DVD Review: The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection

This DVD collection features six Philo Vance different Philo Vance movies starring six different actors. The films were released between 1929 and 1940 and includes Vance films that Warner Brothers either made or has the right to distribute.

The Bishop Murder Case

This film was released on New Year’s Eve in 1929, thus some sites state it was released in 1929 while others say 1930. It starred a mustached Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance a decade before he played Sherlock Holmes. He investigates the murder of a young man nicknamed Cock Robin. It’s the first in a series of a nursery-rhyme related crimes.

For the era, this isn’t a bad film. Basil Rathbone turns in a great performance and has a great sense of warmth as Vance in the same way he’d bring it to Holmes in a decade. The mystery has some interesting clues. A relatively young Roland Young also turns in a solid performance. James Dolan plays the obligatory dumb cop in Sergeant Heath. He is constantly shown up and plays the fool, but at least he’s an affable fool.

The mystery also has some interesting features, but it’s one of those mysteries where the detective doesn’t look as clever as the film thinks he is due to the sheer body count needed for him to solve the case.

It’s still an early talky and that brings some inherent flaws you have to adjust for. Many actors haven’t figured out how to deliver their lines in a film and give broad theatrical performances. The sound has weird moments as there are odd volume variations, the film has extremely wonky camera work and some weird angles. It also drags because it didn’t know when scenes should start and end, so there are some meaningless seconds (which add up over the course of a movie) in which actors are, in effect, standing around with no real purpose. Filmmaking would get better in the later 30s and 40s, but films from this era generally struggled with this. If we adjust for that, this is an interesting detective film.

The Kennel Murder Case: This film was released in 1933 and saw William Powell reprising the role for Warner Brothers after playing Vance in three films for Paramount. A wealthy man is found dead in a locked room in the middle of getting undressed, and it’s thought to be suicide, but Vance disagrees and it’s thought the man was killed by his brother, but that theory quickly runs into trouble.

There’s a lot to like about this film. For the time, it’s technically proficient. It tries some methods out that add visual appeal. Split-screen phone conversations and Vance using a full-scale model of the neighborhood to explain his theory of the crime are highlights. The cast is superb. Powell is so likable and charismatic, it hardly matters that the film doesn’t make Vance sympathetic in the way the book did. Mary Astor features, and Eugene Pallette is the perfect actor for Sergeant Heath.

The story is good as far as it goes. The solution in the film is as ludicrous as in the book, but these type of mysteries were fashionable at the time.

The one thing I have to emphasize is that do buy this DVD set just to see this film. The Kennel Murder Case has long been in the public domain and nothing is special about this print that couldn’t be obtain from any free, legal public domain copy.

The Dragon Murder Case

In this 1934 film, a man attending a well-to-do dinner party disappears while swimming, presumably drowning, but there’s no body. Philo Vance (Warren William) is called into investigate.

At 66 minutes, this has a strong second feature feel. It’s inhabited by broad characters played fairly well with no character going too far. Pallette returns at Sergeant Heath and is quite a bit of fun. Warren William is fine as Vance if a bit generic.

The story’s entertaining and plays with the idea of whether a sea monster might be involved. The running time leads to a slightly rushed conclusion. However, if you’re looking for a fun little B-movie, this will definitely do.

The Casino Murder Case

A wealthy socialite receives a threatening letter and murder follows.

At 82 minutes, this 1935 film feels too long. Paul Lucas plays Vance with as much charm as he can bring, but he can’t overcome one fundamental problem. His continental accent is a poor fit for Vance. Rosalind Russell gives a decent performance that’s wasted on a less memorable cast than prior films.

It’s not the worst story, but it’s below average in terms of script and most of the talent in it, and I can’t recommend it.

The Garden Murder Case

In this 1936 film, A wealthy man is murdered and it’s suspected someone who lives in his apartment did it. Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) investigates.

This one is only 61 minutes long but feels longer. The mystery has some interesting points, butthere are so many scenery chewing moments by the supporting characters, which feels more odd with Lowe’s relatively bland performance as Vance. Virginia Bruce is probably the best part of the picture, but the romance between her character and Vance seemed forced.

This is by far, the weakest film in the set.

Calling Philo Vance

This film was another adaption of the Kennel Murder Case released in 1940 after Vance’s Creator S.S. Van Dine passed away. This time it was done as a low-budget B-picture. While remaking a superb film as a cheap knock-off would be majorly offensive to me usually, this movie does have an interesting twist. This time the movie was about espionage.

World War II had started in Europe. While the U.S. was still neutral, there was a lot of interest in all the international intrigue. So it seems like someone decided, ‘Let’s do the Kennel Murder Case, but this time with spies.” Vance (James Stephenson) was doing counterespionage regarding aircraft designs which is what all the suspects want. It’s hilarious as  most of the suspects who were normal civilians in the book and first movie turn out to be foreign agents desperate to get their hands on aircraft designs. The movie is about as neutral as the U.S. officially was at the time, not preferring one foreign agent over another.

Stephenson is no William Powell but he’s charming enough and fun. If you have seen The Kennel Murder Case, there are a few moments where the film’s low budget shows, such as when Vance uses a paper map rather than the full-sized city models of the first film. There are also some bizarre changes that don’t seem to be for any reason, like changing District Attorney Markham’s initials to “JP” and changing Sergeant Heath’s name to Sergeant Ryan.

While it can’t hold a candle to The Kennel Murder Case, this isn’t a bad little film at all.

Overall, this is a tough set to recommend. On one hand, it has one good movie on it. On the other hand, that movie can literally be watched anywhere. The rest of the films are unremarkable and while they’re not all bad, so many films were as good or better than these.

if you’re a big fan of Philo Vance, or a fan of Basil Rathbone who’d enjoy the novelty of seeing him play a non-Holmes detective, this could be worthwhile. Otherwise, I’m not certain you’ll get much out of it.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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