Monday, May 27, 2013

Review - "The Dragon Murder Case" (1934)

The last Philo Vance movie which I looked into, "The Kennel Murder Case" featured the standard lock-room, impossible crime mystery. The next film to be released, "The Dragon Murder Case" took the concept of the impossible crime one step further. While going for a late night swim, a man jumps off of a swimming pool diving board and doesn't resurface. There were a number of witnesses who saw him up into the pool, but even after the pool is drained his body is nowhere to be found. What happened to him and where did he go? Detective Philo Vance (Warren William) steps in to investigate.

The premise of S.S. Van Dine's "The Dragon Murder Case" has got to be one of the best in the mystery genre. It takes the usual impossible crime scenario and builds upon it dramatically. It's a great concept and one of the best ideas for a mystery story that I have come across. However, the execution is let down somewhat by the introduction of a second plot device which really doesn't go anywhere. However, let's focus on the positive first. Aside from the premise, the film's greatest asset is Warren William as Philo Vance. William has great charisma and he looks as though he's a ball playing the part. His performance is thus far the  most pompous and most true to the original character of the detective. You also never forget that this Philo Vance is firmly integrated in high society. He waltzes around the first part of the film dressed in a tuxedo, smoking an endless number of cigarettes and playing a game of billiards with his friend, D.A. Markham.

In addition to the characterization of Philo Vance, the rest of the movie succeeds in portraying the high society in which the story is set. The opening moments find the characters driving about in luxurious cars and the set of the house in which the story is set is beautiful with a number of strategically placed fish tanks. It's a beautiful sight to behold. Perhaps some of the reasoning behind this great direction and characterization is because the movie was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Humberstone, a few years later, directed some of the very best Charlie Chan mystery films at 20th Century Fox and was also behind the wheel of Fox's brilliant film noir, "I Wake up Screaming."

The rest of the cast of the movie is rather ho-hum. While it's good, it is by no means excellent acting, although Eugene Pallette makes a welcome reappearance as Sergeant Heath and he continues to carry on the role brilliantly in the presence of the new cast. Character actor Lyle Talbot is also on hand as one of the murder suspects. Talbot was a distinguished character actor appearing in 320 titles. Aside from a great amount of television work he also appeared as Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 serial, "Batman and Robin" and had the distinction (perhaps misfortune) of being cast in two films for the notorious Ed Wood in the late 1950's opposite Bela Lugosi.

Warren William (center) alongside Eugene Pallette (left)
and Robert McWade (right) in "The Dragon Murder Case"
While the mystery angle of "The Dragon Murder Case" is excellent, the dragon part is not. The swimming pool in which the man disappears is supposedly haunted by a great water demon and when the pool is drained there are claw-mark footprints on the pool's sandy bottom. This aspect of the story really does not succeed at all and one wonders why it was included at all. In fact aside from some continued babbling from one suspect about the water monster, the theory is not exploited in the film. To a modern day viewer, the answer to the mystery may be rather explanatory, but there is no credence at all to the idea of a dragon living in the swimming pool. However, this one must be blamed on S.S. Van Dine. Oh well - it doesn't mar the film all that much.

With a great central mystery and some fine acting from Warren William and Eugene Pallette as well as wonderful direction from H. Bruce Humberstone, "The Dragon Murder Case" is one of the best Philo vance films in the series. We're treated to another impossible crime and despite that rubbish concerning a water monster in the pool, it work out well. "The Dragon Murder Case" easily gets a 4 out of 5 stars from this reviewer.

Notes: Again, this film is well preserved on The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. No extras are provided for this film, however the picture and sound quality are good for the most part. Thus far, I have had no problems with the DVD at all, despite the fact that it is a DVD-R, which may be off-putting to some potential buyers.

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