Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

THE CANARY MURDER CASE. 1929. William Powell, Louise Brooks, James Hall, Jean Arthur, Eugene Pallette. Screenplay by Florence Ryerson. Titles by Herman J. Mankiewitz. Story and Dialogue by S.S. Van Dine (his novel uncredited). Directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle (the latter uncredited for filming scenes for the sound version).

LA CANARINA ASSASSINATA. Episodes 3 and 4 of Philo Vance, Italy, 10 & 14 September 1974. Giorgio Albertazzi, Stefania Cossini, Giovanni Guerrieri Teleplay by Biagio Proiretti and Belisarrio L. Randone, based on the novel The Canary Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. Directed by Marco Leto.

   Ogden Nash’s well deserved kick in the pants aside, Philo Vance dominated the American detective story in the Golden Age as an influence on such stellar sleuths as Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe, to name two, from the school founded by Wilfrid Huntington Wright writing as S. S. Van Dine. It was only natural he was one of the first fictional American sleuths to find his way to the big screen when talking pictures made the traditional Golden Age mystery a Hollywood staple. (Craig Kennedy was one who beat him to the screen, thanks to Arthur Reeve’s involvement in early serials.)

   Veteran silent screen villain William Powell (he was loathsome as the blackmailing stool pigeon Italian Legionaire in the Ronald Colman version of Beau Geste) was Vance on screen, erudite, charming, and suave, with a human side the novels never gave Van Dine’s hero. In The Canary Murder, an early talkie, Vance is involved when Margaret O’Dell (Louise Brooks), the Canary of the title, a nightclub entertainer and serial blackmailer and twenties style vampire is murdered in her flat. There are multiple suspects, including the son of one of Vance’s close friends (James Hall), and Vance is drawn into the case by District Attorney Markham, to the annoyance of veteran homicide detective Sgt. Heath (Eugene Pallette). Powell’s compassion as Vance is as much in the forefront as is intelligence and elegance, a quality that is intellectual and aloof in the novels but human in Powell’s hands.

   Canary was the second Vance outing for Powell (he appeared earlier that same year in The Greene Murder Case, mentioned in this film in passing), and he comes to it assured and natural on screen despite the drawbacks of early sound. Most of the flaws of early sound films are noticeable here, but what is also notable is how at ease Powell, Pallette, and ingenue Jean Arthur are despite the difficulties. You never see them playing to the mike, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the movie. The other actors enunciate painfully, stumble, and otherwise make it evident how hard they are constraining themselves to stay in range of the primitive stationary microphones, and how poor their skills at learning dialogue are.

   One black actor playing the nightman at the apartment where the Canary is murdered is given a painfully drawn out and racially offensive stutter that make his scenes actually unpleasant to watch, aggravated by the fact he is struggling both with the microphone and remembering dialogue (not unique to him, of the actors in this film only Powell, Pallette, and Arthur seem to have any concept of learning dialogue).

   You will find yourself wishing for the ease and comfort on screen of Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, or Willie Best, and how much grace and skill they brought to these scenes. This is doubly ironic since in print the Van Dine school of the detective story was noted for its tolerance and racial sensitivity.

   Cult actress Louise Brooks has a terribly thankless role as the victim though the novel is rewritten to give her more screen time (in the book she is dead at the beginning). She is dubbed, and badly, by a Bronx accented actress, and there is little attempt to sync her lips with the voice. She mostly speaks with the back of her head turned to the screen or off screen while the camera lingers on her beauty when she is silent. The silent era style still evident in early talkies is most evident when she is on screen. Luckily for her, and for us, she still possesses a translucent beauty even then. It is hard not to watch her even with her back to the camera.

   The highlight of the film is a poker game where Vance hopes to trap the killer by recognizing the psychology of the murderer. In yet another deviation from the novel the killer dies before he can confess and Vance has to detect how the crime was done to free an innocent man who has confessed to protect another. Even Van Dine, who provided the screen story and dialogue, seemed to realize his coldly intellectual ubermensch would be a bit much on screen and seems to have approved of the various attempts to humanize him on screen even doing so himself in The Gracie Allen Murder Case.

   The clue that the mystery turns on is fairly famous and well known, but if anyone wants to know it, we can cover it in the comments section to save any red flags. It is far from fair play in the film, and though Vance explains how he spotted it, the viewer has no chance to do so. We are shown afterword what the actual clue was, but there is no way the viewer could have spotted or understood it. This is not really a variation from Van Dine, whose clues could involve specialized knowledge of such subjects as the properties of heavy water, the works of Goethe adapted to opera, higher mathematics, Egyptology, modern art, and modern German criminology.

   The film, like Greene before it, and unlike many early talkies, has a few stylistic touches from the German expressionist school of film making, including a nice number with Brooks swinging high above her audience and flirting with her lovers in the audience below. I am going to assume that and other such touches were the work of Frank Tuttle, since I don’t know credited director Malcolm St. Clair’s work. Hopefully if I am wrong someone will set me straight.

   While far from a masterpiece, this is a good film worth seeing for more than its historical import. If nothing else it is worth seeing how natural Powell was speaking on screen at this early date, a rare role for the legendary Brooks, and a young but already assured Jean Arthur.

   La canaria assassinata (the lack of capitals is European style) adapts the Van Dine book in two parts for Italian television and first aired in September 1974. Very much in the style of the Ian Carmichael-Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations, this black and white production is not only faithful to Van Dine, but also handsomely done with Art Decco sets and twenties style clothing.

   Giorgio Albertazzi is Vance, and the closest to Van Dine’s creation yet on screen, every inch the monocled, ’g dropping, Nordic superman described by his creator. If he lacks Powell’s charm (and almost everyone does), Albertazzi is much closer physically and psychologically than Powell to Van Dine’s creation. If you ever wanted to see Vance done on screen as he was in the books this is your chance.

   The actors here are attractive and smart, and while there is no dubbing or subtitles available, anyone who has read the book will have little trouble following this. Ironically this and The Greene Murder Case of both the Italian and the Powell series from Paramount are available on YouTube to compare.

   The Italian series of Philo Vance stories is every bit as faithful and attractive as the sixties Italian Nero Wolfe series that is also available on YouTube for lovers of Rex Stout’s rotund sleuth. Both show a fealty to the original works that is seldom seen in American television, and frankly more faithful to the written word than many of the British adaptations of Agatha Christie and others.

   When the hardboiled school took the forefront in American mystery fiction, Van Dine and Vance bore the brunt of the criticism, and the reaction against the clearly artificial school of mystery fiction mostly settled on their shoulders, fairly or not. Vance and his creator became the face of that school of the Golden Age of the detective story, and only Ellery Queen and Rex Stout truly survived the sea change, thanks to EQ’s evolution as a character and the hard boiled voice of Archie Goodwin and wit of Rex Stout.

   By the post-war era, they were the only survivors of the sea change, and Van Dine was out of print from the forties until the sixties and then available only sporadically until the Fawcett paperback series (the same thing happened to Dorothy Sayers, the British writer closest to Van Dine in some ways).

   Truth be told, by the time of the later Vance books, Van Dine and his creation were showing signs of growing weary and the Vance books formula had become too obvious. Still, in his time Philo Vance was the face of the American mystery, popular on film and radio and a subject of satire even in Will Gould’s comic strip Red Barry, where Gould’s tough undercover tec often shows up an amateur clearly based on Vance, something that needed no explanation to readers.

   The Canary Murder Case and La canarina assassinata are two handsome adaptations of Van Dine to the big and small screen and tributes to the popularity of Philo Vance. Whatever the flaws of Van Dine, the school of mystery he founded, or Philo Vance as a character, they are old friends to me, and I always enjoy revisiting them, especially when done as well as they are here.



Released earlier by The Misfits as a single, this version appears on their 2003 CD, Project 1950:

  LEONARD LUPTON – Murder Without Tears. Graphic #149, paperback original; 1st printing, 1957. Cover art by Roy Lance.

   I don’t know why I should be the one to bring this up, but some of you who’ve been following this blog for a while now just might remember a pledge I made toward the beginning of the year,something along the lines of my reading more Gold Medal paperbacks in 2015, and reporting back on them here.

   I didn’t get to far with that idea, did I? I’m sorry, and I apologize. Here it is the end of September, though, and I think there’s still time to redeem myself. Or in other words, I’m aware of the problem, and I’m working on it.

   That I’m reviewing this book by Leonard Lupton means I’m getting close, but I’m not there yet. Graphic Books published a lot of hard-boiled crime and detective material in the short period of time they were around, but I’ve always gotten the sense that in terms of their paperback originals, they and Ace got what Gold Medal turned down.

   There isn’t a lot of new ground that ends up being covered in Murder Without Tears, but after an opening that’s slow to get started, the rest of the early going has its moments. After the War (Korea) Jason Broome came back to his home town, determined to make good. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, figuratively speaking, he now owns a home on the heights above the river that once belonged to the man who owned the plant where Broome’s father worked for most of his life.

   Problem is, it’s been turned into a gin mill. A high-toned gin mill, but still a dive, at least in some people’s minds. Enter the girl. Anne Cramer grew up playing with the daughter of the man who used to own the house, but once they’ve met, she and Jason seem to get along fine. A friend of her father’s comes to Jason and tells him to leave it off with Anne.

   And he ends up dead. Coming to Jason’s rescue is Anne. They spent the night together, she says. Jason is relieved, but he soon realizes that Anne has provided herself a nice alibi as well.

   So far, so good, but while the story doesn’t go downhill, exactly, it sort of stagnates from here. It’s told by someone who knows his way around words, though, making me wonder why this is the only story like this Leonard Lupton wrote under his own name. (He wrote a half an Ace Double as by Chester Warwick, and eight romantic suspense novels in the 80s as by Mary Lupton.)

WEB OF DECEPTION. Made-for-TV movie. NBC-TV, 25 April 1994. Powers Boothe, Pam Dawber, Lisa Collins, Paul Ben-Victor, Rosalind Chao. Director: Richard A. Colla.

   In order to review this movie in the usual fashion, I’d also have to tell you more than you’d like to know about it — or more than I normally would. As is my usual fashion I picked this out of a box of DVDs I’d stored away in the basement and totally forgotten about, including how I obtained it and why I’d decided to own it in the first place.

   All I knew before I started watching it was that it was a crime film, it had the names of some people in it that I recognized, and that’s all. I didn’t even read the back cover.

   So assuming you’re somewhat like me in not knowing too much ahead of time, I’m going to be as sketchy in the details as I can and still come up a set of comments and other observations that make sense.

   Powers Boothe plays Dr. Philip Benesch in this film, a forensic psychiatrist who works hand in hand with the police department in court cases in which the sanity of the defendant comes into question. His job: to say the accused was sane at the time the crime was committed; the defense has to hire their own psychiatrist to say just the opposite.

   A more smug guy you cannot believe. Even the cops whose side he is on think he’s a jerk. This is a family-oriented blog, or else I’d be able to say what they really think. He is also having marital problems. His wife, played by Pam Dawber, has just found out he’d been having an affair. He claims it’s over, and asks for forgiveness.

   About this same time, a good-looking court stenographer (Lisa Collins) starts stalking him, following wherever he goes, and obviously obsessing about him. He’s flattered but finally tells her off, to get out of his life, adios, good-bye. She retaliates, and how. Suffice it to say that Dr. Benesch finds himself in deep sh–, oops, what it’s like to be on the other side of the law.

   Powers Boothe, who played Philip Marlowe on the HBO series of the same name, does a fine job here playing a man who finds his life turned upside down, almost literally. Pam Dawber, though, as his wife, does an even better job of playing a woman who is trying to keep loving her husband, but as more and more details come to light, finds it more and more difficult to do so.

   This is pretty good entertainment, as far as the standard of TV-making stood in 1994. It would have been even better if the police weren’t so obviously uninterested in doing a proper investigation. The lady district attorney equally so. You’ll have to stay focused on the characters and the relationships between them. If you can, you should enjoy this one. If you’re interested in a murder mystery worthy of the name, I don’t believe you’ll be happy at all.


Yes, that Lizabeth Scott. Available on YouTube for a limited time only.

A1 Can’t Get Out Of This Mood. Written-By – Frank Loesser, Jimmy McHugh

A2 Men. Written By – Frank WhitfieldWritten-By – George Wyle

A3 I’m In Love Again. Written-By – Cole Porter

A4 He Is A Man. Written-By – Carroll Coates, Ronnie Selby

A5 Legalize My Name. Written-By – Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer

A6 It’s So Nice To Have A Man Around The House. Written-By – Harold Spina, Jack Elliott

B1 He’s Funny That Way. Written-By – Neil Moret, Richard Whiting

B2 A Deep Dark Secret. Written-By – Joe Hooven, Marilyn Hooven

B3 Lucky. Written-By – Michael Merlo, Patrick Welch

B4 When A Woman Loves A Man. Written-By – Hanighen, Jenkins, Mercer

B5 Willow Weep For Me. Written-By – Ann Ronnell

B6 How Did He Look? Written-By – Abner Silver, Gladys Shelley


CAT GIRL. Insignia Films/AIP, 1957. Barbara Shelley, Robert Ayres, Kay Callard, Ernest Milton,Jack May. Written and produced by Lou Russoff (brother-in-law of Samuel Z. Arkoff, head of AIP). Directed by Alfred Shaughnessy.

   A British-born variation on Val Lewton’s classic Cat People (1942) this is cheap and a bit crude, but oddly sensual for a 1950s Monster Movie.

   Director Alfred Shaughnessy went on to some acclaim writing Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75) and writer-producer Lou Russoff was responsible for classics like The She Creature, It Conquered the World and Beach Party, so you can appreciate the dynamic tension present in the creative process here.

   It all opens up in a creepy (and rather cheaply-furnished) old castle on a dark & stormy night, where Barbara Shelley is summoned to inherit the Family Curse, which has something to do with a psycho-spiritual link with predatory cats. Seems rather a heavy burden to bear — especially since the old man who passes on the familial blight gets mauled by a cheetah shortly thereafter — and I can’t imagine why the family didn’t simply opt to pay a fine instead, but I guess that wouldn’t make much of a movie, would it?

   Anyway, Barbara has more to contend with than mere Doom; it also seems she’s married to an unfaithful boor who makes the Curse of the Cat People seem a mere inconvenience: greedy, condescending, completely self-centered, and it’s a bit of a relief when Barbara finds him out on the castle grounds shaking the bushes with a comely female guest and, in the words of one critic:

   “The legacy of emotion and sensuality suppressed in countless British film heroines over the past twenty years, appears in a particularly violent and distorted form…. as the ghostly cheetah, powered by all her repressed desire, begins to savage the lovers while she looks on in ecstasy….”

   Well, that’s a good deal stronger than anything you’ll find in Cat People, and Barbara Shelley’s sexuality is much more overt than Simone Simon’s: she sleeps in the nude and goes about in a strapless gown apparently held up only by her firm anatomy — which in 1957 was pretty strong stuff, especially for a monster movie supposedly aimed at kiddies, but I digress.

   Up to this point Barbara has all our sympathy, but it quickly develops that she’s still in love with an old boyfriend, now a happily-married psychologist, who begins treating her obvious symptoms of dangerous insanity. And naturally he decides that the best thing for her is to move in with him and his mousy missus, as the attentive viewer mutters, “Yeah, right,” or the functional equivalent.

   At about this point, Cat Girl begins aping Cat People pretty shamelessly as Barbara’s jealousy turns to evil, and she starts plotting her rival’s demise. We get a variation on the birdcage scene from the earlier film, then a repeat of the night-stalk, leading up to a rather muddled conclusion where… well I won’t give it away, just take my word: it’s muddled.

   Yet I still enjoyed Cat Girl, and if you have a taste for cheap monster movies you will too, thanks mainly to Barbara Shelley. Her sheer screen presence in a role with a bit of depth to it lifts this well out of the ordinary. In fact, even before I watched this last week, I remembered it with affection from when I saw it on its first release, sharing a double bill with The Amazing Colossal Man.

   Now THAT was Bang for your two-bits!

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