“Hollywood Whodunnits” at the Brattle Theatre, including a triple feature of Meet Nero Wolfe (dir. Herbert Biberman, 1936), The Kennel Murder Case (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1933), and The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934). Triple feature on 11.23, films at 3:30, 5:15, and 7 pm, respectively. 35mm. Full program 11.22–11.27; see brattlefilm.org for schedule and showtimes. The Kennel Murder Case and The Thin Man are currently available on home video and VOD services; Meet Nero Wolfe is not.
During an interview recently published by Dig Boston, Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, described one of the many studio-filmmaking traditions represented in the HFA’s ongoing program “The B-Film: Low-Budget Hollywood Filmmaking 1935-1959”. “Within the studios, there was a willingness to take anything that was successful, even any element of a film that found success, and then reuse it,” he said. “[For instance, there are] all these wonderful B-movie series that we barely touch on, or not even at all, like the Boston Blackie films (1941-49), the Charlie Chan films, the Mr. Moto films (1937-39) … And those were very much in the same ecosystem as the B-film, as opposed to the chapter serial.”
As if on cue, arriving to fill in that gap is the Brattle Theatre, who today, Saturday, Nov. 23, will present a triple-feature of vaguely comedic detective features from the 30s as part of its own larger “Hollywood Whodunnits” repertory program, two of which very much qualify as entries in nonserialized B-movie series like those others that Guest mentions.
While the A-feature among the group, The Thin Man (11.23, 7 pm), has emerged as the dominant example of the “screwy detective” subgenre, there was, indeed, a whole decadeslong wave of films made in the same mode, with most of them produced via the B-movie model—meaning shorter runtimes, unstarry casts, and, often, lesser-known source material. And so while the healthily produced Thin Man is derived from a Hammett novel, the other two films in the Brattle triple, both B’s, therefore adapt other golden age detective authors that were not quite so popular either then or now. To be more specific, Meet Nero Wolfe (11.23, 3:30 pm), which stars Edward Arnold as the eponymous detective, is one of two films made by Columbia Pictures from the long-running series of Wolfe books written by Rex Stout; and The Kennel Murder Case (11.23, 5:15 pm), which features Thin Man co-star William Powell as the detective Philo Vance, is one of 15 Vance films made by various studios during the ’30s and ’40s, all loosely sourced from a series of novels originally written by the critic and author S.S. Van Dine.
Given the nature of their shared provenance, it’s to be expected that certain recurrences occur across all three movies, as even a baseline description of their respective plots may illustrate. The Thin Man, an MGM film, depicts a case investigated by the husband-and-wife team of Nick and Norah Charles (Powell—again—and Myrna Loy), wherein the disappearance of one man leads to the death of others; the cheerily drunk couple, at film’s end, bring all the suspects together for a dinner party/big reveal intended to out the elusive culprit. In Meet Nero Wolfe, we do just that, mostly staying with the shut-in private detective (Arnold) while his boy Friday, Archie Goodwin (Lionel Stander), does the legwork on a case that began when a man was mysteriously poisoned to death on a golf course via an unexpected contraption hidden in standard equipment (and to further illustrate the level of “recycling” not only common to Hollywood but inherent to the genre itself, this Nero Wolfe plot itself calls back to more than one mystery which has played at the HFA this season as part of “The B-Film”, like for instance Joe May’s 1939 film The House of Fear, which depicts an eccentric detective posing as a theater maven to help solve a long-cold case involving a performer who’d been mysteriously poisoned to death on stage via an unexpected contraption hidden in standard equipment). Finally, in The Kennel Murder Case, a WB film, Powell’s Vance is summoned upon the demise of an acquaintance, whose death the police believe to have been caused by suicide; but Vance, by a serious of investigations, demonstrations, and interviews, deduces that it was of course murder instead; and, wait for it, arranges for a meeting/big reveal intended to out the elusive culprit.
Meet Nero Wolfe, which is the most rarely screened of the three films but also in my estimation probably the least of them, is directed by Biberman in a manner more theatrical than literary, relying on long passages of dialogue that are enlivened not by the filmmaking so much as by the performances (particular Arnold and Stander, who push the film into a comedic mode that, for better or worse, is not totally embraced by most of their fellow actors). The Thin Man is directed by Van Dyke with a goofily choreographed, “screwball” manner that laces the film with humor even as most scenes do not actually tip into the mode of slapstick or even comedy; and for that reason many remember Thin Man as primarily focusing on the drunken antics of Nick and Norah, when in fact it’s far more of a traditional detective story than “screwball” may imply. Now, actually, the five movie-sequels that followed the original Thin Man adaptation do indeed focus more on the antics of Nick, Norah, and their iconic dog Asta, but in that they lack the zip and genre-swapping energy of the original. For me, the films in the Thin Man series, while eminently watchable, never quite rise to the highest echelon of their subgenre, and in fact, I may prefer a number of mostly forgotten screwy-detective movies, like William Dieterle’s Maltese Falcon-adaptation Satan Met a Lady (1936), to the entire Thin Man lot—but, forgive me, I’m getting off track.
