Friday, January 29, 2010
A Month of Mysteries: Warren Williams as Philo Vance in "The Dragon Murder Case"
Enter Warren William, who debuted as Philo Vance in 1934's The Dragon Murder Case, an adaptation of the seventh Vance novel published the previous year. William projected the perfect note of acidity as Vance. He handled his white gloves and cane with aplomb, while talking down to everyone in sight. He also benefited from a tight adaptation of one of Van Dine's more baffling crimes.
The film's plot follows the book closely, although it adds a restaging of the murder and deletes an incident in which a boulder conveniently crushes the guilty party. As in the novel, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious. The puzzle lies in how the murder was accomplished.
The crime takes place at a country estate in upper New York where wealthy playboy Sanford Montague disappears after a night-time dive into a natural lake called the Dragon Pool. When Montague fails to turn up after a day, the police drain the pool and discover claw marks on the sandy bottom. Later, Vance discovers Montague's dead body in a "glacial pot-hole" on another part of the estate. The victim's mangled body is covered with large claw marks--as if he had been ripped open by a dragon.
Although shot entirely on a stage, The Dragon Murder Case utilizes its atmospheric sets effectively. The mysterious pool looks eerie, with its lighted areas contrasting with the dark, murky waters. The only other principal set, the living room of the country mansion, is filled with exotic aquariums, including one suspended from the ceiling. (The aquariums naturally afford Vance the opportunity of showing off his knowledge on breeding tropical fish.)
The performers playing the suspects have little to do. They exist principally to provide verbal targets for William's Vance. However, Eugene Pallette gives one of his most restrained performances as Sergeant Heath (he played the role with William Powell, too). Etienne Girardot steals several scenes as coroner Dr. Doremus, who gripes constantly at having his meals interrupted by inconvenient dead bodies.
Still, the film belongs to Warren William and he makes it a delight for viewers who have actually read the Van Dine novels. Sadly, William's only other portrayal of Vance was in the 1939 comedy-mystery The Gracie Allen Murder Case. It's too bad he didn't get a crack at the best of the books: The Greene Murder Case (filmed with Powell) and The Bishop Murder Case (with Basil Rathbone).
Neither the Vance films nor the novels achieved the classic status of fellow sleuths such as Jane Marple, Peter Wimsey, and Philip Marlowe. The last Vance film appeared in 1947. Several attempts to create reader interest with paperback editions of the novels failed. Despite such setbacks, Philo Vance has maintained a few loyal mystery fans who admire cynical, detached, and morally questionable detectives.