Monday, January 18, 2021
The Bishop Murder Case (1929)
The plot is complex and the body count is very high. A young man named Robin is found murdered, shot through the heart with an arrow. The police receive a note including the text of the nursery rhyme about Cock Robin, and signed by The Bishop.
Naturally District Attorney John F.-X. Markham asks his old friend Philo Vance to assist him in the investigation. In fact Vance takes over the case more or less completely, as he usually did.
Other murders follow, all with links to nursery rhymes and with a chess piece (a bishop) left at the scene. The murderer is either a madman obsessed with nursery rhymes or a madman obsessed with chess. Or perhaps a man who is all too sane but fiendishly clever who is just playing games with the police.
There are plenty of suspects but the ones who seem most promising keep getting murdered, much to the disgust of Sergeant Heath.
It would be unfair to be too hard on the directors, David Burton and Nick Grinde. Everyone in Hollywood at that time was struggling to adapt to the very different challenges posed by talkies (which really were an entirely different medium requiring entirely different techniques compared to silent films) and there were lots of technical difficulties at first with the sound cameras, which tended to result in excessively static camera setups. And it has to be said that the opening sequence is excellent and visually impressive. Actually there are quite a few good visual moments in the film.
The Dragon Murder Case demonstrated how even a fine actor could get it wrong.
MGM came up with what must have seemed like a brilliant idea - getting an Englishman to play Vance. It works up to a point, Rathbone gets most of it right, but it doesn’t quite come off. Vance (in my view) has to be upper-class but he has to be American. On the whole I like Ratbone’s performance well enough but he just isn’t quite Philo Vance.
This film is one of the six included in the Warner Archive Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. The transfer is not great but not too bad. The collection is worth getting if only for the chance of seeing six different actors playing Vance.
The Bishop Murder Case has a great plot but the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s still worth a look if you’re going to buy the boxed set anyway.