Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review - "The Bishop Murder Case" (1930)

As Ogden Nash wrote:

            Philo Vance,
            Needs a kick in the pance

Few detectives have rivaled Philo Vance for the level of arrogance, pure pompousness and the abundance of unneeded words in his vocabulary. In retrospect, it's rather shocking that a man like this should be able to live on in a lengthy series of novels and then become popular in media.

I have never had the pleasure (or is misfortune) to read one of the original Vance novels. All of them are available on Kindle for a good price, so I may look into them in the future. For now, my knowledge of Vance comes from the series of films which were made about the detective beginning in 1930 and ending in 1940. For the longest time these films were not available on DVD. Luckily, Warner Bros. Archive Collection recently released all of them in the "Philo Vance Murder Case Collection." And so, I begin a series of reviews from this new DVD set with the first film in the collection, 1930's "The Bishop Murder Case" starring Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance.

"The Bishop Murder Case" was one of the first books to use the theme of people being murdered according to nursery rhyme. Joseph Robin, who goes by the name of "Cock Robin" is discovered murdered - with an arrow through his heart, much like the old nursery rhyme. All evidence seems to indicate a young man named Raymond Sperling, but Vance (Basil Rathbone) is not so sure. When a second murder occurs, also per a nursery rhyme, Vance and his friend District Attorney Markham have a far greater problem on their hands.

It's actually rather difficult to review this movie since I have not read the book, so I cannot say if the film follows the plot or not. I have some feeling that it does and if so there are points in the book which must be absolutely bonkers. "The Bishop Murder Case" has a quite eclectic cast of suspects everyone from the elderly professor to a hunchbacked man creeping through the shadows. In the style of the early talkie films, most of the actors over-act in the extreme. Modern day viewers should be warned - there is a lot of scenery chewing being done here. However, Basil Rathbone does not. Rathbone is truly the saving-grace of this film.

When "The Bishop Murder Case" was filmed in 1930, Rathbone was the second actor to take on the role of the society sleuth. William Powell had already played Vance twice in 1929's productions of "The Benson Murder Case" and "The Canary Murder Case" - the first two Philo Vance novels. Rathbone may seem like an unusual choice for the role of Philo Vance, perhaps because he has become synonymous in our minds as Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone's Philo Vance is a bit more reserved and less standoffish and pompous than the original. At times, he almost seems like a pretty likable guy who just so happens to be very good at solving mysteries. Rathbone's performance is stellar and he really paves the way for his future characterisation of Sherlock Holmes. The rest of the cast is sort of forgettable although there is Roland Young who puts in an appearance as one of the suspects. He doesn't have a great deal to do, but he makes the most of his time on screen.

As a mystery, "The Bishop Murder Case" is somewhat lackluster. It's got a wonderful premise which foreshadows later books such as "And Then There were None" and to some extent, "The ABC Murders." The only problem with early Hollywood adaptations of mystery novels is they try to end themselves too quickly. There is hardly enough time to build any character development before we've reveled that X is the murderer and you should all be surprised. There are plenty of suspects in this movie, and the identity of the murderer is finally reveled, it's very surprising but we have no time for this to sink in before the title card telling us the movie has come to and end is flashed up on screen.

In all, 1930's "The Bishop Murder Case" is an entertaining movie. There are certainly worse ways of spending an hour and twenty minutes. Basil Rathbone is wonderful in an early performance and really allows Philo Vance to mellow out. If anything this movie should be viewed more as an example of early movie making than a real mystery film. I award it 3 out of 5 stars.

Notes: "The Bishop Murder Case" is wonderfully preserved on "The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection" released by Warner Bros. Archive Collection. Although there are no special features to be had, the movie is in good condition. It's not perfect, but that can be expected from a movie which is 83 years old. The sound quality isn't the greatest - you have to strain to hear what some characters are saying, but the picture quality is great. To anyone who might have heard that the Archive Collection didn't feature any quality DVD transfers, this series does have nice-looking movies. In the first place one shouldn't be too picky - these movies are finally on DVD. And that's good enough.

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