Friday, January 29, 2010

A Month of Mysteries: Warren Williams as Philo Vance in "The Dragon Murder Case"

This snappy 1934 B-movie mystery represents the most successful attempt to bring S.S. Van Dine's erudite sleuth, Philo Vance, to the screen. Van Dine (a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright) introduced Vance to mystery readers in 1926 with The Benson Murder Case. Over the next 13 years, Van Dine published twelve highly successful Vance novels.

These intriguing-plotted mysteries became sought-after movie properties in spite of some significant obvious liabilities. These drawbacks included Van Dine's tendency to expound excessively on artistic or scientific subjects related peripherally to the mysteries. He also wrote the novels in first person, casting himself as Vance's companion/lawyer, a literary device borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. However, whereas Conan Doyle had Dr. Watson occasionally play an active role in Holmes' investigations, Van Dine (the writer) used Van Dine (the character) simply to narrate the proceedings.

Yet, the biggest problem with adapting these best-selling mysteries was Philo Vance himself. The wealthy, amateur criminologist was an aloof intellectual and could be downright cold when questioning suspects. He also lived by his own moral code--to the point of rearranging poison-filled glasses to trick a murderer into killing himself. Many filmmakers deemed such a detective too unlikable for the screen. Therefore, most of the movie Vances were rich and intelligent, but also charming and debonair. The best-known screen Vance was the always-likable William Powell, who played the sleuth four times with his best effort being The Kennel Murder Case (1933). Powell was a fine performer, but his film detective was not the Philo Vance admired by Van Dine's readers.

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.


  1. Rick, I am a mystery fan and truly enjoy the Philo Vance stories, including his "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories," which you referred to in your writeup of "Ten Little Indians." It is fascinating to be well engrossed in one of Van Dine's stories, when he suddenly pontificates for about 20 pages on a thorough lesson on art or something referred to in the mystery. The first time you trudge through it thinking that there must be a critical clue contained in his scholarly research. Then you learn that you can read that part a lot more quickly and smile, enjoying the author's scholarly detour from the mystery.

    I agree that Warren William made the best Vance. Eugene Pallette's Sargeant Heath is given a lot more attention in the movies than in the novels. He is fun in the movies because he provides a lighter touch to the stories. The Dragon Pool is, indeed, intriguing, both in the book and movie, and makes for an excellent setting.

    I truly enjoyed your most excellent review. One final note. I think it was witty of Van Dine to name the coroner Dr. Doremus. It always reminded me of the expression "dead as a dormouse."

  2. I'm not familiar with the Vance films, but you make them sound like winners! Great write-up, Rick, as per usual.

  3. Toto, loved your comment about Dr. Doremus, the world's grumpiest medical examiner. Van Dine's tendency to expound on scholarly subjects can make some of the novels a chore at times. But when the Vance novels are good (again, I think BISHOP and GREENE are the best), they're quite entertaining. As for the movies, Sark, they are a mixed bag, too.

  4. Great write-up, Rick, really enjoyed your including the literary background on the stories.

    Well-stated about the sets, the pool scenes look as if they could fit snugly inside any horror film of the period.

  5. Thank, Cliff. Coming from a Warren Williams authority like you, that means a lot!