Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Old-timey film review: The Canary Murder Case

Watch this 1929 Philo Vance Mystery and compare it to 1933's "The Kennel Murder Case" and you'll be amazed at how much film improved over 4 years. "Canary" is pretty static, the camera never moves, the acting is bad, and there's only one scene outside. In Kennel, the camera moves and swishes, a better line of actors come in and the dialogue moves better too.

Is it because the first was done at Paramount as a cheapie, and the other for Warner Bros.? "Kennel" was directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later direct "Casablanca" and a ton of other classics for Warners. Was it simply because he was a more gifted director?

Either way, "Canary" has 'early talky' all over it. Hollywood still didn't know how to overdub, so no music, and a scene in a crowded theater becomes comical when you hear only ten people clapping when you should hear thousands.

Maltin says this was originally filmed as a silent, then scenes were reshot and dialogue dubbed to make it a talky. This is really obvious. Further, the print I watched on YouTube was terrible, hopefully there's a restored DVD out there. Also, "Singing in the Rain" would have you believe that some actors from the silents never made it to the talkies because their voices were shrill. No, after watching this film it's obvious they didn't make it because they just couldn't act.

The plot: We meet the soon-to-be murder victim, a shrewd showgirl nicknamed "The Canary." She spends the first ten minutes of the film on the phone shaking down would-be murder suspects. She calls like a half-dozen guys, and you can't help but think of that season of "Dallas" where every conversation with JR ended with someone gritting his/her teeth and saying, "I'm going to kill that JR!" (A less cost-conscious film would have her shake them down in person, but that would have cost thousands in new sets, and days of shooting).

After she's murdered, all the suspects are taken in to the police headquarters where a detective interviews them one at a time at the detective's desk.. without legal representation. Think of any episode of "Law and Order" where the detectives interview the suspects in their houses and people walk around a little. It gets a little claustrophobic here.

Then Philo Vance plays poker with the suspects and determines who the killer is not by some slip of the tongue in the course of the game, but through how each suspect plays poker!

He could do this with every case.

Like "Kennel," the murder and solving the murder are preposterous. I have to read the books to see how much was carried over. Unlike "Kennel" William Powell lacks the charm and charisma he'd develop later, especially in the "Thin Man" films.

(A misstep in an otherwise well-intentioned film: A hotel clerk is a stammering negro used for comic effect. Not blatantly racist, but neither is it a proud moment for blacks in cinema.)

So, certainly worth watching as a curiosity. It can't be unnoticed that the whodunnit structure is there. We meet the characters and the detective, the soon-to-be victim pisses everyone off, s/he is murdered in a seemingly foolproof manner, and the detective talks to each suspect until someone slips, then the detective finds the apparatus, or method to how the murder was committed. It applies to a 1929 Philo Vance mystery, any episode of "Murder She Wrote," or "Law and Order."

What makes them watchable is the detective really. William Powell and Myrna Loy in the "Thin Man," Peter Falk in "Columbo," Hugh Lurie in "House." If you don't find the detective interesting, forget it, it's never going to work. William Powell was just getting up to speed.

No comments:

Post a Comment