Thu 1 Oct 2015
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.