Created by author S.S. Van Dine in 1926, Philo Vance was a gentleman detective, a man of culture and high society manners, and he became one of the most popular screen sleuths of the thirties, before the invasion of the tough guy private eyes and hard boiled cops of novels and film noir. There were a dozen Philo Vance films made between 1929 and 1940, produced by three different studios with eight different actors in the role, the first and most memorable being William Powell, who inaugurated the character in the 1929 The Canary Murder Case.
Philo Vance Murder Case Collection (Warner Archive) collects the six “Philo Vance” films (and as many different actors in the role) made by MGM and Warner Bros. (the other half-dozen, including the initial three films, were Paramount pictures) on a three-disc set. The set highlight is The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell’s fourth and final performance as Vance and Michael Curtiz directing in that rapid-fire pace of Warner Bros. in the early thirties. For a locked room murder mystery that plays out largely at a society dog show and a millionaire’s manor, this film charges along with bantering dialogue, montage sequences, split screens, and whip pans that give simple cuts an energized urgency. Powell is all debonair charm, not really a man of action or tart wit like Nick Charles of the “Thin Man” movies, but quite the host for an evening of murder, and Mary Astor, Eugene Palette, and Jack LaRue provide colorful support.
Warren William took over the role in The Dragon Murder Case” an outdoor variation on the locked room mystery involving a cursed swimming hole on a millionaire’s property, with Eugene Palette back as the gravel-voiced police detective and Etienne Girardot as Dr. Doremus, the cranky pathologist who is constantly roused from meals and sleep whenever Vance is on a case. William left the series to become the screen’s first Perry Mason and then take over the “Lone Wolf” series.
The role call of Philo Vances in this set is filled out with Basil Rathbone in The Bishop Murder Case (1930), Paul Lukas in The Casino Murder Case (1935), Edmund Lowe in The Garden Murder Case (1936), and James Stephenson in Calling Philo Vance (1940). For more on the films and the series, read Lou Lumenick’s DVD Extra at The New York Post.
The Falcon Mystery Movie Collection Volume 2 (Warner Archive) completes the run of the Falcon movies with the final six films in the series, all starring Tom Conway in the role of Tom Lawrence, brother of the original Falcon Gay Lawrence (played, fittingly enough by Conway’s more famous brother, George Sanders). Conway doesn’t have the presence or command of Sanders and he’s a little too sedate to be really dashing, but he’s perfectly at ease on screen and his voice is just as smooth and distinctive, which gives Tom a cultured bearing and confidence as he tangles with street thugs and society crooks. None of the films run longer than 70 minutes and they get by very nicely on B-movie budgets and modest scripts.
Cult director Joseph H. Lewis (of Gun Crazy fame) directs The Falcon in San Francisco (1945), where he romances Rita Corday, and film noir icons Jane Greer and Elisha Cook Jr. co-star in The Falcon’s Alibi (1946). The set is filled out with The Falcon Out West (1944), The Falcon in Mexico (1944), The Falcon in Hollywood (1944), and the final film in the series, The Falcon’s Adventure (1946). The first seven “Falcon” films came out in a set in 2011, reviewed on Videodrone here.
Scene of the Crime (Warner Archive) is a 1949 film noir cop drama with an interesting collision of sensibilities. Scripted and played in the then-new police procedural mode, which shows the gears of police work between the shoot-outs and criminal mayhem, it’s like a mix of Naked City and pulp detective drama, shot in the studio rather than on location and filled with stock types and familiar conflicts. Van Johnson, who generally radiates as much hard-boiled grit as a bowl of oatmeal, works hard at playing the tough police detective and married man who always puts the job first, much to the consternation of his former fashion model wife (Arlene Dahl), who wants him to quit and take a safe job in corporate security. Meanwhile Johnson is assigned (no kidding!) to romance a brassy showgirl (Gloria De Haven) as part of his investigation of a cop killing. While his wife becomes increasingly anxious, this showgirl shows a soft, vulnerable side under her cynical front, setting up romantic complications that the film never quite commits to.