As an example of a transitional sound film–Canary Murder Case was filmed as a silent, then reconfigured as a talkie–the film’s very interesting. It’s an early talkie (1929) so there’s no sound design–there’s rarely any noise besides the talking and few sound effects, the actors aren’t ready for talking (for the most part), and the direction, even of the talkie-specific scenes, is awkward and paced for a silent film. People say their line, wait a few seconds, either for a title card or a cut, then someone else says his or her line. It’s disjointed, which surprised me, since I figured I’d just get used to it.
William Powell’s fine in the “lead,” except, while the film’s a “Philo Vance mystery,” Powell has very little to do in the film. He’s an accessory to the police and his single solo scene is a summary sequence of him up all night figuring out the solution. I too figured out the solution and had Philo Vance read more, specifically Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he wouldn’t have had to stay up all night. The only other amusing actor is Eugene Pallette, who was in the other Powell Vance film I’ve seen too, and even he’s having trouble finding his footing in the talkie atmosphere. He does have some funny moments, which is an achievement, since all the other attempts in the film fall completely flat.
As the titular canary, Louise Brooks leaves little impression. I wasn’t paying attention during the opening titles or something and, since I’ve never actually seen any of her other films, it took me a second to realize who she was when she showed up (I thought the female lead was going to be Jean Arthur, who’s a brunette in the film and barely in it). The greatest impression Brooks’s character does leave, however, is she’s a crook… and when the film’s conclusion is her murder’s justified (agreeing with what the audience already thinks), it makes the whole thing a somewhat pointless experience.
The direction, compositionally, is boring, so there’s little driving the film. Past the long set-up, which I suppose is supposed to be interesting because of Brooks’s presence, there’s almost nothing going on. It’s a very long eighty minutes, though the section where the detective decides a poker game is the best way to discover a murderer is nice and there is one excellent plot development, which in a different film (a better one) would give the characters some real angst. But not so in this one.
Directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Albert S. Le Vino, Florence Ryerson and S.S. Van Dine, based on Van Dine’s novel; directors of photography, Cliff Blackstone and Harry Fischbeck; edited by William Shea; music by Karl Hajos; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Louise Brooks (Margaret Odell), Jean Arthur (Alys LaFosse), James Hall (Jimmy Spotswoode), Charles Lane (Charles Spotswoode), Eugene Pallete (Sgt. Heath), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Dr. Ambrose Lindquist), Lawrence Grant (Charles Cleaver), Ned Sparks (Tony Sheel), Louis John Bartels (Louis Mannix) and E.H. Calvert (District Attorney Markham).