After seeing it for the first time this week, give me The Kennel Murder Case over The Thin Man on most, though not all, days of the week. Curtiz’s film is a lively, excitingly constructed mystery story, taking an unexpectedly rigorous approach in terms of narrative, direction, and even montage: Vance’s solution of the case, spread out across the 73-minute runtime, is actually based on “scenes” of step-by-step deduction, which is counterintuitively somewhat rare within American mystery films of this era (or most others, for that matter). Take for instance one sequence in Kennel Murder where the detective uses tools and even instructional literature to illustrate how a door locked from the inside was actually locked from the outside: In that scene Curtiz utilizes insert close-ups of the lock itself, as well as playfully muffled sound design, to create an unusually textured depiction of both the space and the physical bodily actions being performed within it. The moment prizes the depiction of process without ever succumbing to the usual side effect of rendering the characters wooden or mechanical as a result—a quality that’s carried through the entirety of the feature (and one that is, of course, a great credit to the legitimately funny performances contained within it, not only Powell’s but also those given by the other screwball stalwarts of the cast, such as the great Eugene Pallette).
The Kennel Murder Case is also, bluntly, just more “stylish” than most of its peers from the era, propelled constantly into kinetic motion by techniques including the aforementioned use of inserts and other highly detail-oriented compositions. Take for example this fingerprinting sequence that utilize montage effects more common to 30s film trailers than to 30s films themselves; or, for another example, the whip pans that regularly bring us from one setting to another (in a trick oft-used to this day by modern “genre auteurs” including Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright). The use of whip pans and other camera movements for this exact purpose, it should be noted, is a feature of numerous B-films I’ve seen as of late, including Island of Doomed Men (1940) and Meet Nero Wolfe. But in Kennel Murder it’s not a mere affection, as in the other films, but more like one small piece within a larger show-offy cinematic architecture—significantly amplifying the effect itself, and the whole film along with it. Running like clockwork, designed with great flair, and guided by a careful eye, Kennel Murder is the rare detective picture that feels as if it could have been made by the investigator it depicts (a quality that’s shared, I suppose, by The Thin Man, which achieves something of a classy old-Hollywood beauty only when fully embodying the lackadaisical, slightly intoxicated glee of Nick and Norah).
Semi-related to the “Whodunnit” triple feature are at least two different contemporary-film-culture discussions currently playing out in the entertainment press, one “controversial” and one very much not. The uncontroversial one is the forthcoming release of director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), which opens in Boston on Nov. 27: The Brattle’s own notes for the “Whodunnit” program, which presents 10 films in total, announced that it was organized “in tribute to Rian Johnson’s insanely entertaining new film … with a particular focus on titles that have a direct connection to Johnson’s Massachusetts’ shot mystery”—hence the inclusion of a number of films that Johnson himself has personally cited as influences on Knives Out, including Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001, 11.22 at 7 pm and 11.23 at 12:30 pm), The Last of Sheila (1973, 11.25 at 4:30 and 7 pm), and Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982, 11.26 at 8:30 pm).
The other, more controversial connection is the contentious disagreement that began last month when director Martin Scorsese said, in essence, that films produced by Marvel Studios were “not cinema,” which is still yet playing out via interviews and op-eds published by outlets including the New York Times, where Scorsese expanded the point by writing: “What’s not there [in films produced by Marvel] is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. … They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
This passage eventually prompted a number of thoughtless retorts from actors and directors employed by the aforementioned Disney subsidiary; though to his credit Johnson, whose last film before Knives Out was the Disney-produced feature Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), offered one of the few wise responses, saying during a recent appearance at the BFI London Film Festival that “Martin Scorsese can like and not like whatever the fuck he wants”.
For the purposes of this article, the actual Marvel/Scorsese disagreement is quite beside the point. But his writing on the subject, and particularly the exact passage quoted above, has sat in the front of my thoughts while I’ve spent the last month or so watching B-movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, which despite being held up by many as an exemplar of the good old days of American cinema are pretty much exactly representative of Scorsese’s diagnosis of what is not cinema—that being “pictures made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and designed as variations on a finite number of themes.” This disparity, as hopefully goes without saying, is not being pointed out for the purposes of gotcha!-ing master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who is, to be quite clear, an artist whose own personal, institutional, and philanthropic efforts have been legitimately integral in preserving the memory and in some cases the very existence of American B-movies (to wit, at least one film showing at the Archive this weekend, Robert Florey’s 1937 feature Daughter of Shanghai, was preserved with support by the Scorsese-founded Film Foundation). But it’s a disparity still worth noting, I think, especially when trying to figure out what about the current slate of nonstop mega-budget blockbusters is truly so objectionable to large segments of American filmgoers, myself included; a group that, by most if not all accounts, grew up on and even continue to celebrate market-tested genre “products” themselves.
Now what Scorsese is really talking about, I think, either on or below the surface, is the unprecedented amount of space that these mega-budget films take up in the current marketplace. And more specifically, the way that occupied space seems to prevent a more egalitarian American film culture from taking shape—one that might, hypothetically, allow for significant theatrical distribution of films made for less than tens of millions of dollars. But it’s still worth considering: What is it that is so clearly lacking in the contemporary genre cinema, particularly the superhero subgenre, that has led us to convince ourselves, be it rightly or wrongly, that market-based genre filmmaking itself is the problem?
In films like The Thin Man and The Kennel Murder Case, we see all that seems to doom the genre cinema of the present: The fealty to formula; the repetition of concepts, character types, and themes; the unrelenting whiteness of the performers; the recurring sameness of the stories. Whether the passage of time has made these movies interesting or whether they’re actually superior artworks is, then, the question. But so much as one can determine it, I have my answer. It lies in the recognizably human qualities of the “old Hollywood” B-film as it has played out before me thus far in life, with Kennel Murder a prime example. And it lies in the pleasurably nuanced and sometimes even experimental manner of the performances, storytelling, and filmmaking techniques often contained therein. In those very qualities, and so many others, the majority of genre films made to satisfy the audience demands of the past illustrate all that’s missing in those made to satisfy the demands of the present.