Name: The Bishop Murder Case
Release Date: 1930
Writers: S.S. Van Dine (book); Lenore J. Coffee (screen adaptation)
Directors: David Burton, Nick Grinde
Basil Rathbone: Philo Vance
Leila Hyams: Belle Dillard
Roland Young: Sigurd ‘Erik’ Arnesson
Alec B. Francis: Professor Bertrand Dillard
George F. Marion: Adolph Drukker
Zelda Sears: Mrs. Otto Drukker
Bodil Rosing: Grete Menzel
Carroll Nye: John E. Sprigg
Charles Quatermaine: John Pardee
James Donlan: Sergeant Ernest Heath
Sidney Bracey: Pyne, Dillard’s Butler
Clarence Geldart: John F.X. Markham
Delmer Daves: Raymond Sperling
Nellie Bly Baker: Beedle, the Maid
Run-Time: 88 mins.
This early talkie adaptation of a novel by mystery writer S.S. Van Dyne’s fictional sleuth Philo Vance is notable for a couple of reasons.
For openers, it marked the first time that the Johannesburg-born Rathbone would inhabit the on-screen personification of a fictional detective. From 1939 to 1951, the hawk-nosed actor would make some 16 film and TV appearances as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation — Sherlock Holmes.
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Van Dyne’s “Philo Vance” was as important a fictional creation as Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. A quick inspection of Amazon reveals that Vance’s adventures are easily available as e-books, but hardcover editions of the 1920s-vintage gumshoe are fetching a hefty price.
The “Bishop Murder Case” opens with Vance called in by D.A. F.X. Markham (Geldart) to investigate the death of a wealthy man, Joseph Cochrane Robin, nicknamed “Cock Robin” who’s been found dead with an arrow through his heart. A note sent along with the murder is signed “The Bishop” and references to nursery rhymes abound. A series of murders follows, each accompanied by the Bishop piece from chess and another nursery rhyme. As the clock run downs, it’s up to Vance to piece together the mystery.
And here’s where we get to the other reason that “The Bishop Murder Case” stands out. It’s not for the performances, some of which are painfully wooden. James Donlan, as police Sgt. Ernest Heath, turns in a pulp-novel stereotype of a beat cop.
The performances notwithstanding, “The Bishop Murder Case,” is a terrific example of the early, stagey examples of filmmaking, when movies felt more like plays that were captured on film than as works of art with their own unique vocabulary of camerashots, cutaways and techniques. There is a reason, after all, that credits are given for both film and stage direction in the movie.
Scenes shot in a professor’s study and around the dinner table just seem to be missing the curtain to come down to mark the end of each act. And there’s the significant over-emoting necessary to reach the cheap seats in the back of the theater and the balcony.
But watching vintage mysteries such as “The Bishop Murder Case,” and later 1940s and 1950s noirs almost makes you wish it were still obligatory for directors to film their mysteries in black-and-white. The shadows cast by the old BW films contribute much to the mood of these films that can’t be captured when they’re shot in color.
This one’s a necessary artifact for any serious student of the detective genre on film. Again, not for the performances and plotting, but what the tone it sets for the works to come.