Sunday, June 16, 2024



The final film in the Kino Philo Vance Collection Blu-ray release is THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930). It was the third Vance film made by Paramount starring William Powell, but it was based on the very first Vance novel written by S.S. Van Dine. 

After the Wall Street crash of 1929, plenty of folks have reason to be angry at stockbroker Anthony Benson (Richard Tucker). A handful of those folks happen to be at the country house of Benson on a dark and stormy night. Also at the residence is the upper-class amateur sleuth Philo Vance (William Powell), and Benson winds up dead, due to a gunshot wound. With the body of the murder victim literally falling down the stairs right in front of him, Vance can't help but try and solve the case. 

THE BENSON MURDER CASE comes off more like a stage play instead of a feature film. Most of the scenes are covered by a master shot, with very little editing and multiple characters engaging in dialogue exchanges. The dialogue is hard to make out at times, and despite the fact that this is the shortest film in the set, the pace drags. The lack of background music certainly doesn't help matters. Frank Tuttle returns as director, but his main concern here seems to have been to get the shooting done as fast as possible. 

Among the suspects are a shady big-shot (William "Stage" Boyd), a nervous gigolo (Paul Lukas), a golddigger (Natalie Moorhead), and a shifty servant (Mischa Auer). Eugene Pallette returns as Sgt. Heath, but even he's hard-pressed to bring some life to the proceedings. 

I have actually read the novel of THE BENSON MURDER CASE, and the film version makes several changes to the book (not for the better, in my opinion). In the book Benson is found murdered in his downtown New York City dwelling, and the reader never gets to encounter the man while he is alive. The movie version obviously went for the "all the suspects are in a rambling home when the murder happens" scenario. The film also has Vance gather everyone up and bring them back to the scene of the crime in time-honored fashion. 

THE BENSON MURDER CASE looks and sounds decent enough on this Kino Blu-ray (the audio difficulties on the film are due to the technology of the early talkie era). The audio commentary for this movie features Jason A. Ney, who goes into the transition between silent and sound Hollywood films, the background and legacy of S.S. Van Dine, and how William Powell became a major star. Ney also goes over all twenty of the rules S.S. Van Dine laid out for successful detective fiction, and how they correspond with the film. (Needless to say, this takes up a bit of time.) 

When it comes to the overall Philo Vance Kino set, by far the best film out of the three is THE GREENE MURDER CASE. I believe this is a set that will appeal more to film buffs than the general public--the three films each have a not quite silent, not quite talkie offbeat quality about them. William Powell fans will certainly appreciate this collection, although he doesn't really get a chance to show how effective he could be. The three audio commentaries on this disc are all worth listening to, and give the viewer plenty of info on the movies and on the character of Philo Vance. 

William Powell would later do a comedic cameo as Vance in the variety revue PARAMOUNT ON PARADE (Eugene Pallette would also appear alongside him as Sgt. Heath). Powell would play Vance "officially" one more time in Warners' 1933 THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, which is considered by many to be the best overall Philo Vance picture. 

The character of Vance would be played by many other actors in many other films. If Vance is remembered or mentioned by anyone at all these days, it's usually in conjunction with William Powell. Ironically Powell's portrayal of Vance is very different from how the character comes off in the S.S. Van Dine novels. The literary Vance is foppish, vain, and misanthropic. I personally feel that the actor who could have best presented the Philo Vance as portrayed in the novels would have been Clifton Webb--but would anyone have wanted to spend so much time with such a snobbish person?? 

The three films in this Philo Vance Blu-ray Collection may not be major cinematic efforts, but Kino deserves plenty of credit for making them available for a modern audience. 

1 comment:

  1. Clifton Webb as Philo Vance! Now there's an idea!! You're correct in describing this movie as a filmed stage play. And a boring one at that.