So after sometime trying to establish a decent connection and running back and forth from the woods (yes the woods!) to the internet café, I think I'm throwing in the towel. You've given me your address a hundred times and so I suppose it should be exploited (…) The other issue with the connection is I can't watch anything, I have a few files on my desktop but I don't know if I can handle Méditeranné for the 10th time this week and I've been more obsessed with the audio track than the image anyway. In fact yesterday I found myself vacuuming the living room listening to the film as an mp3. The good news amidst all of this is that I ended up at a 7-11 just outside of Amherst the other day and found a box of 99-cent DVDs next to the cash register, all public domain stuff, and in that random box there was a Michael Curtiz double bill with The Walking Dead and The Kennel Murder Case.
Somewhere I still have your VHS copy of the Karloff, it looks to be about generation 9, and can't manage to track to a clear picture, but I love that tape because it reveals a kind of hand-made and home-made cinephilia on your part that I'm not sure is the same today (although something in these cheap double bill DVDs retains that spirit, or perhaps the purchasing of them does?). But, actually, as much as I love Walking, I'm entirely intrigued right now with Kennel.
It's odd because the film is made in '33, such and ominous date for 20th Century geopolitical developments, its all happening: the burning of the Reichstag, Hitler’s election the New Deal, etc. But I suspect after watching this film that it was also a transitional moment aesthetically between the twilight of detective fiction’s so-called Golden Age and the dawn of the moderns. I'm pretty sure Van Dine published the book version of The Kennel Murder Case that year as well. It's a classic hermetically sealed chamber mystery, with his amateur sleuth Philo Vance, the guy is the ultimate affect barren bourgeois dandy. But for sure in 33 Curtiz directed his adaptation, and I'm telling you the film unabashedly attempts to recreate precisely the novel’s pure rationality. And I feel like the result of his fidelity to the book is a document of a series of interrelated failures: there is a kind of failure of adaptation, a narrative failure to contain what the film form reveals, a failure of reason to restore bourgeois order (which was the most-high ambition of the Golden Age detective fiction) and really the most interesting, for me at least, a possible generic failure (…)
I remember reading a Nancy Harrowitz essay on Peirce and Poe where she talks about a long running debate that split opinion not only about the origin of the detective story but also about what constituted such a genre. One side found traces of the detective form as early as the Bible, while the other insisted that Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was the unequivocal founding document. What I like about this debate is not the first-itis, but the fact that in some sense both point to the idea that the emergence of the detective narrative served both an allegorical mode of representing the present while also producing denotative or even reportage-like accounts. Harrowitz also said something like is it merely coincidence that the detective form emerges as a genre around the same period as the establishment of the Marine and Napoleonic police forces? Someone else (Howard Haycraft I think), wrote that obviously there could be no detective novel until there were detectives.
But for me the writing on this form becomes more intriguing with Benjamin's account, I like the way he connects the dawn of the detective form as the suite logique of the physiologies; he ends up giving detective fiction a kind of therapeutic value: the detective novel expressed and quelled an anxiety provoked by modernity, crowds, the emergence of crime as a phenomena requiring a body dedicated solely to combating it (as opposed to relegating the duty to an army or some other private organization), and ultimately the rise of industrial capitalism. No surprise that this is the same moment that hypnotism (mesmerism) was being secularized, a few years later Marx would work out the base/superstructure model, and by the end of the 19th Century psychoanalysis would have matured while Marcel Proust tapped out his thoughts on memoire involontaire. Benjamin gets me to believe that the private detective was involved in a melancholic enterprise: a flash before the eyes of a catastrophe that has already occurred, ushered away with the same ungraspable speed, and the preemptive understanding that all that is to be revealed–recalling Winnicott–happened a long time ago. The detective’s work is to rescue reason from the chaos of the crime and its quickly fading symptoms, to single out the one figure who instantiates unreason. With this episteme-like emergence, the detective novel manages to assume its rightful place as a rational, teleological discourse among many.
Whatever, I wanted to tell you what this had to do with Curtiz's adaptation of The Kennel Murder Case, which actuallytakes formal risks at the level of camera movement and montage and even maintains Van Dine's classical and intricate plotting with multiple murders, and a wide array of weapons. But what I noticed about Kennel, what I think makes it pivotal, is its baroque solution to a crime and the totally disquieting fact that the film itself reveals this solution–as recounted by Vance–to be an impossibility. Meaning, among the delirious montage, the wipes, the diagonal split screen, the match dissolves and the seemingly unending series of highly choreographed lateral trajectories across the screen, you get the distinct impression that it is all attempting to flee–amid the madness of crime–the rationality that the aristocrat Philo Vance seeks to impose. The upshot of this is an inordinate display of faith in reason; its not that it is melancholic in tone, but rather symptomatically, in its very refusal to abandon syllogistic rationality at precisely the moment when reason is no longer sufficient. I really feel that the narrative is in conflict with its chosen form: in its effort to cull a ratio (I like this term, its what Kracauer was always going on about in his Roman Policier) from this skein the narrative has to deny what the film has presented to the audience, it has to erase the fact that the crime as it happened cannot have taken place as it is recounted.
