The Philo Vance Collection – Blu-ray Review

4 Stars 3 early Pre-Code William Powell films debut on Blu-ray
The Philo Vance Collection Review

Let’s dig into The Philo Vance Collection. Before achieving fame as Nick Charles (alongside Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles) in MGM’s The Thin Man (1934), William Powell achieved his breakthrough leading role as Philo Vance. While still a contract player for Paramount Pictures, Powell would make three films based on S.S. Van Dine’s urbane amateur detective – The Canary Murder Case, The Greene Murder Case and The Benson Murder Case – at a time when sound was starting to take hold in Hollywood following the smash success of The Jazz Singer (1927). Kino has assembled all three of the Paramount Philo Vance Collection movies for their Blu-ray (and home video) debuts here.

The Canary Murder Case (1929)
Released: N/A
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 82 min
Director: Malcolm St. Clair, Frank Tuttle
Genre: Crime, Mystery
Cast: William Powell, Jean Arthur, James Hall
Writer(s): S.S. Van Dine, Florence Ryerson, Albert S. Le Vino
Plot: A beautiful showgirl, nicknamed 'the Canary', is a scheming nightclub singer. Blackmailing is her game and soon ends up dead. But who killed 'the Canary'. All the suspects who knew her had been used by her. The only witness to the...
IMDB rating: 5.9
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1
Audio:
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 20 Min. (The Canary Murder Case), 1 Hr. 7 Min. (The Greene Murder Case), 1 Hr. 4 Min. (The Benson Murder Case)
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Blue keep case with slipcover
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 05/21/2024
MSRP: $39.99

The Production: 3.5/5

The Canary Murder Case (1929; 3.5 out of 5)

The Canary Murder Case Screenshot

To start the Philo Vance Collection, who was the murderous “cat” that silenced the showgirl Margaret O’Dell (Louise Brooks) – known to her admirers as “The Canary” – for good? Amateur detective Philo Vance (William Powell) gets to the bottom of this case at the behest of old friend Charles Spotswoode (Charles Willis Lane), whose son Jimmy (James Hall) was once entangled in the Canary’s talons. While Sgt. Ernest Heath (Eugene Pallette) seems to believe that Jimmy and his girlfriend Alice La Fosse (Jean Arthur) are somehow involved, Vance believes that a social reformer (Lawrence Grant), a philandering husband (Louis John Bartels) and a creepy doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) – all of whom were smitten with the victim – had just as much motive to see the Canary’s wings permanently clipped. But it’s when the lone witness to the crime is killed as well is when the pieces of the case start to fall into place and reveal a shocking truth behind the identity of the killer.

As the first film to feature S.S. Van Dine’s popular detective, The Canary Murder Case came at a crossroads for both the film industry and for two of Paramount’s contract players. Beginning life as a silent feature directed by Malcolm St. