Call the “Philo Vance Murder Case Collection” an excellent opportunity to get six classic mystery films from the 1930’s on DVD and into your collection. The good folks at Warner Archive have put together the best copies available of these half-dozen who-dun-its. Someday maybe they’ll get fully restored. But, in the meantime, jump on this one.
Philo Vance was one of America’s première fictional detectives of the early 20th century. His popularity waned with the coming of World War Two, but his stylish ways were all the rage with mystery fans who craved his sophisticated approach to a good murder.
Several prominent actors played Vance over the years, but none better than William Powell. My hope is that some of Powell’s Vance films from the late 1920’s will be found and restored some day.
Here is a summary of the six films included in this collection:
“The Bishop Murder Case” (1930)-Stars a pre-Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance. Overly melodramatic murder yarn with the cast throwing their voices like it was a stage production. Too many characters were made up to look like fiends. The references to Sherlock Holmes were amusing. Rathbone would several years later become the definitive Holmes and the early seeds of that character were planted in this Vance mystery. Grade: C
“The Kennel Murder Case” (1933)-William Powell returns to the role that he originated in the late 1920’s. This is perhaps the finest of all the Vance films. It was directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz and features an early performance by Mary Astor. The acting in “Kennel” is more realistic in style than previous entries. The solution to the crime was satisfying and Powell’s performance was a precursor to his success in coming years as Nick Charles in “The Thin Man” series. Grade: A
“The Dragon Murder Case” (1934)-a moderately interesting murder tale with Warren William as Philo Vance, looking into a tragic drowning at a ritzy estate that could be murder. Grade: B-
“The Casino Murder Case” (1935)-One of the more intriguing casting choices with the heavily accented Paul Lukas as Vance. Excellent production values. Silly plot. And, the beautiful Rosalind Russell in one of her early roles. Grade: B
“The Garden Murder Case” (1936)-another entry with familiar MGM contract players, including Edmund Lowe as Vance. Nat Pendleton adds some humor. Mostly forgettable. Grade: C-
“Calling Philo Vance” (1940)-A remake of “The Kennel Murder Case” except with European spies. This was about the time that the Germans and Austrians became the usual bad guys in Hollywood mystery films. James Stephenson is a ho-hum Vance. Many of the scenes are directly lifted from the William Powell version described above. Grade: B-
The “Philo Vance Murder Case Collection” is only available through the studio outlet: www.warnerarchive.com True mystery fans should not be without it.
Here’s a clip from “Calling Philo Vance”