Bare with me for a second, because I know you've seen it, and I'm sure you can even tell me the production designer and obviously the composer for the film, but I just want to set up what it is that happens, that I think makes this film a kind of Benjaminian, set-piece. The film opens with the presentation of the order it's going to try and restore: at a dog show pedigrees march in a perfect circle. When Vance's dog loses, he (Vance not the dog) decides to take a boat to Italy. At the dog show he meets the rich financier Archer Coe who is pretty detestable, and very clearly detested, so obviously motives are put into place for any misfortune that he might meet. Then there's the first murder, and its of a dog, effectively breaking down the orderly circle of bourgeois time represented in the opening.
Ok then there's the second destabilizing event (Archer Coe’s murder) which is a crane shot in a studio at night moving from one building to the next finally arriving at Coe’s office window. A light is turned on; a shot is fired, and so begins the mystery. This shot, when Vance announces the whole of his theory as to how the crime occurred, will be a particularly important pivot on which teeters a mad logic. The following morning the butler, finding the door to Coe’s room locked from the inside, peeks through the keyhole to see Coe dead in his chair with a pistol in his hand; he sits in a locked room, with a revolver in his hand and a bullet in his head: it is the quintessence of the hermetically sealed chamber conundrum. Vance doubts that it was suicide and soon enough the coroner corroborates this suspicion when he discovers blood in the corpses mouth, a blow to the head, and the piece de resistance, a knife wound in his back. What follows is a moment in which the logic of the film reveals itself in a piece of dialogue worthy of the Marx Brothers: Vance asks the bumbling chief of police (played by the under praised and gravel-voiced Eugene Palette) “What do you think of the suicide theory now?” his response: “Well, its slightly complicated for him to have shot, slugged, and stabbed himself, particularly in the back.”
Shortly after another corpse is found, and motive filled suspects are paraded out one after the other. But the film is still far less concerned with the “whodunit” form and much more interested in “howdunit.” (…) It is in the solution to the crime that the faith in reason is really brought to almost hysterical heights. Ok, so the first undoing is Vance’s assertion (culled from a book on unsolved murders found in the suitcase of the second victim!) that through an elaborate use of needle and thread the killer was able to enter the room, commit the murder and leave; he uses the needle and thread to lock the door behind him.
Then the second display of the film’s logic comes when Vance demonstrates how the crime unfolded. And this part I love, it seems so rich and pregnant with critique and failure and form. Maybe it's not there, and it's just me in the woods in central Mass with a 99 cent 7-11 DVD, but I know that when I watch this, I feel like Curtiz is himself announcing "Enough! Next we are high-modern." So, in order to explain the crime Vance has recourse to a miniature of the building and its surroundings, this has to be the literal transposition of the floor plans used in Van Dine’s book, they were standards of the locked room mysteries (I always felt like that graphic element announced that the publishers saw the detective novel as nothing more than an elaborate logic puzzle or find-a-word, to while away the commute). But in the film version of The Kennel Murder Case this device is entirely superfluous! I mean, there is no diegetic need for the miniature, but ironically (and this is where you probably skip my lines hoping to find a mention of the score) it serves as a visual stand in for this form of the genre folding in on itself. In this way, dwarfing the space of the crime the giant Vance retakes his place in the tradition of the masters of detection as being a master, an infallible and omnipotent seer. But movies don't need this type of schematic graphic rendition and it is at this moment that the film asserts its own power over the situation by employing what is ostensibly a flashback. Vance, “personifying social order”, recounts and we see, that is we see everything but whodunit; and there is a reason that we don’t see, because this is not a flashback but rather a fantasy, it is Vance’s dream of reason as he hovers above the house he claims to master.
