Monday, March 17, 2014

The Kennel Murder Case & Calling Philo Vance

Films in Focus

Philo Vance

By Ed Garea

The Kennel Murder Case (WB, 1933) – Director: Michael Curtiz. Writers: Robert N. Lee, Peter Milne (s/p), Robert Presnell (adaptation), S.S. Van Dine (novel, The Kennel Murder Case). Cast: William Powell, Mary Astor, Eugene Pallette, Ralph Morgan, Robert McWade, Robert Barrat, Frank Conroy, Etienne Girardot, James Lee, Paul Cavanagh, Arthur Hohl, Helen Vinson, & Lack LaRue. B&W, 73 minutes.

Calling Philo Vance (WB, 1940) – Director: William Clemens. Writers: Tom Reed (s/p), S.S. Van Dine (novel, The Kennel Murder Case). Cast: James Stephenson, Margot Stevenson, Henry O’Neill, Edward Brophy, Sheila Bromley, Ralph Forbes, Donald Douglas, Martin Kosleck, Jimmy Conlin, Edward Raquello, Creighton Hale, Harry Strang, Richard Kipling, Wedgwood Nowell, & Bo Ling. B&W, 62 minutes.

There are very few detectives like Philo Vance. As described by his creator, S.S. Van Dine in the first of his novels, The Benson Murder Case, Vance is a “man of unusual culture and brilliance. An aristocrat by birth and instinct, he held himself severely aloof from the common world of men. In his manner there was an indefinable contempt for inferiority of all kinds. The great majority of those with whom he came in contact regarded him as a snob. Yet there was in his condescension and disdain no trace of spuriousness. His snobbishness was intellectual as well as social. He detested stupidity even more, I believe, than he did vulgarity or bad taste.”

Though a cynic, Vance was not a bitter one. Rather, his cynicism was flippant, coming off as bored and supercilious, yet highly conscious with a penetrating view of life. While Vance was extremely interested in all human reactions, it was more the interest of the scientist than the humanitarian. His psychological knowledge was “uncanny;” gifted instinctively with accurate judgment of people backed by his college studies of psychology (Van Dine has him studying under William James) and supplemented by constant reading in the subject.

Physically, Vance was “unusually good-looking;” a man about 35 years of age, slightly under six feet, and “giving the impression of sinewy strength and nervous endurance.” He was an “expert fencer,” a golfer with a three handicap, a polo player and sometime archer. He bred and showed thoroughbred dogs, and was also a winning handicapper of horses and an expert at chess, Chinese ceramics, psychology, the history of crime, ancient Egypt, and Renaissance art – in fact, art was his passion. He also spoke several foreign languages.

Given Van Dine’s description of Vance and the popularity of the Philo Vance mysteries, it was evident that not just any actor could portray him. By and large, throughout the history of the Vance series attempts were always made to secure someone who could pass physically and could sell the other attributes to the audience. A list of those who played Vance over the years included Basil Rathbone, Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, Warren William, and James Stephenson.

But the one who the public saw as closest to the Vance ideal was William Powell, who played the role four times, The Kennel Murder Case being Powell’s last time as the character. It’s a fast-paced movie, given the “A” treatment by Warners, though the way Warners cranked them out in the early ‘30s, no one could really tell the difference between this and a B–version. Michael Curtiz, known as one of the fastest of Warners’ directors, keeps up the rapid pace, effectively utilizing wipes and fast cuts to narrow and blend a plot with many characters into an entertaining whole without losing the audience.

We open at the Long Island Kennel Club, where Vance is putting his Scotch terrier, Captain, through his paces in front of the judges. Unfortunately, Vance and his dog do not make it into the next round. Not only is Vance disappointed by the result, but so is his fellow dog fancier and competitor Archer Coe (Barrat), who had been looking forward to “savor a victory” over Vance. Vance and Captain are sailing for Italy and another dog show.

The very next morning, Coe’s butler, Gamble (Hohl), discovers him sitting in a chair, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. As the door is locked from the inside, the butler can only see through the keyhole. He summons Coe’s secretary, Raymond Wrede (Morgan), who looks and tells Gamble to summon the police.

Meanwhile, Vance is about to sail for Italy and that other dog show when he hears the news of Coe’s death. He makes a phone call to D.A. Markham (McWade), telling him that it might not be suicide. Markham, however, assures Vance that everything points to suicide, to which Vance replies that if Markman knew Coe as he (Vance) does, “ . . . suicide is almost a psychological impossibility for him.” “Psychological, bosh,” replies Markham. “Two and two make four, don’t they?” “How do you know you have two and two?” Vance asks, and after the call ends, he has his luggage brought up, for he is not sailing, he is going to the mansion of Archer Coe.

Arriving at Coe’s house with Markham, Vance is met by Detective Sgt. Ernest Heath (Palette). They go to Coe’s room and break down the door, finding the door was, indeed, locked from the inside. Also, the windows are closed. It does look like an open and shut case of suicide, but Vance keeps finding indications that it wasn’t the case. His suspicions are confirmed when the medical examiner, Dr. Doremus (Girardot) arrives and confirms Vance’s suspicions that it was murder by finding a stab wound in the victim’s back.

