Weekend Film Recommendation: The Kennel Murder Case

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Kennel Murder Case”

  1. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Good description of Powell, who, for my money, had more serious acting chops than we were ever allowed to see on screen — I imagine him as the perfect (if such a thing exists) Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.

  2. Hugh Greene (Graham G´s brother, sometime DG of the BBC) edited several books of stories featuring ¨The rivals of Sherlock Holmes¨. The introductions as well as the stories are excellent. Greene´s thesis is that detective fiction before WW I was pretty realistic, leaving out the often outré plot mechanics: featuring organised crime, political corruption, and political shenanigans as frequent motives for murder, which they are. The detectives are, like Holmes, oddball geniuses defying conventional pigeon-holing. It was the Great War that created a demand for escapist crime fiction. One sort went genteel: typically written by women, with middle-class domestic crimes set in unrealistically safe environments like English villages, and solved by upper-class smoothies (Wimsey, Alleyn, Poirot, Vance …). The other, macho end of crime fiction evolved into the equally overdone hard-boiled private eye genre of Hammett and Chandler (try Hammett´s surreal The Big Knockover).

    1. I think that a little while spent with Gutenberg and Feedbooks will disabuse you of the notion that prewar detective fiction was somehow realistic. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is that all of the gadgets and techniques were still new, so that you could hang a story on cigarette-ash or X-Rays or even fingerprints in a way that you couldn’t in later eras. There were even foreign saboteurs galore. The real may have been who was reading the fiction — certainly in the upheavals after the War to End Wars the class structure of novel-readers perforce changed drastically.

      Meanwhile, with the Depression you also got the growth of pulp superheroes like Doc Savage. When those started coming back on film it was a pretty good sign that economic conditions were changing again.

  3. Well, I tried to add this one to my Netflix queue, but they don’t seem to have it, as it was added to the saved list instead. Not hopeless, as I’ve had other old movies that have started on the saved list become available.

    William Powell is on my list of best actors who never won an Oscar (along with Claude Rains and Myrna Loy). I’ve seen him in several of the Thin Man movies along with My Man Godfrey and The Great Ziegfeld, and I’ve never known him to phone it in.

    1. Okay, Loy did win an honorary Oscar, but to me that’s like the Academy saying, “Holy $hit! We forgot her?” Fourth on my list is Thelma Ritter.

      1. The much snubbed Paul Newman was finally given an honorary Oscar. He reacted by asking “Does this mean I’m about to die?”

        1. Interestingly, both Newman and Henry Fonda won Best Actor Oscars the year after they got their honoraries.

          1. Yes, and in both cases it was for performances that paled next to the roles they were snubbed for. They both fell into that trap of voters thinking “He’s so good, there will be many chances to honor him later so let’s give it to someone else this year”.

  4. Yes, this is a gem of its type.

    From the first time I saw William Powell (in ‘My Man Godfrey’), I wanted to grow up to be him. 40+ years later, I still do.

    Was there ever a more graceful, more in persona exit from picture making than Powell’s in ‘Mister Roberts’? A real pro.

    1. I admired that as well, particularly because he certainly could have kept acting, but apparently he wanted to go out on top and also to enjoy a long and happy retirement (which he did).

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