things the audience sees. That’s the sort of thing that gives a director like Curtiz, who at the time was just another hired studio gun, if one with quite a bit of experience already, his auteur reputation. Even though I’m not a fan of his horror films for Warner, and don’t even enjoy Casablanca all that much, it’s hard to disagree when confronted with as perfect a genre film as The Kennel Murder Case, and not just in the light of other highlights of the director’s filmography.

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