Coe’s niece and ward, Hilda Lake (Astor) arrives, along with boyfriend Sir Thomas MacDonald (Cavanaugh). She’s told the news of her uncle’s death, and when asked if she knew of anyone who could have done it, she replies that she could have, for one. She despised her uncle and hated the way he controlled her money. And, as we know, she wasn’t alone in hating him. Almost everyone he knew hated him, as we saw in the scenes between Coe’s meeting with Vance at the Kennel Club and the discovery of Coe’s body the next morning. MacDonald suspected Coe for killing his dog, Ghillie. Coe’s brother, Brisbane (Conroy) left for Chicago and avoided meeting with him. Coe also had an argument with Doris Delafield (Vinson) in her apartment next door, accusing her of two-timing him with art dealer Eduardo Grassi (LaRue). And to cement matters, on the way out of Delafield’s building he ran into Grassi and canceled the deal he had with Grassi to sell a valuable Chinese art collection to the Milan Museum. When Grassi reminded Coe that they had a contract, Coe replied that he had the contract in his desk, and as soon as he got home he was going to burn it.

Thus we have a list of suspects, all with sufficient motive. Brisbane Coe joins the suspect list as they learn that he wasn’t on the 5:00 to Chicago. Vance also notes that Brisbane’s walking stick was hanging up in the other room, the same stick Gamble swore Brisbane was carrying with him when he left. Deducing that Brisbane never caught the train, Vance and Markham retrieve this traveling case from the station. Among its contents is a book titled Unsolved Murders, which Vance opens to a marked passage and begins to read before handing the book back. But where is Brisbane? As they find out shortly after, he’s in the closet, dead. Later, the mystery is compounded further when Miss Delafield’s Doberman is found in Coe’s library with a wound to its head, apparently struck with a fireplace poker.

As the film progresses each suspect is highlighted and each looks equally guilty. And we add a new suspect in the cook Liang (Lee). In actuality a refined man with a degree from Columbia University, Liang had been helping Archer Coe amass his collection of Chinese art. He warned Archer against the sale and was fired as a result. Vance also exposes Gamble’s criminal past, but Brisbane Coe is Vance’s prime suspect, though his death leaves Vance puzzled. By making use of the passage on the book of unsolved murders found in Brisbane’s bag, Vance demonstrates how the room was locked from the inside after the murder, so part of the mystery is solved.

But now the mystery takes another crazy turn when an attempt is made on the life of Sir Thomas with the same dagger used to kill Archer. After sifting the clues, Vance is able to reconstruct the crime: Archer had gotten into a heated argument with someone in his library, was struck with the poker and then stabbed. After his assailant left, Archer stumbled up to his bedroom and began changing into his pajamas when he died in the chair. Brisbane arrived back, took Archer’s gun from the library desk, and went to his brother’s room, shot him, and placed the gun in Archer’s hand. Meanwhile, the assailant saw Archer in his room and returned to finish the job. In the darkness he mistook the figure of Brisbane descending the stairs and stabbed him to death. Delafield’s dog then wandered in and attacked the murder, who slugged him with the poker.

Despite being able to solve how the crime was done, Vance is unable to name the murderer. He is about to admit defeat when he overhears Markham telling Heath that he wishes he had something on the case to sink his teeth into. This triggers an idea to Vance and he makes a telephone call, telling the person to meet him at the Coe residence. As they arrive, there is a heated argument between Sir Thomas and Wrede over Hilda’s plan to marry Sir Thomas. The men come to blows and Wrede is decked. He rises and grabs a fireplace poker. It is then that Vance and Markham release their guest, the healed Doberman, who recognizes his attacker and makes a beeline for Wrede. Subdued, Wrede confesses that he stabbed Archer over Archer’s crude dismissal of Wrede’s plans to marry Hilda. Later, thinking Brisbane was Archer, he killed him and stuffed the body in the closet. The film ends with Wrede in custody and Heath thanking Vance, as always, for helping him solve the case.

Though Powell placed Vance four times, this was the first Vance film made by Warner Bros. For director Curtiz, this was but one of six films for which he was credited with at Warner Bros. that year. He also worked on two other films (The Mayor of Hell and From Headquarters), but was not credited. Of his 1933 credits only this film and Mystery of the Wax Museum are noteworthy, though Female gets its share of notice due to the subject matter. Curtiz does a wonderful job with this film, racing from scene to scene, employing smart, fast cuts and wipes that move the film along nicely. He also used a mobile camera to cut down on the script’s talkiness and to give the necessary movement so as not to bore the audience. This is a complicated plot, with many suspects coming and going into the proceedings. In addition the plot contained quite a few twists and turns. The fact that the film moves so quickly and remains compelling given the hectic Warners' assembly-line methods is a tribute to the skill of Curtiz.

The film also represents Powell’s best performance of the year, but that’s a little disingenuous considering that he was in only three films that year (the other two were Private Detective 62 and Double Harness). But here he was aided by solid support from leading lady Mary Astor, Robert McWade, and the superbly talented Eugene Pallette. Pallette is able to take what is essentially a comic relief role and play it in the required comic style without lapsing into buffoonery, as so many others often did.

