Kennel Murder Case, The (1933): Michael Curtiz’ Superb Msytery, Starring William Powell and Mary Astor

Michael Curtiz directed The Kennel Murder Case, a superbly executed Pre-Code mystery, adapted from the 1933 novel by S. S. Van Dine.

It stars William Powell as Philo Vance, reprising the role for Warner, after appearing as Vance in three Paramount pictures. (see below)

When Philo Vance’s dog does not make it into the final of the Long Island Kennel Club’s dog show, competitor Archer Coe (Robert Barrat) is disappointed, hoping for victory over Vance.

The next morning Coe is found dead in his bedroom. District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and Police Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette) assume it was suicide, because Coe was shot through the head and was found holding a pistol.

Doubtful, Vance finds evidence that Coe was murdered. Coroner Dr. Doremus (Etienne Girardot) determines the victim had bled to death internally from a stab wound.

Since Coe was disliked, there are many suspects.  His niece Hilda Lake (Mary Astor) resented her uncle’s control of her finances and jealousy of any men who courted her. Her boyfriend, Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh), suspected Coe of killing his dog to ensure winning. Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan), the dead man’s secretary, was in love with Miss Lake, but had been laughed at.

Also involved in the rather complex scheme are Coe’s neighbor and lover Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson), who had been cheating on him with Eduardo Grassi (Jack La Rue). When Coe found out, he cancelled a contract to sell his Chinese artworks to the Milan museum for which Grassi worked. Liang (James Lee), the illegal cook, had worked long to help Coe amass his collection. When he warned his employer against the proposed sale, he was fired. Coe’s own brother Brisbane (Frank Conroy) despised Coe. Finally, there’s Gamble (Arthur Hohl), the head servant, who had concealed his criminal past.

Brisbane Coe becomes Vance’s prime suspect, when his alibi of taking a train at the time of the murder is disproved. When Brisbane is found dead in a closet, Vance is puzzled. Vance finds a book titled Unsolved Murders; a bookmarked page details a method of using string to lock a door through the keyhole without leaving a trace.

Later, an attempt is made on the life of Sir Thomas using the same dagger used to kill Coe, and Miss Delafield’s dog is found injured, struck with a fireside poker.

It turns out that two men sought Coe’s life that night. The successful murderer struggled with Coe and stabbed him, leaving him for dead. Coe awakened and too dazed to realize that he was mortally wounded, he went upstairs to his bedroom and opened his window. Brisbane entered the chamber; seeing his brother apparently asleep in his chair, he shot the corpse and arranged the scene to look like a suicide. Downstairs, he ran into the actual killer, who had seen through a window that Coe was still alive and come back to finish the job. In the darkness, the killer mistook Brisbane for Archer and killed the wrong man. Delafield’s dog then wandered and attacked the murderer.

In the last act, Vance narrates in a detailed flashback the course of events that involve seven suspects who could have done it the night before.  He suggests to dismiss all the suspects, then make one phone call.

Lacking definitive proof, Vance arranges for Sir Thomas and Wrede to quarrel over Hilda Lake. When the former instinctively reaches for the poker to strike his rival, the Doberman recognizes its attacker and leaps on him.

Wrede finally confesses to kill Archer Coe and Brisbane Coe (the former by design, the latter by mistake), admitting that his motive was rage over Coe’s refusal to assist his courtship of Miss Lake.

Seldom have dogs–here Doberman–played such a crucial role in  murder mysteries.

Curtiz chose a style that made the inherent problem of this genre–too much talk–with faster pacing than the usual and the use of uniquely cinematic devices of mobile camera, dissolves, wipes, and split screen.

Made on a budget of $280,000, the film made a profit of $400,000, having grossed $700,000 internationally.

Philo Vance Film Series

The Kennel Murder Case was the first, and one of the best, Warner adaptation of one of S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novel. Earlier Vance films were made by Paramount, and later ones Warner, Paramount and MGM.

Various actors played the juicy part of Vance, including Warren William, Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, and James Stephenson.

Cast

William Powell as Philo Vance
Mary Astor as Hilda Lake
Eugene Pallette as Detective Heath
Ralph Morgan as Raymond Wrede, the Secretary
Robert McWade as District Attorney Markham
Robert Barrat as Archer Coe
Frank Conroy as Brisbane Coe
Etienne Girardot as Dr. Doremus
Paul Cavanagh as Sir Thomas MacDonald

Credits

Cinematography: William Rees
Edited by Harold McLernon
Produced and distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: October 28, 1933
Running time: 73 minutes