While Michael Curtiz is probably best known for directing Casablanca, he had an astonishingly productive career at Warner Bros. in the ’30s and ’40s. While largely dismissed by auteurists, Curtiz’s best work is almost the definition of “style” if the term is to mean anything more than the critic’s wishful thinking. Quickly moving, visually sophisticated, even some of his most routine work is worth a passing glance.
The Kennel Murder Case is a perfect example, a high style whodunnit in which the identity of the killer is eventually provided by a dog. A “locked door” mystery about the murder of a businessman everyone hates, the movie races ahead so quickly that you never question the absurdities nor care about the gigantic plot holes.
Why quibble when Curtiz and his crew whirl so pleasurably around the actors play-acting in parts defined more by their costumes than their actions? (Nearly everyone is beautifully turned out, even the servants. Only the cops are off-the-rack.) The evening wear and exquisite suits are all part of Curtiz’s compressed, visual story-telling. Derived from the German Expressionist tradition, heavy with shadows, canted angles, moving camera and tight editing, Curtiz always knew how to show just enough to make his point, before zipping along to something else.
For example, the moment that the victim is discovered, his butler knocks on the locked bedroom door, then leans down to look into the keyhole. There is a brief POV insert showing the dead man, then the butler drops the breakfast tray he’d been carrying. Swish pan to the doorway of the businessman’s secretary just getting out of bed as the butler comes with the news, the butler races to the phone, then swish again to the police. The sequence registers as a series of brief, staccato exclamation points, but even more remarkable than the pacing is the absolute control of every visual element in each shot. Rich as the film’s visual style is, everything counts.
But it doesn’t count toward solving the puzzle so much as embellish any effort to decipher it. In fact, this is definitely one of those mysteries in which the story tellers do not “play fair.” They almost can’t. When Philo Vance (William Powell) narrates a reconstruction of the murder, the bits and pieces he puts together are only marginally more cohesive after he’s “explained” things with the help of a detailed scale model of the crime. (No police precinct is complete without a prop shop.) Our befuddlement doesn’t matter, however. You don’t especially care “whodunnit,” because Curtiz and company have made the unfolding of the puzzle so much fun. In doing so, few films more ably demonstrate that, under the right circumstances, style can indeed be all.