The 1920s and 30s were the high point of a certain kind of detective fiction — the puzzle plot mystery (often featuring an “impossible” locked room murder) built around a gentleman detective. These gentleman detectives were invariably wealthy, spent their spare time studying crime and indulging in the arts. They were well-dressed, well-spoken and invariably smarter than the police. No fictional detective fits the concept of the gentleman detective better than S.S. Van Dine’s fictional sleuth Philo Vance. And no one embodied the character onscreen better than — or even as well as — William Powell. It was Powell who kicked off the detective movie exploits with three early talkies at Paramount Pictures — The Canary Murder Case (1929), The Green Murder Case (1930) and The Benson Murder Case — but when Powell left the studio and moved over to Warner Bros., Paramount lost interest. MGM took a shot at Vance with The Bishop Murder Case (1930) in which Basil Rathbone tried the role, but neither Rathbone nor the film was a success. It wouldn’t be until 1933 that Warner Bros. revived the character with William Powell back in the role. In fact, the opening credits read, “William Powell returns as Phil Vance in The Kennel Murder Case.” And it was worth the wait because The Kennel Murder Case is far and away the best of the Philo Vance pictures and perhaps the finest example of this particular kind of mystery ever made.
The film is a vastly enjoyable textbook example of the classic mystery. The Kennel Murder Case has it all. We have the classic setup where one character — in this case, sharp-tongued and just plain mean Archer Coe (Robert Barratt) — manages to give darn near everyone in the cast (including Philo Vance) good reason to murder him. No one crosses his path without being browbeaten, insulted or both. So it’s hardly a big surprise when he’s found dead in his bedroom — but it appears to be a suicide since the room was locked from the inside. And, of course, it would have been accepted as such if Vance hadn’t stepped in and proved that the man was dead before he supposedly shot himself. But what about that locked room? Well, that’s another question for Vance to answer during the course of the film’s very complex plot. OK, so if it wasn’t complex there’d be no need for Philo Vance, would there?
Powell is much more at ease here than he had been in his earlier Vance outings, but then the movies were much more at ease themselves by 1933. The original three films (rarely revived and hard to see today) had been rather stagey affairs. By contrast, The Kennel Murder Case zips along at breakneck speed while the often underrated director, Michael Curtiz, throws every possible trick at the viewer — zoom shots, moving camera, miniature work, point of view shots, clever scene transitions, you name it. It’s a film of both great invention and entertainment value. If you’ve never seen a classic mystery from the “golden age” of the detective movie, this is the place to start.
Plays at 7:30 on Wed., Oct. 24 at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14