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Philo Vance on Film: The Clever Detective's History on the Big Screen 

An iconic amateur sleuth of classic mystery cinema.

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  • Photo Credit: Featured photo: Felix Mooneeram / Unsplash

Created by S.S Van Dine just as The Golden Age of Hollywood began, Philo Vance, a dandy New York amateur sleuth, would prove just as big a hit with movie audiences as he did with mystery readers.

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

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  • Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Philo Vance made his literary bow in The Benson Murder Case in 1926. He made his screen debut three years later in this Pre-Code movie starring William Powell as Vance and Louise Brooks as—what else?—a devious femme fatale. The Canary Murder Case is faithful to Van Dine’s work (though the archness of Vance’s character is toned down quite a lot), but the film is not entirely successful. 

Written and directed as a silent, it was completed just as talkies were coming into fashion. Determined not to miss out on the new craze, Paramount demanded the actors return and record a soundtrack. Brooks—who was working with Pabst in Germany by that time—refused point blank to come back to the USA and so her voice in the film was provided by Margaret Livingstone. Powell went on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Thin Man (based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet), but Brooks’ behavior caused a controversy from which her career never fully recovered.

The Greene Murder Case (1929)

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  • Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Powell was back playing Vance within six months, this time in a fully realized talkie directed by Frank Tuttle (best remembered by mystery fans for the noir classic This Gun for Hire starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd). His co-stars were Florence Eldridge and Jean Arthur, neither of whom proved as difficult as Brooks. Like Van Dine’s novel, the movie focuses on the odious Greene family and their annual get-together in a spooky mansion, which this year turns murderous. Powell is excellent as the debonair amateur sleuth, but the plot is creaky and the solutions feel as outlandish as the setting.

The Bishop Murder Case (1930)

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  • Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Powell went on to appear as Vance in a couple more movies (the best of them the fast-moving and witty The Kennel Murder Case which opened in 1933). In the meanwhile, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got in on the act. They brought in South African actor Basil Rathbone (the big screen’s most fondly remembered Sherlock Holmes) to play Vance in an adventure that begins with the slaying, apparently with a bow and arrow, of Joseph “Cock” Robin. 

Featuring a cunning serial killer who likes to play mind games with his pursuers, The Bishop Murder Case is generally considered to be the best of Van Dine’s novels. Rathbone and a supporting cast that includes the ever-reliable Roland Young (Uncle Willy in The Philadelphia Story) do a decent job of ensuring it is also one of the most successful Vance movies.

The Dragon Murder Case (1934)

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  • Photo Credit: First National Pictures

Rathbone only made one appearance as Vance (he’d go on to play Holmes fourteen times), and suave and urbane Warren William (the first actor to portray Perry Mason on screen) would have a couple of tries starting with this movie based on Van Dine’s 1934 novel and directed by Bruce Humberstone (perhaps best remembered for a series of Charlie Chan movies). In The Dragon Case Murder, Vance investigates the death of a man who perished after diving into a swimming pool. His body bears the claw marks of what locals believe may be those of a legendary dragon (evidently abundant in rural New York). William is smooth and believable as the effete sleuth, but his performance left most contemporary critics pining for the sharper and funnier William Powell.

The Casino Murder Case (1935)

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  • Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Warren William made his second Vance movie The Gracie Allen Murder Case (co-starring Gracie Allen as, well, Gracie Allen) in 1939. In between times, a couple more actors would take a tilt at the role. The first was Hungarian-born Paul Lukas who’d made his name in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The part had originally been offered to William Powell but he was tired of playing Vance and turned it down. 

Attempts to land Otto Kruger, Fred Keating, and Ricardo Cortez all fell through. The fifth choice, Lukas never looks as comfortable as the lightweight, sophisticated Vance, here investigating dark goings on in a dysfunctional society family. The Casino Murder Case features an early appearance by the great Rosalind Russell. By her later account, she was press-ganged into making the film by the studio and considered it her worst screen performance. Despite all that, the movie is surprisingly solid, even though it never rises to the heights of those starring Powell or Rathbone.

The Garden Murder Case (1936)

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  • Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

After Lukas came Edmund Lowe, a silent movie actor who’d adapted decently to the new era and appeared alongside Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Claudette Colbert. Lowe, like Lukas, had not been the first choice—that had been Englishman Brian Aherne (who the year previously had been grappling with Joan Crawford in I Live My Life). Most critics considered Lowe too old for the part, though he does a decent job of handling the witty dialogue and seems to be enjoying himself far more than Lukas did. The Garden Murder begins with Vance investigating the apparent suicide of a jockey and has a slightly hokey plot that hinges on a sociopathic hypnotist. That this was the last Philo Vance film MGM would make is perhaps an indication of its success.

Calling Philo Vance (1940)

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  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

S.S. Van Dine had died in 1939 at the tender age of 50 leaving no new Vance novels to adapt. Calling Philo Vance was a remake of 1935’s The Kennel Murder Case. British actor James Stephenson (who’d appeared in Beau Geste alongside Gary Cooper) played Vance. The original movie (and novel) was set in the art world. The remake shifts things to aircraft design, though the plot remains unchanged. Pleased with the result, Warner Brothers planned to make a series of Vance movies with Stephenson, but the Yorkshireman dropped dead from a heart attack shortly after the film’s release, and the project was shelved. 

A trio of Philo Vance films starring William Wright and Alan Curtis were made in 1947. For fans of the novels, these are best avoided. They have little of the flavor of Van Dine’s work, while the name Philo Vance is about all that survives of the original dandyish society sleuth.

Featured photo: Felix Mooneeram / Unsplash