The Canary Murder Case (1929)

Directed by Malcolm St. Clair & Frank Tuttle
Written by S.S. Van Dine & Florence Ryerson

Thus far in the marathon, we’ve had three movies that are perhaps only tangentially about poker. None have featured an actual game where any play or hands became important to the telling of the story. We don’t even know for sure what variant of poker any of the characters have been playing. Well, that all changes with The Canary Murder Case, as while the movie itself is not directly about poker, it does feature our first full on poker scene (stay tuned later for when I cover in detail the hands that were played!). Featuring poker heavily as part of the resolution of the central conflict of the film, The Canary Murder Case becomes a unique entry into the marathon not just as being the first, but perhaps being one of the better ideas of presenting the game we’ll uncover throughout the entirety of the marathon itself. Now, just because the film itself features poker nicely, and it plays an important role in the film, doesn’t also necessarily equate to the actual movie being any good, it’s actually quite bad, but it is an exciting development for the purposes of this marathon.

Margaret O’Dell (Louise Brooks), or The Canary, is a sultry high wire act who gets her kicks from blackmailing her many suitors having an affair with her. Principle among those are Jimmy Spotswoode (James Hall), who to the delight of his father Charles (Charles Lane), finally breaks off his affair in favor a true fit with Alice La Fosse (Jean Arthur), one of the Canary’s neighbors. But when one night, the Canary turns up strangled to death, ace detective Philo Vance (William Powell) is called in to investigate. The problem? There are half a dozen suspects with the motive to off the Canary, including Cleaver (Lawrence Grant) and Mannix (Louis Bartels) who have also been blackmailed for their affairs. Hit with a stroke of genius, Vance decides to coax the suspects into a game of poker while they are detained at the police office for questioning, claiming that a man’s true nature is revealed only at the poker table, and that by observing this game, he can pick out the one true culprit.

With The Canary Murder Case we transition the poker movie marathon into the era of sound. Sort of. You see, The Canary Murder Case was originally developed as a silent film under the direction of credited director Malcolm St. Clair. But with the release and innovation of The Jazz Singer, featuring a singing Al Jolson, in 1927, the studio presumably shifted gears and brought on Frank Tuttle to direct new sound scenes. The result is some mashed up mess of a movie which really shows its seams. Like The Dancing Cavalier, the fake movie from Singin’ in the Rain, the transition to sound pictures was not seamless for all. As a result, this film features a number of performances that come across very wooden, as though the troupe of actors was just getting used to the idea of having to speak on film, and not communicate action/feeling through movement only. It doesn’t help either that the film is very poorly scripted and paced, again a likely consequence of these artists learning the new game of having to write full dialogue and not just title cards. It doesn’t help matters by featuring a very unfortunate and overtly racist depiction of a black doorman with a terrible stutter, which adds nothing to the atmosphere other than aging terribly. The finished product ends up being a mash of very unnatural looking, sounding and feeling things that never really works, expect when detective Philo Vance sets up a game of poker to suss out the killer.

What the film does have going for it is the classic whodunit scenario, with multiple believable suspects, all with a motive to commit the crime. In fact, The Canary Murder Case is a very early example of Hollywood IP (Intellectual Property). Today, the theaters are crowded with IP such as Marvel, but this is the first of four Philo Vance murder case films featuring William Powell. Not sure how successful they were given this jumping off point, but fascinating nonetheless. The film also has the poker scene going for it, as it’s largely the only thing that really works in the entirety of the film. Reflecting on the film, I really think this is a case of poor execution of a great scenario. Whodunit’s are always exciting, even when they might not be the best of the genre. It’s a very forgiving genre, because even if the resolution is a letdown, the journey it takes us on if often rewarding enough. In the case of The Canary Murder Case, the journey is a tough sit thanks to the technical and artistic deficiencies of the film. They really distract from any momentum the central mystery may garner. But the poker game at least caught and kept my attention. In fact, let’s take a moment to look at that scene in more detail…

Hand Analysis

The concept of the poker game is interesting, but I have to say, I’m not sure I agree 100% with Philo Vance in his conception of the game. He states that a man’s true nature is revealed in a game of poker. To some extent I think that is true, especially at the low stakes, amateur level of the game. Tentative people will play tentatively, aggressive people will play aggressively, logical people will play logically. But I do think there is some room for interpretation. The beauty of the game of the poker is that there are countless ways in which to play the game, and none of them is necessarily right over another way. In fact, most accomplished players will change gears and play multiple styles over the course of a long cash game session or tournament. Keeping your opponent on their heels, unaware of your approach and strategy can be very effective. So to say that every player will play exactly one way all the time, and that one way will reflect their personality outside the game is a little bit of a stretch to me. There is some truth to it, and perhaps in 1929 playing with a bunch of amateurs it is 100% true. But definitely in today’s day and age, with incredible amounts of resources available to learn poker strategy and practice the game, it’s far more advanced and difficult to play because even the casual players are better.

