In Hollywood detective serials of the 1930s and 1940s, it was downright dangerous to be an industrialist, socialite, European baronet, heiress or well-heeled widow: You had precious little chance of surviving until the end credits. On the other hand, appropriate to your upper class status, a suave, well-dressed sleuth who moved in your circles would be on hand to crack the case. The Saint, The Falcon and Philo Vance are among the above-average movie series that plowed this fertile ground, and one of the very best of the type is this week’s film recommendation: The Kennel Murder Case.
It’s from the Philo Vance series (not that it matters, they were fairly interchangeable) and was made in 1933. Along with the usual solid character actors characteristic of the series, it had A-List stars (William Powell and Mary Astor) and the magnificent Michael Curtiz as the Director. And for dog lovers, there is the further appeal of it being the only film to derive as much entertainment value from a dog show as did Best in Show.
The plot: While his own pooch is competing in a high-class canine show, Vance (William Powell) is called in to solve a murder involving a number of the other dog owners. The nasty, much-hated Arthur Coe (Richard Barrat) has been discovered dead in a locked room, with a bullet hole in his head and a gun in his hand. The police think it’s a clear case of suicide. Vance isn’t convinced, and he becomes even less so when another murder victim is discovered. Suspects are everywhere, including the Chinese servant (James Lee) who didn’t want Coe to sell his prized Oriental artifacts, the butler with the shady past (Arthur Hohl), the long-suffering private secretary (Ralph Morgan), the saucy mistress next door (Helen Vinson) and her new lover (Jack La Rue), the niece (Astor) who resented his control of her inheritance and the bankrupt, titled man who wants to marry her (Paul Cavanagh). Also on hand is the always appealing mountain of an actor Eugene Pallette as Police Sergeant Heath, who always seems one step behind Vance but is at least smart enough to listen to him.
The solution to the mystery is more than a little rococo, and your odds of guessing it are as close to nothing as makes no odds. So copy Sergeant Heath’s approach by just sitting back and watching William Powell, as Philo Vance, work his investigative magic.
William Powell is for my money one of the most watchable, comfortable actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. People who are depressed and anxious are sometimes referred to as having “been born a few drinks behind”. Powell seems to have been born a drink ahead. He effortlessly conveys class, intelligence and charm in the Philo Vance series and even more so in his sparkling duet triumph with Myrna Loy — The Thin Man series — which began a few years later. The man had a je nais se quoi that made audiences instinctively relax, smile and know that everything was going to work out okay in the end.
As a closing note, the unusually fine camera work in this movie is a mystery of its own. Journeyman photography director William Rees is hardly a household name, even among film buffs. What then accounts for the creative camera angles, well-framed scenes, and cool trolley shots here? Of course, maybe Rees just came up with a large number of good ideas relative to his other films, and this is therefore his best work. But here’s where directorial style may come in. Some directors never even look through the camera, they just coach the actors. But others, for example Welles, Hitchcock, and Curtiz became very involved in (some of their crew members would say micromanaged) camera angles, lighting, set design and the like. The other explanation therefore for the great look of this film is that we are less watching Rees’ work than Curtiz’s directions to Rees about how to shoot the picture. I don’t know if that’s the right solution to the mystery, but I’m sure Philo will figure it out sooner or later.
p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of all RBC film recommendations.