Now, in his retelling of the crime there are two major events: an announcement of a break (quite literally) with the old form, and an aporia. In Chandler's essay The Simple Art of Murder he talked about the move from classic works of detection to the hardboiled fiction of a writer like Dashiell Hammett as a move from the Venetian vase to giving murder back to those who had a reason to commit it. So it is wonderfully ironic that a major turning point of the film turns on the disappearance of a precious Chinese vase in Coe’s prized collection, and during Vance’s explanation of how it all unfolded the vase is said to have broken while the murderer attempted to hide the murder weapon in it. From this break we move to the aporia, which was actually alluded to during the crane shot that portrays the night of the murder. In that shot the window of Coe’s office is in frame from the exterior. A light turns on and immediately a shot is heard. But Vance recounts something quite different, that someone entered the room (and again what Vance recounts is shown in the fantasy/flash-back), in which the lights were already on, and crept up upon what he thought was a sleeping Coe, and carefully shot Coe in the head, placed the gun in Coe’s hand and exited the room using the thread and needle as described before (…)
Brecht wrote that with the policier there has to be a contract, or even more than one: a contract of fair play between the author and the writer, or the writer and his characters and perhaps even between the detective and the criminal. There should be a a kind of egalitarian revelation of information and the time in which the events unfold in order for a fidelity to be maintained with the contract, and yet here is this instance in which the audience is given evidence that the detective is not privy to, we suddenly know more than he who is the master of the imbroglio! The film continues plodding on against the grain of its own evidence via a contrived announcement through radio and press that the crime has been solved, a ploy by Vance to ferret out the criminal. It is never really explained why this announcement would reveal anything, it is almost a stock trope of the genre that in the face of a disintegrating logic must be brandished to combat its potential demise: information is withheld, and the importance of Vance solving this crime is also the importance of Vance saving his role in his genre, which is seen as slipping away from him.
Then finally…whodunit. There is a grand scene at the end where everyone is assembled in the Coe apartment, and a Doberman pinscher suddenly attacks (inspired by Vance to be sure) the murderer. The murderer picks up the nearest object to defend himself from the dog, which is the fire poker that was used to bludgeon Coe. Vance is heard off-screen yelling “Ah the poker again, huh?!” Vance then rushes to rescue the murderer from the dog and while doing so forces the man to admit he is guilty.
The film closes with a rapprochement of two figures who I feel like normally stand in some opposition to one and other: the police officer and the private investigator. Together these two laugh at the solving of the crime, and I could help but think of the delirious and perverse Can-Can performed by the torturers at the end of Pasolini’s Salo, a joyous dance celebrating a forced triumph. But there is also discomfort in the laughter, a discomfort that might be from the fact that their days are numbered, their genre has imploded, the stakes have changed, and their very characters will soon be undergoing a profound transformation. Throughout the film Vance tries to remain a figure of intellect, in Futurelle’s term a ‘thinking machine’, but by the end he is rendered, not the brooding figure of neurosis that appears a few years later in film noir, film gris and the serie noire, but rather a figure of hysteria, he is a pure surface of syllogistic reason with each proposition being more flawed than the previous.
Bill I know you don't care much for some of this but I think you would do well to dig up the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel’s book Delightful Murder. I's one of my favorite pieces of writing about detective fiction, and he tracesa telling trajectory of how crime fiction evolved alongside the development and expansion of capitalism, but what I think would interest you is that it becomes apparent that whether Mandel intends to or not he is telling the story of a series of generic failures. One of the clearest indications of the various incapacities of crime fiction to account for capital comes at the end of the book when Mandel makes a move to non-fiction accounts of corporate crime. It is at this point that it seems the genre may need to develop new mutations in order to continue its original office. However, it may be that some movement towards non-fiction or documentary is precisely what developments in capital require for their successful interpretation. Obviously the genre persists, but the question is whether or not a genre that recounts singular crimes can clearly represent the situation of expanded capital in the 21st century, and if it can what sort of mutations need to take place in order for it to allegorize our present? One possibility is that as we move more and more towards a kind of corporate gangsterism, towards a world where petty criminals and even organized crime are rendered rather harmless in the face of this new admixture of crime and capital, allegory and fiction may no longer suffice at all. Another question is immediately posed as to what could possibly be a sufficient form for recounting of the present? (…) Though the technology has changed, film was at least at one time a “coming undone” foiled, a kind of madness, like the enigmatic crime needing to be corralled by reason. Film has its photogramme, crime its private detective, and both attempt to impede their respective arts from becoming like fireworks, what Adorno referred to as the sole “art that aspires not to duration but only to glow for an instant and fade away.” (…)
I'm sure I've tested your patience, but I hope somewhere in that dusty collection of home recorded VHS tapes all watermarked with the NY broadcast channels and replete with commercials, there is a copy of the film. Or perhaps its now buried under the generations of new recordings until your tape can't track to anything but blue screen.
See you on our return in late August.
July 2006 Northapmton, Mass
Paul Douglas Grant