Philo Vance Murder Case Collection
(USDVD release date: 5 Feb 2012)
S.S. Van Dine created dapper, wealthy, pretentious amateur detective Philo Vance as an American answer to Sherlock Holmes. Vance was an insufferable elitist who employed a valet and digressed on intellectual and cultural matters. His 12 novels were bestsellers in the 1920s and 30s, while Warner Brothers, MGM and Paramount alternated film rights. The Warner and MGM entries are now gathered in this Warner Archive on-demand set, and the circumstances of casting yield six movies with never the same star twice.
Basil Rathbone gives an excellent preview of his later approach to Sherlock Holmes in his languid, patrician, bath-robed, art-deco’d portrayal in The Bishop Murder Case. This early talkie shows off spacious sets (sometimes apparently with trick shots), while the stagy approach is underlined by the credit for two directors, one for film direction (Nick Grindé) and one for stage direction (David Burton).
The murder-by-arrow is a bizarre and sinister parody of the Cock Robin nursery rhyme. When the alarmed house-owner calls the District Attorney (not the police?) to report the murder, that public official leaps into action by declaring “I’ll get Philo Vance on this at once!” No mention of the cops, who aren’t important. In fact, a running gag through the series is that official deductions are always a few steps behind Vance; most of the plots feature him rescuing a pretty damsel from accusation by the cops and D.A., who never know what they’re doing but let Vance commandeer the proceedings. One suspect is played by young Delmer Daves, who demonstrates why it was an auspicious day when he went into writing and directing; in fairness, the entire cast overacts for the cheap seats.
In The Kennel Murder Case, William Powell gives a more sober preview of his approach to Nick Charles; he’d already played Vance in three earlier Paramounts. What a difference is provided in the direction of Michael Curtiz, who employs an intimate and fluid camera with elegance. One elaborate pan up and across a courtyard seems to use a hidden cut and ends with a moment of slow motion. He also casts his beloved shadow effects as often as possible, most effectively during the flashback reconstruction of the complicated double-murder. Mary Astor is the fetching damsel in trouble.
Warren William was similarly dapper to Powell but often tougher; he would also play Perry Mason and the Lone Wolf. He shows up for The Dragon Murder Case and would return as Vance in Paramount’s comedic The Gracie Allen Murder Case (not here). It’s a serviceable, complicated mystery with that whiff of the fantastic (a body disappears from a mysterious pool) that often marks Vance’s bafflers.
Most baffling of all is that everybody ignores Paul Lukas’ accent (half French, half Dracula) in The Casino Murder Case. We find it the most lightly amusing entry in the set, and yet amid the comedy it finds room for a solid mystery if you ignore the nonsense about “heavy water”. Lukas is surrounded by attractive comic players, including the sexy Rosalind Russell as the damsel (who chastizes Vance when he uses too many four-dollar words), Eric Blore as his valet, Alison Skipworth as a flighty battle-axe, and troupers Louise Fazenda, Leo G. Carroll and William Demarest. Perhaps we also like it because we were able to figure out whodunit without it seeming too obvious.
There’s another touch of the fantastic (undermining credibility) about the complexities of The Garden Murder Case. Edmund Lowe is a forgettable hero, though Virginia Bruce is an appealingly independent and lovely damsel. Also forgettable is James Stephenson in Calling Philo Vance, which opens with Vance turning spy in the service of WWII, which the U.S. hadn’t yet entered. After that unlikely detour, it settles into a pretty close remake of The Kennel Murder Case.