Monday, January 10, 2022
The Casino Murder Case (1935)
Numerous actors tried their hand at playing Philo Vance. Only one ever succeeded in getting it right and that was William Powell. In this case MGM, in a moment of complete insanity, decided to cast Paul Lukas as Vance. Lukas is wrong in almost every way but mostly he’s wrong because of his thick Hungarian accent. Philo Vance has to have an upper-class American accent. He’s an American blue-blood. That’s absolutely the core of the character. In one of the earlier movies, The Bishop Murder Case, MGM tried casting Basil Rathbone as Vance. That was an interesting experiment but it didn’t work because Rathbone was not convincing as an American. But it wasn’t as disastrous as the casting of Lukas. Had the movie been about an aristocratic central European detective he might have been OK but Philo Vance has to be thoroughly upper-crust American in order for the character to work at all.
As for the plot, it begins with an anonymous letter claiming that if Lynn Llewellyn gambles tonight at his uncle’s casino tragedy will ensue. District Attorney Markham does not take the letter seriously. Philo Vance takes it very seriously and decides that he needs to take a closer look at the Llewellyn household.
Then the poisonings begin.
Plotwise the movie is passable. It tries to mix mystery and humour. The humour isn’t very successful but the Hollywood studios in the 30s were obsessed by the idea that mysteries and thrillers had to have comic relief.
Apart from the disastrous performance by Paul Lukas the rest of the cast is OK with Rosalind Russell and Isabel Jewell standing out. Eric Blore is mildly musing as Vance’s valet. Look out for Leo G. Carroll, entirely wasted as the butler.
Edward L. Marin (who directed the excellent George Raft film noir Nocturne in 1946) at least keeps things moving along.
The movie was based on S.S. Van Dine’s 1934 novel of the same name.
If you’re going to buy the set anyway then by all means give this one a spin but really it’s a very average mystery offering at best passable entertainment.