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For Hollywood filmmakers in the period between the World Wars, S.S. Van Dine's fictional detective, Philo Vance, was clearly a favorite. Over 20 years, several major and minor studios tried their hands at adapting Van Dine's tales of the erudite, urbane amateur sleuth, with the "poverty row" outfit, Producers Releasing Corp., churning out the last of 17 Vance films in 1947. Paramount launched the cycle in 1928, when William Powell was lifted to leading-man status with the studio's successful releases of The Canary Murder Case (1928) and The Greene Murder Case (1929). Paramount's returns on these ventures didn't go unnoticed by MGM, which responded by placing the high bid on the screen rights to another Van Dine novel, and recruiting Basil Rathbone to be their own incarnation of Vance in The Bishop Murder Case (1930).
The scenario of The Bishop Murder Case finds Vance amongst the guests on the estate of the elderly Prof. Bertrand Dillard (Alec B. Francis). The civilized idyll abruptly ends when the corpse of Robin Pyne (Sidney Bracey) is discovered on the archery range with an arrow to the chest. Taking the reins of the investigation from perennial foil Sgt. Heath (James Donlan), Vance is faced with an array of suspects from the victim's best friend (Carroll Nye) to a secretive hunchback (George F. Marion) to a zealous would-be scientific sleuth (Roland Young). Ultimately, the litany of the possibly guilty winds up being winnowed down by the true killer, who disposes of his victims utilizing a nursery-rhyme motif and leaves a series of cryptic clues signed by "The Bishop". Vance is challenged to outmaneuver the killer before he removes any further players from the board.
"Van Dine" was the chosen nom de plume for Willard H. Wright (1888-1939), a newspaperman, magazine editor, and aspiring serious novelist and critic who endured mental collapse in the early '20s after his works met with indifference. In the course of his rehabilitation, he became a devotee of detective fiction, and he gave the genre a try by creating Vance and publishing The Benson Murder Case in 1926. Its success spawned 11 subsequent Vance novels, which brought Wright the prosperity that his higher art never had.
A product of the period when Hollywood was making the transition to talkies, The Bishop Murder Case was released theatrically by MGM in both silent and sound versions. The directing credit was split between David Burton, who coached the players on their dialogue, and Nick Grinde, who handled the balance of the duties. Much as it had for Powell, the role of Vance represented for Rathbone an early opportunity to play a heroic lead. Though his approach to the character was earnest and cerebral, it lacked Powell's insouciance, and MGM passed on revisiting the character for several years, leaving it to Paramount and Warner to issue the subsequent adaptations headlined by Powell. Rathbone would have to content himself over the next few years with building his memorable resume of screen villains until he was cast as the fictional sleuth with whom he has become so inexorably identified in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).
As Rathbone had moved on to Holmes, Powell moved on to Nick Charles, and Vance's gumshoes would be variously filled over the years by Warren William, Paul Lukas, Edmund Lowe, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Grant Richards, James Stephenson, William Wright and Alan Curtis. By the post-WWII period, American mystery audiences were ready for the grit and grimness represented by the dawn of the film noir cycle, and crimebusters like the polished and pedigreed Vance now seemed somewhat quaint. Still, the best of the Vance adaptations were taut and cleverly mounted, and The Bishop Murder Case holds up well to this day.
Director: Nick Grinde
Screenplay: Lenore J. Coffee, S.S. Van Dine (book)
Cinematography: Roy Overbaugh
Film Editing: William LeVanway
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Philo Vance), Leila Hyams (Belle Dillard), Roland Young (Sigurd Arnesson), George F. Marion (Adolph Drukker), Alec B. Francis (Prof. Bertrand Dillard), Zelda Sears (Miss Drukker).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg