Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review - "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933)

Before he was Nick Charles, William Powell played another society sleuth, this time the conceited, upper-crust detective Philo Vance. In the late 1920's, Powell portrayed the character twice before the role was taken over by Basil Rathbone in 1930's "The Bishop Murder Case." Three years elapsed before Powell returned to the part of Vance for one of the best mystery films to emerge from the early 1930's - S.S. Van Dine's "The Kennel Murder Case."

Archer Coe is found dead in a locked room with a gun in his hand. The police attribute his death as suicide, however when Vance (William Powell) arrives at the scene of the crime, he begins to suspect otherwise. Vance believes that Coe was murdered by his brother, Brisbane, who has disappeared to Chicago. However things became a bit more complex when Brisbane Coe is found dead - his body found in the downstairs closet of Archer's house.

"The Kennel Murder Case" is a great film mainly due to the fact that it has such a strong plot. The story is one of the best-plotted of the Philo Vance movies. There are plenty of suspects to sift through and motives. Plus we're given a lock-room mystery and some brilliant detective work from Vance. The fact that "The Kennel Murder Case" is such a well-plotted story might have lead to the decision to remake this story in 1940 as "Calling Philo Vance." The best performance in the movie is from William Powell who is really a pleasure to watch as Vance. He is able to convey the pompous attitude of the detective, while still remaining charming. This film predates Powell's tour-de-force performance in "The Thin Man" by one year, but already one can see the beginnings of "The Thin Man" detective, Nick Charles here.

Other performances in the movie are rather mixed. Aside from William Powell, the other stand-out performance comes from Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath. Pallette is a joy to watch and he suited perfectly for the part. The director of "The Kennel Murder Case," Michael Curtiz, would go on to work with Pallette again in 1938 when Pallette played Friar Tuck in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" opposite Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Other actors well-known to silver screen enthusiasts appear among the cast of the film. Ralph Morgan (Frank "The Wizard of Oz" Morgan's brother), Arthur Hohl, Paul Cavanaugh and Mary Aster also turn up as suspects.

William Powell as Philo Vance
As I mentioned above, "The Kennel Murder Case" was directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was a well-known director throughout the 1930's working in a number of different genres. He is perhaps best-known for his swashbuckling epics such as "The Adventures of Robin Hood" or "Captain Blood," but in his early days in Hollywood, Curtiz also dabbled in films such as the "The Kennel Murder Case." One year earlirer, the German director mounted back-to-back productions of "Doctor X" and "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" - two well-known and highly regarded pre-code horror films starring Lionel Atwill. With Curtiz at the helm of this production, the movie is quite innovative for its time. There is a lengthy flashback sequence towards the end of the movie and a well-placed crane shot. There are also some point-of-view shots, which are quite striking for early 1930's film. This film should be watched with some aspects in mind when one views this movie since it is a striking and good-looking film.

To sum up, "The Kennel Murder Case" is a real pleasure to watch. While there are some scenes which are obviously padded and some over-the-top performances, the movie doesn't suffer too greatly. It's a great movie to watch both for its well-done mystery, but also for its technical aspects which were truly ahead of its time. I award this movie a 4 out of 5 stars.

Notes: "The Kennel Murder Case" is also to be found on the Warner Bros. Archive Collection. The sound and picture quality are decent. The DVD collection doesn't feature much in anything I'd consider "bonus features" but there are some trailers for the individual films, however despite the fact that "The kennel Murder Case" was released with a theatrical trailer, there isn't one provided on this DVD.

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