I do also want to mention how easily the poker game came together. With nothing else to do while they were waiting, the suspects jumped at the chance to start a game. Certainly their boredom contributed, but there was genuine excitement to play the game among the suspects as well, which to me helps frame the fact that the game was then and still is now very popular. Anyway, without further ado, let’s look at the variant, and the three hands that are featured in the movie:

The Game: Jackpots – 5 Card Draw
In the film, Philo Vance proposes they play the game “Jackpots”, which is a style of 5 card draw, which used to be the standard poker game played back in the day. Fans today will recognize that Hold’em is the game of choice basically since the turn of the century, but 5 card draw used to be the choice. Today, 5 card draw is likely still played in some home games, but its popularity has basically been wiped out entirely. They don’t even have an event for it at the World Series of Poker anymore, and haven’t for some time. Looking at the history and evolution of the game, I would say 5 Card Draw was king for a while, and then 7 Card Stud took over in the middle of the century before giving way to Hold’em. Certainly other variants were popular and likely saw their time at the top. We’ll look at a film later in the marathon that is literally called 5 Card Stud.

Traditional 5 Card Draw is as follows: Every player is dealt 5 cards, of which they use to make their own 5 card poker hand. After the deal, betting starts left of the dealer. In the case of “Jackpots”, a popular variant of the game, in order to open betting after the initial deal, the player is required to have at least a pair of jacks or better. After the round of betting, all remaining players who have not folded get to draw. You can choose to discard any number of cards from your hand and draw the equal amount from the remainder of the deck. After the draw, there is another round of betting, and then the cards are revealed. Best 5 card high hand takes the pot. There are some other variants of 5 Card Draw called “lowball” games, where the worst hand, or low hand, wins the pot.

Hand #1
Philo’s first opponent to investigate is Cleaver, who presumably opens the pot (we join the hand part way through). After getting just one call from Dr. Ambrose, they go to the draw. Cleaver draws three, while Dr. Ambrose only two. As the aggressor, Cleaver bets after the draw only 1 white chip, essentially a $1 bet, likely the minimum. Dr. Ambrose quickly calls and wins with three Aces to Cleaver’s lowly pair of Jacks.

Cleaver – JJxxx
Dr. Ambrose – AAAxx

Analyzing the hand from Cleaver’s perspective, I think it is likely proper for him to open the pot pre-draw with his openers of JJs. It is even perhaps proper for him to continue betting post-draw with his pair, even to such a small amount. If Ambrose were to raise his post-draw bet, he can likely easily fold. A check would be correct as well since he has such weak made hand. But if Ambrose were to bet, he would be put to the test to call or fold. By betting out, and betting small, he decides the sizing and has an easy fold to a raise.

Analyzing the hand from Dr. Ambrose’s perspective, I think we can find that he played the hand improperly, which is exactly the note Philo Vance also took in order to rule him out as a true suspect. Ambrose plays this hand way too tentatively. We are not privy to his hand pre-draw, but drawing only two cards, we can presume he has at least a pair of aces pre-draw, if not already three of a kind. In either case, I think a raise can be in order. Even a pair of aces is a premium pre-draw hand in this game, but if Ambrose was dealt three of a kind, I think a raise pre-draw is mandatory to prevent other players from drawing to better hands, and also charge them to attempt those draws. Post-draw, just calling a single chip bet is the crime of the century. Will Cleaver call a raise given his timidity of betting just one chip? Likely not, but you never know. If Ambrose were to raise small, Cleaver may be tempted to call, therefore making Ambrose more money with his assured best hand of three Aces.

As Vance properly assessed, Dr. Ambrose is far too conservative a poker player to have been able to carry out a murder.

Hand #2
This hand is the first where Vance gets directly involved, and we’ll see he is not exactly playing properly, but rather paying for information, which in the game of poker it can sometimes be beneficial to pay off a bet when you suspect you might be beat so you can see what cards your opponent is playing. This information can be invaluable further down the line when you have a real hand you can make more money off of, or if you suspect your opponent to be bluffing or weak and can get him off his hand. In the case of Vance, he uses the information to rule out his opponent, who in this case is Mannix.