The film was a surprise hit, making a profit of almost $400,000, which led to better, and more expensive, assignments for director Curtiz. And for Powell, it also led to much better assignments, but at a different studio. Warner Bros., as was typical of their studio style, never really treasured their actors and at the time, was not interesting in making a big-budget type of film. They were happy with what they churned out – a rat-a-tat-tat exploitation picture with the story almost literally removed from the day’s news. And with a budget kept in the low figures, to boot.

Powell made only one more film for Warners after this – Fashions of ’34, where he played a swindler named Sherwood Nash who bootlegs the latest Paris fashions for sale at cut-rate prices. After this, he signed with MGM, where his first film was the classic Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable. It was also his first film with Myrna Loy, with whom he made the film that made him famous worldwide, The Thin Man, in 1934.

As for Vance, William took over the role in Warners next go with the detective, The Dragon Murder Case (1934). MGM then took over the detective for two films, The Casino Murder Case in 1935 with Paul Lukas as Vance, and The Garden Murder Case in 1936 with Edmund Lowe starring.

Warner Bros. tried reviving the Vance series in 1940 with Calling Philo Vance. James Stephenson, an English stage actor who had made a strong impression that year in The Sea Hawk and The Letter (for which secured a nomination as Best Supporting Actor), played Vance. The film was made as a B-movie; in fact, it’s almost a shot-for-shot remake of The Kennel Murder Case, updated to involve Vance in international espionage, as the first 10 minutes or so are lifted directly from Powell’s Private Detective 62 (1933).

This time around Archer Coe is a designer suspected of selling his designs to a foreign power in Europe. (Guess who?) As the film opens, Philo is in a Vienna office building cracking a safe to retrieve Coe’s plans for his latest fighter. (In Private Detective 62, Powell’s character is cracking a safe in Paris.) He grabs the plans with Coe’s signature and almost gets away, making it to the station before Coe himself spots him, seeing through his disguise, and informs the police, who arrest and deport him. This time around, Philo is working for the State Department, and Markham is an investigator there. Now back in America, Philo plans to confront Coe, but Gamble (Kosleck), Coe’s butler, looks through the keyhole to Coe’s bedroom when his knock gets no answer and finds Coe sitting in the chair, dead, as exactly in The Kennel Murder Case. The rest of the film follows closely on the original with only a few cosmetic changes, the biggest being that the Chinese cook in the original is now a Chinese maid in the remake, and, yes, she too is working for a foreign power, in this case Japan.

While The Kennel Murder Case clocked in at 73 minutes, Calling Philo Vance runs for only 62 minutes. Add the time given to the new scenes in Vienna, and cuts had to be made. Unfortunately the cuts obliterated whatever little characterization was left, so each supporting character (and suspect) gets only the briefest of introductions. For instance, in the original, we learned a little about Coe’s niece, Hilda Lake and why she disliked her uncle so intensely. Now, all we get is that she hated him because he controlled her money. About her English boyfriend, now christened Tom McDonald, we get even less; it’s the same with Wrede. Wrede remains the villain of the piece, only now he, too, is out to steal the plans to sell abroad. Brisbane receives almost zero air time, apart from being a corpse, and his apparatus to lock his brother’s bedroom door from without, which made for such a wonderful explanation in The Kennel Murder Case, is now reduced to a simple explanation from Vance, lacking all the intrigue and color of the original.

If the characters in the remake have been stripped of anything of interest, the actors playing them are also lacking that necessary passion, for there is now nothing in the script to give their characters more than the bare bones of motivation. Stephenson plays the role of Vance in a disinterested manner, sort of like Sherlock Holmes, but without that detective’s amazing intellect and imagination.

Edward Brophy’s Sergeant Ryan replaces Eugene Pallette’s wonderful Sergeant Hearth. Brophy is good as Ryan, but is not given the time or lines to establish his character fully, so what the audience is left with is a character merely saying his lines without any reason why, such as his ripostes with medical examiner Doremus (Conlin). In the original these lines resonated with our knowledge of the history between the two, even for those who had not seen any of the other films, for all were given the necessary time to establish their characters through their scenes together, which hinted at an ongoing head-butting relationship. In this film, however, there is no time allotted for the development of any relationship, just the hint of one, and so the film falls flat for this lack of time. When we watch The Kennel Murder Case, we can see that the actors used the dialogue and scenes allotted to them to their fullest; both were masters of characterization. Each supporting character in this film suffers from this lack of focus, which in turn diminishes our overall enjoyment of the movie. What we are left with is just the bare bones of a plot and the words “What if” resonating in our minds as the film reaches its abrupt conclusion.

This was the only film of Warners proposed re-launch. Part of the reason for the abandonment may have been the sudden death of Stephenson from a heart attack. At any rate, Vance would not appear again in a movie until 1947 when Poverty Row studio PRC released Philo Vance’s Gamble, starring Alan Curtis as the detective.

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