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The Casino Murder Case

The Casino Murder Case(1935)

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teaser The Casino Murder Case (1935)

During the '20s and '30s, the undisputed leading light of popular American detective fiction was S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. The brilliant and often overweening Manhattan sophisticate appeared in a dozen best-selling adventures that became coveted properties for the Hollywood studios, as Paramount, Warner and MGM jockeyed for the installment rights. William Powell was the first performer to portray the character onscreen in Paramount's The Canary Murder Case (1929); after four Vance vehicles that effectively transitioned him from dour heavy to leading man, Powell moved on to Nick Charles. MGM tapped the Hungarian Paul Lukas to step into the gumshoes for The Casino Murder Case (1935), a diverting series entry that was faithful to Van Dine's original story.

The story finds Vance at the home of the eccentric dowager Priscilla Kinkaid Llewellyn (Alison Skipworth), lured there by an unsigned letter promising harm to the members of the Kinkaid family. The threats soon turn out to be more than merely empty; Mrs. Llewellyn's gambler son Lynn (Donald Cook) mysteriously collapses on a casino floor, while his actress wife Virginia (Louise Henry) is similarly, albeit fatally, stricken across town. Both appear to be poisonings, but neither incident was marked by opportunity.

When Lynn's sister Amelia (Isabel Jewell) is similarly attacked, Vance finds himself in a race against time to uncover the poisoner and his - or her - methods. Aiding the cause in varying degrees are his patient valet Currie (Eric Blore), the flighty but intrigued socialite Doris Reed (Rosalind Russell), and the behind-the-curve police presence, Sergeant Heath (played by ex-Three Stooges honcho Ted Healy).

Lukas' overbearingly cerebral take on the role was certainly fitting, but may have been off-putting; MGM turned to Edmund Lowe for the studio's final Vance adaptation, The Garden Murder Case (1936). Lukas' subsequent career found him mostly typed to heavies until his sympathetic turn as the German expatriate hounded by Nazis in Watch on the Rhine (1943) earned him the Best Actor Oscar®.

In an early role as the meddlesome Doris, Russell had some opportunity to show off her comedic prowess, and acquitted herself pretty well. Still, the project was far from a source of pride for the actress, and she completely dismissed it in her memoir Life Is a Banquet. "The first lead I played at Metro--it was forced on me, I went down hollering--was in a B movie called Casino Murder Case, with Paul Lukas. It was so bad, and I was so bad in it, that it gave my maid Hazel ammunition for seasons to come. 'If you don't behave,' she'd say, 'I'm going to tell people about that Casino Murder Case.'"

Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Screenplay: Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, S.S. Van Dine (book)
Cinematography: Charles Clarke
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Paul Lukas (Philo Vance), Alison Skipworth (Priscilla Kinkaid Llewellyn), Donald Cook (Lynn Llewellyn), Rosalind Russell (Doris Reed), Arthur Byron (Richard Kinkaid), Ted Healy (Sergeant Ernest Heath).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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