Monday, June 24, 2019

A Tangled Ball of Motive

Everyone wanted to kill Archer Coe but it's up to Philo Vance to figure out who did. 1933's The Kennel Murder Case, based on one volume in the popular series of Philo Vance detective novels, is a vibrantly executed puzzle directed with palpable energy by Michael Curtiz and featuring a good performance by William Powell in the lead.

The dead man is discovered in his chair in his bedroom, a bullet hole in his head and a revolver in his hand, the door bolted. Naturally, this was no suicide. Only Philo seems to know at first, the rest of the authorities are happy to accept what seems obvious. Playing this story's Lestrade is Eugene Palette--his Detective Heath is as consistently wrong as he is delightful with his trademark bullfrog voice and affably irritable manner.

Mary Astor plays the dead man's niece but her role is pretty small--there's no hint of romance between her and Philo. She admits frankly she wanted her uncle dead because he controlled her inheritance; her fiance also wanted him dead for a similar reason as did her spurned lover. Also on the list of suspects is another uncle, a butler with a hidden past, and a Chinese cook (James Lee) in Coe's household who's disgusted by his employer's plan to sell his collection of Chinese artefacts.

Powell plays Philo cool and casual. This character could've easily been very boring in other hands but Powell has enough natural life in his performance to captivate the viewer. But mostly it's Curtiz that makes it work and his use of frequent cuts between shot angles in dialogue scenes. These are always organic, they never give the film a too-busy feeling and they keep things from feeling like a filmed play. The Kennel Murder Case is available on Amazon Prime.

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