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Philo Vance: On Your Case
by Adam Hakari

Though popular in his time, history has rendered Philo Vance a most humble of screen detectives. He lacks the notoriety of Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan's nuggets of wit and wisdom, and the character didn't even have a stable home back in the day. Author S.S. Van Dine's hero -- a metropolitan sleuth who enjoyed a good case as much as he did the finer things in life -- ended up being shuffled about from studio to studio, a slew of actors assuming the well-coiffed mantle but none owning it with a definitive depiction. In spite of that, however, Vance lived on in a number of vintage thrillers, six of which the Warner Archive Collection crew has assembled into one convenient set: the Philo Vance Murder Case Collection.

The Bishop Murder Case (1930). A victim takes a literal shot to the heart when he's found with an arrow in his chest. It seems to be just a matter of shaking down a house full of suspects, until Philo Vance (Basil Rathbone) arrives on the scene and quickly digs up a series of murders in the making. The first thing you'll probably notice about The Bishop Murder Case is its star, who would find great success playing a certain bedeerstalkered detective on the screen. But though the role of Sherlock Holmes (who's name-dropped more than once here) was nine years off, it's fun to see Rathbone's Philo exhibiting certain traits that would be synonymous with the Baker Street marvel (i.e. butting heads with the lagging authorities, using deductive reasoning, etc.). Unfortunately, that's just about the only way to wring any enjoyment out of what unfolds into a rather dull procedural. While some nifty camera set-ups try to liven things up, The Bishop Murder Case is all but sunk by its inherently stiff staginess. The script suffers from a critical lack of wit and pacing, and despite characters almost constantly explaining what's going on, you still somehow manage to get lost trying to solve the mystery with them. Rathbone appears dapper as ever, but The Bishop Murder Case needs more than a snazzy tux to grab the gumshoes in the audience.

The Kennel Murder Case (1933). Archer Coe collected as many enemies as he did ancient artifacts. So when he turns up dead of an apparent suicide, Philo Vance (William Powell) is the only one who thinks murder must be afoot and sets about sniffing out the culprit. Having played the character in three previous pictures, Powell donned Philo's stylish duds one last time in The Kennel Murder Case. Whereas its predecessor's every step felt as stodgy as could be, Kennel feels fresh and alive from the get-go. Casablanca's Michael Curtiz steps behind the camera and gives us a suspenseful good time that flies by, thanks to a snappier screenplay and sophisticated editing techniques. Smash cuts, flashbacks, and split-screens cut out any surplus dead air, letting Powell sort through a complex pile of clues with a greater feeling of urgency. The crime at the core of this potboiler isn't all so easy to crack, especially with a list of suspects and motives as thick as the phone book. On the downside, the comedy could use some work (less silly supporting characters, more snark), and again, I found myself scratching my head as some of Philo's deductions. But in spite of a few niggling flaws, The Kennel Murder Case comes across as a neat vintage whodunit that doesn't disappoint.

The Dragon Murder Case (1934). At a high-society bash, one guest plunges into the pool...and never resurfaces. Despite no corpse to speak of and a daffy old lady ranting about dragons traipsing around, Philo Vance (Warren William) is certain that one of the many partygoers with an axe to grind is a calculating killer. With William Powell having left to gorge on martinis in the Thin Man series, The Dragon Murder Case saw the role of Philo Vance assumed by Warren William. More than even Basil Rathbone in The Bishop Murder Case, William's arrival brought out the character's more smug and posh qualities; just watch how he nonchalantly asks who got killed and why when word of the crime reaches him. A little bit of levity helps loosen up The Dragon Murder Case, which flirts with speechiness a number of times. But it's all good, especially with a doozy of a death waiting to be unraveled, thanks to some keen observation and a little sleight-of-hand. It's a mystery in the mold of The Bat Whispers and The Cat and the Canary, wherein the evidence is so strange, the possibility of the supernatural playing a part can't be altogether excluded. At only 66 minutes, The Dragon Murder Case is brief, but for that hour and change, you'll be eager to see how Philo saves the day this time.

The Casino Murder Case (1935). Played here by Paul Lukas, Philo Vance is summoned by a strange letter to stop a young man from gambling his fortune away at a casino. But when the fella falls ill and his wife dies of a mysterious poisoning, Philo vows to uncover the killer and what his/her bizarre methods of murder are at any cost. The Casino Murder Case is easily the lightest of this set of features, having learned to better marry the subject of death with Philo's debonair persona. Eric Blore is brought in to provide comic relief in a role not unlike the one he perfected in Swing Time and The Gay Divorcee, and Rosalind Russell is onhand as a romantic interest for our suave sleuth. It's traditional stuff, but The Casino Murder Case offers a good deal more fun than previous Vance outings, allowing him to trade barbs and charm the ladies instead of lecturing everyone for 80 minutes. Jarring as it is to first hear Lukas' Hungarian accent after seeing Philo Vance portrayed by Brits and Americans, he slips into the swing of things smoothly and is wracking his brain over killings with Hildy Johnson herself at his side in no time. While The Casino Murder Case isn't the most intricate of cinema puzzlers, it's still a ball to laugh with and be thrilled by.

The Garden Murder Case (1936). When a jockey seemingly takes his life in the middle of a race, Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) is already there on the scene. His suspicions of homicide are further stoked when more bodies turn up, forcing him to seek out a madman before an innocent suspect takes the blame. In a series that never expanded its stories very much to begin with, The Garden Murder Case feels like a throwaway entry. We have yet another overhauled cast, though one that brings back Etienne Girardot as the long-suffering coroner Dr. Doremus after replacing him in the last film. No one's outright awful or anything, but nothing about this feels much like a Philo Vance adventure. Any other crime-solving character could've been put in Philo's place, and The Garden Murder Case wouldn't have changed a bit. Lowe performs well and has some good zingers in him ("Where there's smoke, there's always Philo!"), but he comes across as too casual and relaxed for as mannered a protagonist as the one he's portraying. The main mystery is also a mixed bag, starting off on an intriguing note before closing out with sort of a stock twist. There's enough excitement in The Garden Murder Case to give it more of a pulse than Bishop could claim, but it sure sours up the solid streak the series had going for it til this point.

Calling Philo Vance (1940). At the start of this wartime outing, Philo Vance (James Stephenson) has graduated from upper-class investigator to straight-up secret agent. In the employ of Uncle Sam, Philo is looking for evidence against a traitorous aircraft architect -- one who soon turns up dead under weird circumstances. All in all, Calling Philo Vance is basically a remake of The Kennel Murder Case, only with timely references to World War II. It's tough to look at this one separately from its predecessor, but while the stories unfurl basically the same way (with just minor tweaks made), Calling Philo Vance simply doesn't stack up as well under scrutiny. The first ten minutes, in which Philo evades Nazis in Vienna, seem tacked on and lifted wholesale from an entirely different film. The added element of missing airplane blueprints bears scarce suspenseful fruit; if anything, it takes away Kennel's conceit of the deceased being such a rotten jerk, anyone had a reason to do him in. But though following Philo coming upon clue after clue isn't as fun after knowing who done it already, the film is mostly enjoyably-paced, and Stephenson brings a snooty, note-perfect edge to his take on the character. It's not awful, but as both murder mystery and morale-booster for our boys in Europe, Calling Philo Vance is a fairly undercooked dish.

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