In this hand, Vance decides to open the pot pre-draw, with Mannix as his only caller. Vance decides to draw two cards, while Mannix stands pat, meaning he keeps the five cards that were dealt to him originally. After the draw, Vance checks to Mannix, who bets all-in (all of his chips), and Vance calls. We never see Vance’s cards (again it doesn’t matter because he is presumably only calling for information), while Mannix lays out a straight flush, the highest hand in poker, with 5♠ 6♠ 7♠ 8♠ 9♠. The lesson here for Vance is that Mannix will only bet a sure thing, again a relatively conservative strategy not dissimilar to Dr. Ambrose, ruling him out as a suspect.

Again we have a case where Mannix did not play the hand particularly well. In 5 Card Draw, it is very difficult to play deceivingly when you have a huge hand such as this. By standing pat, it shows a ton of strength, likely three of kind or even more likely better, a straight, flush, or full house. But when Mannix knows he will stand pat, should he not also raise pre-draw with such a strong hand? He might be able to lull Vance into betting again after the draw by only calling, but by then Vance will also know that he is standing pat and likely check, as he does.

The real interesting spot in this hand is the decision by Mannix to go all-in after Vance checks. You might think, why bet so big and scare him off? Well, we know in the case of Vance, whether he has a hand or not, he is likely calling because he wants more information, but let’s imagine it’s a different player whose motivations are solely to try to win the hand. What does this bet, after standing pat look like? Well, to me it’s either the nuts (the best possible hand), which is what Mannix actually has, or it’s a bluff. By standing pat and then betting big, Mannix has “polarized” his hand as either being extremely strong, or extremely weak, which puts middle strength hands to the test. A common, but daring strategy in 5 Card Draw games is to “snow”, which means to stand pat with a weak hand to convey strength to your opponent, allowing you to bluff at the hand more easily. Whether Mannix or Vance are advanced enough to attempt this play, or to pick up on it is as good a question as any. But in the end, I think as an advanced strategy, the way Mannix played the hand is actually pretty interesting. Of course, in order to pull off such a play, you’d likely have to know that your opponent is smart enough realize there is a chance you are bluffing. If they don’t pick up on such things, then such a large bet will likely never be called as many opponents will simply assume you have a big hand. In this case, betting much smaller so they are more tempted to call would be the correct play.

Hand #3
The third and defining hand of the poker game in The Canary Murder Case involves Vance and Charles Spotswoode, and sort of builds off of what we talked about in Hand #2. The pot is opened by another player pre-draw to 1, and then Spotswoode raises to 10. Vance is the only caller. Vance draws three, while Spotswoode stands pat, like we saw Mannix do with the straight flush. After the draw, Vance leads out for 20, then Spotswoode raises to 40, Vance raises back to 60, and finally Spotswoode goes all-in, a bet which Vance calls. The showdown of the hands is again very surprising, but of course we know Vance is not playing properly, but rather paying off bets for information. Spotswoode readily shows his hand. Only a pair of deuces. Vance is forced to fold, claiming he had called the all-in bet with only Ace high, giving the pot unexpectedly to Spotswoode. The table is amazed at the outcome, as I would be if we didn’t know Vance’s motives in the game.

So essentially what this hand shows is the opposite of what Mannix did. They both stood pat, and ended up betting big post-draw. In the case of Mannix, he had the goods. In the case of Spotswoode, he was bluffing. There is no way he could have thought his pair of deuces would be good either pre-draw or post against Vance. He was simply trying to get him off his hand. He was “snowing”. To Vance, this tendency shows him that Spotswoode is the type of gambler that would be capable of carrying out the murder of The Canary. But in the case of analyzing the poker hand, my commentary would be that Spotswoode attempted a very advanced play that would likely work against many opponents, but in this particular case again Vance, Spotswoode lacked the power of observation and being able to assess his opponent. If Spotswoode had been paying attention to the game, he would have remembered the hand between Vance and Mannix. And while we did not see any other hands, I have to imagine knowing Vance’s general motive and strategy in this game, he was likely calling people down quite a bit in hopes of seeing the suspects hands and strategies. Given this tendency, Vance is not an opponent I would suggest trying to bluff. He has shown tendencies of a “calling station”, which is a term for somebody that is usually not aggressive themselves, but tends to never fold, choosing instead to simply call their opponents bets. This is not the type of player you should be bluffing. Instead, with a calling station, you should be betting more when you have a hand, knowing they will likely call you with worse. That includes even betting when you might have a marginal made hand to eek out a little more value. Spotswoode’s decision to bluff this type of an opponent, even while using an advanced strategy, was a poor decision, even if he ended up winning the pot anyway when Vance revealed he had Ace high.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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