“The Canary Murder Case” with William Powell is the first in the movie series about S.S.Van Dine’s character Philo Vance. Eugene Pallette is Sgt.Heath and E.H.Calvert is D.A. John F.X.Markham. Powell did three more in the series. Others to play the part include Basil Rathbone, Paul Lukas and Wilfred Hyde-White. The last movie was 1947′s “Philo Vance’s Secret Mission” with Alan Curtis in the title role.
Philo is at a club with his friend Charles Spotswood. Charles’ son Jimmy says he’s going to marry Margaret O’Dell (Louise Brooks) known as The Canary. Philo points out three men in the audience he says have all had affairs with The Canary.
Living down the hall from Margaret is Alice (Jean Arthur). Jimmy was going to marry her before he got mesmerized by Margaret. Charles drops by Margaret’s to try and convince her not to marry Jimmy. She says she’ll tell the police that Jimmy’s been embezzling money from Charles’ bank.
He leaves and Margaret makes phone calls to three men. She tells them she’s going to marry Jimmy and she wants a big check from each of them. Listening in is Tony Skeel (Ned Sparks). He’s her ex-husband who has just gotten out of jail. He warns her that he wants money and then leaves.
Charles returns and wants her to burn any letters from Jimmy. He realizes he’s over a barrel and then goes out into the hall to the desk and orders a cab. He and the desk clerk hear a scream. They go to Margaret’s door and she says she’s okay. Later on Charles looks through the keyhole. Margaret’s dead.
With Philo looking on Markham separately questions Jimmy, married man Louis Mannix, social reformer John Cleaver and Dr.Ambrose Lindquist. They all have alibis but Philo disproves them all except Jimmy’s. He was with Alice who is also at the police station..
While the suspects are gathered in another room Philo says he wants to get them in a poker game so he can determine who the murderer is. He tells Sgt.Heath that when he gives the signal break up the game by telling everyone they can leave.
During the long sequence Charles joins the game. Later Heath comes in and says they traced a fingerprint from Margaret’s closet. Someone was in there and saw everything. It belongs to Tony. His picture is passed around the table. Philo gives the signal and everyone leaves. Then Tony is murdered.
Later on Jimmy says he killed them both. Philo tells Markham he knows who the real murderer is and will tell him that night. He didn’t count on a complication. One part of the solution stretches credibility beyond the limit.
The movie is very talkie but overall not a bad early detective film. Jean Arthur is only in it for less than a minute. After a number of silents this was her first talkie. Her last appearance was on her sitcom “The Jean Arthur Show” as Patricia Marshall in 1966.