Cast & Crew
Alec B. Francis
George F. Marion
In New York City, soon after a typed note reading "Who killed Cock Robin?" and signed by "The Bishop" is found in the mailbox of prominent scientist Professor Bertrand Dillard, the body of his young assistant Robin, nicknamed "Cock Robin" by his friends, is discovered on the archery range on the grounds of Dillard's home. Detective Philo Vance is asked by the district attorney to consult on the case. Gathered at the scene of the crime are John E. Sprigg, the victim's best friend, who vows to find the killer; Belle Dillard, the professor's niece and ward; and Sigurd "Eric" Arnesson, Belle's fiancé and Dillard's assistant. After Vance interviews Dillard's neighbors, the elderly Miss Drukker and her hunch-backed brother Adolph, whom Vance is sure witnessed the crime, Miss Drukker dies of heart failure. Adolph is murdered one night while sitting on a wall in the park, reminiscent of the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty," which is included in another note from "The Bishop." As typed notes from "The Bishop" continue to appear, each with a reference to a nursery rhyme, suspicion is soon cast on Arnesson, and Vance deduces that "The Bishop" is not a reference to a cleric but a chess piece. One night, when Belle hears a loud typing noise in an upstairs room of her house, she is confined by the unseen typist. Later, while Vance and the others are looking for Belle, Arnessen is brought before Vance and implies that he is guilty. Moments later, Dillard is uncovered as "The Bishop" when he drops poisin from his ring into a glass intended for Vance, who has discovered that Dillard secretly hated Arnessen for robbing him of his scientific fame and taking over the affections of Belle. When his guilt is revealed, Dillard drinks from what he thinks is the poisoned glass. After Dillard dies, Arnessen and the others think that Dillard drank the poison until Vance reveals that he had switched glasses and that the professor had actually died of shock. Belle, who was not harmed by her uncle, is reunited with Arnessen, who had pretended to act guilty after Vance slipped him a note to "play along."
Alec B. Francis
George F. Marion
Nellie Bly Baker
Marcia Mae Jones
The Bishop Murder Case
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
The Bishop Murder Case
Although onscreen sources credit Dr. Donald MacKenzie as the film's recording director, most contemporary sources credit noted sound man Frank MacKenzie with sound. It is probable that the onscreen credits were incorrect. Although the cast credits at the end of the film list actress Zelda Sears's character as "Mrs. Otto Drukker," within the film she is referred to as the sister of "Adolph Drukker." As noted in reviews, the story's various murders were staged to be suggestive of popular nursery rhymes such as "Humpty Dumpty."
Modern sources add Richard Cramer and Broderick O'Farrell to the cast. The Bishop Murder Case was the only film in which Basil Rathbone portrayed the popular S. S. Van Dine detective, "Philo Vance." For information on other films featuring the character, please consult the entry below for The Kennel Murder Case.