The Kennel Murder Case (1933), whose title refers to the initial location of the Long Island Kennel Club, is the fifth film in the Philo Vance series — but the fourth outing for star William Powell as the well-known detective. The author of the Philo Vance mystery series was S. S. Van Dine, who penned 12 books in the series and whose works inspired 15 film adaptations.
This effort is generally considered the best of the films and has been critically well-received, even being hailed as a “masterpiece” in 1984 by film historian William K. Everson.
The film showcases a classic locked-room mystery, and of course, only Philo Vance and his trusty Scottish terrier can sniff out the truth. (And if you’re thinking this sounds awfully familiar to William Powell’s other famous detective and mystery series, The Thin Man, you’re not alone.) Powell’s legendary portrayals as Nick Charles in The Thin Man are not that different from his portrayals of Philo Vance, as both detectives are witty, well-dressed, and urbane. Both detectives have a canine sideback, as well. However, The Thin Man series boasts Powell’s chemistry with leading lady Myrna Loy as Nora Charles.
For all its good points, The Kennel Murder Case does not, alas, feature a reel librarian. It therefore ends up in the Class V category, which are films that may feature libraries but not librarians. So why continue this post? In the first five minutes of the film, we are introduced to a private library, as well as a book called Unsolved Murders that becomes central to the mystery plot.
The private library in question belongs to Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy), who employs a private secretary, Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan). Five minutes into the film, we are treated to a classic cinematic shot of a bookshelf, revealing a close-up of Brisbane’s face. The bookshelves serve as a natural framing device. Brisbane grabs a book entitled Unsolved Murders, places it in an overnight bag, and prepares to leave on a trip.
Here’s the conversation between Brisbane and his secretary:
Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy): Now, let’s see here. Where did I put that? Ah, here it is. Unsolved Murders. Hah! You know, I almost forgot it. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep a wink tonight. Wondering who murdered who and why.
Raymond Wrede, the Secretary (Ralph Morgan): How any intelligent man can read that drivel is beyond me, Brisbane.
The next morning, His brother, Archer Coe, who has a contentious relationship with his entire family, is found dead upstairs. The police declare it an apparent suicide … enter Philo Vance and his dog! While they’re searching the dead man’s room — which features another shot from the closet and behind a line of suit jackets, mirroring the earlier shot through the bookshelf — Philo gathers clues that his brother, Brisbane, had returned home from the train station. But the question remains, “What did he do with his bag?”
A little over a half-hour into the film, Philo leads the detectives to Grand Central Station, where they locate Brisbane’s bag. Philo takes out the Unsolved Murders book, which has a bookmark opening up to a chapter that includes a description just like the murder scene of his brother.
“… the door was locked from the inside…”
Philo Vance, after following the book’s description, demonstrates to the police how the lock was locked from the outside. He then gathers clues that the murder was actually committed downstairs in the library, not upstairs where the body was discovered! A series of witness statements follow, featuring more shots of the library and its distinctive double doors, as seen below.
Gathering statements and clues like a dog sniffing in the garden for a bone, Philo Vance uncovers a double murder, canine abuse (!), and a case of mistaken identity. The film also concludes in the library, where it all began. So although the film does not feature a reel librarian, a library and a specific book provide both the central setting — and catalyst — for the central murder mystery.