Before Basil Rathbone donned the deerstalker to play Sherlock Holmes in 14 films, he portrayed the dapper sleuth Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case (1930), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first film to feature S.S. Van Dine’s famous detective hero.
Paramount Pictures brought novelist Dine’s character to the screen in two successful pictures starring William Powell (The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case) so Metro quickly purchased the rights to his latest novel “The Bishop Murder Case” to film their own version with Rathbone portraying the urbane amateur detective.
In this story, a fiendish murderer is on the loose at Professor Dillard’s estate and he is using Mother Goose nursery rhymes as his motif. Excerpts from the rhymes are being left as clues with the murderer cryptically signing his notes “The B.I.S.H.O.P”.
Basil Rathbone did a fine portrayal of Philo Vance and the familiar air of superiority that he gave to Sherlock Holmes could be seen in Philo’s character as well. Leila Hyams played the leading lady, the pretty young niece to Professor Dillard. Also in the cast was Roland Young, Delmer Daves, Carroll Nye, Alec B. Francis, and George F. Marion. Clarence Geldert played John Markham, the New York County District Attorney who, like Lestrade, often needed Vance’s helping hand to solve the murder.
While The Bishop Murder Case has a great plot, the production seems dated by comparison to other mystery films of the 1930s. It was released in 1930, just when many of the major studios were transitioning from silent to sound pictures, and the film was issued as both a silent picture and as an “All-Talking!” feature. It seems more like a silent film with long pauses on the character’s faces as if the audience had to “read” the lines from their expressions. In many scenes, the microphone is not positioned near the actor speaking, so their voice sounds faded. The staging is also more reminiscent of silent films. It’s amazing how much films advanced just within five years! Especially at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where they often utilized the latest technology.
Nevertheless, if you want a good mystery and need your fill of Philo – or just want to see Basil playing detective – then The Bishop Murder Case is worth a look-see.
Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.” This post originally ran last year and is being reprinted today as our Wayback Wednesday post.