Thursday, June 28, 2018

William Powell as Philo Vance: The Benson Murder Case

William Powell as Vance.
William Powell made his third appearance as erudite detective Philo Vance in this loose adaptation of S.S. Van Dine's 1926 novel. 

The opening scene takes place at Anthony Benson & Co. Stocks and Bonds with Benson’s clients learning that he has “sold everyone out.” The unfazed Benson leaves town with friend Harry Gray and goes to his lodge “up the river.” His guests, all victims of Benson’s financial schemes, include: rich socialite Mrs. Paul Banning; her paramour Adolph Mohler; the flamboyant Fanny Del Roy; and Gray, a prominent bootlegger.

During a thunderstorm, District Attorney John F.-X. Markham, who owns an adjacent estate, stops by with his friend Philo Vance. While Vance and Gray discuss their theories on crime, Benson goes upstairs. A few minutes later, a loud shot rings out and Benson’s dead body tumbles down the stairs.

Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath.
Sergeant Heath takes the formal lead on the investigation, though Vance always seems one step ahead of him. Mrs. Banning confesses to the crime, but Vance recognizes it as a weak attempt to shield Mohler (Paul Lukas). Markham focuses his suspicions on Fanny, but Vance ensures him that she is innocent. Having a motive is not enough, he maintains, explaining that “everybody has a motive for murdering somebody.” 

Although poorly paced and static, The Benson Murder Case (1930) is a reasonably entertaining mystery. The killer’s identity is never in doubt. Like the previous Vance films, it plays up the humorous conflict between Vance and Heath, played again by the gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette. When the police detective hears that Vance will be arriving, he confides to another officer: “I’ll try to arrange it so I’ll be just gone by the time he gets here.”

It is unclear why the filmmakers veered from the novel’s superior plot. While the book’s detailed mystery would have required trimming for any film adaptation, its characters and setting are much more interesting than what appears on screen. Furthermore, some of the alterations make little sense, such as changing the name of Vance’s valet from Currie to Sam. Still, a handful of plot elements were retained from the book, including a subplot about stolen jewels, the distance that the lethal bullet was fired from (six feet), Benson’s toupee, and the revelation of one suspect's "secret."

William Powell's likeness on a dust jacket.
Author S.S. Van Dine (a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright) based The Benson Murder Case on the real-life murder of New York socialite Joseph Elwell. The victim's claim to fame was a how-to-play-bridge book called appropriately Elwell on Bridge. As for Van Dine's novel, it was an instant bestseller and spawned a series of Philo Vance mysteries. The Benson Murder Case has been adapted for the screen three times: William Powell's version, El Cuerpo del Delito (a Spanish language version filmed concurrently), and La Strana Morte del Signor Benson (1974), an Italian made-for-TV movie. 

Powell, who would play Vance once more in Michael Curtiz's The Kennel Murder Case, projects the proper urgency, but still fails to capture the detective's cynicism (though the script deserves equal blame). Paul Lukas, appropriately wimpy as Mohler, would make an unlikely Vance five years later in The Casino Murder Case. Having consumed all the Vance novels, I always thought that Warren William made the best Philo, with The Dragon Murder Case being his strongest film.


  1. No Etienne Girardot? Geesh. Actually, you have me curious about this one. It is flummoxing why Hollywood takes a mystery and changes things around. Time for another "Geesh".

    I agree that Paul Lukas was an odd choice for Vance, but I do like the story of The Casino Murder Case and I do like Paul Lukas so I'm always willing to overlook his miscasting.

  2. I have actually never seen the movies, just read a few books. And while the mysteries themselves weren't bad, the character of Vance is simply thoroughly unpleasant. That's why I could never enjoy them. Ogden Nash was right when he said: ""Philo Vance Needs a kick in the pance"

    I assume the character of Vance was changed a lot for the movies, especially with Powell playing him. I should give it a try.

  3. Have you ever seen this clip of Philo Vance meeting Nick Charles (both played by William Powell)? I got quite a kick out of it when I first saw it.

    The clip is available for viewing at:

    1. Thanks for the clip, that is quite funny.

    2. I also really enjoyed the Philo Vance books and questioned the changes made for this movie. I prefer William Powell as Nick Charles rather than Vance but enjoy Eugene Pallette as Heath.

  4. I agree with Margot Shelby, above, re: the character of Philo Vance in the books. Admittedly, I've read only one of these mysteries, but it was I actually thought, "The movie is better"...or maybe it's just I like William Powell much better...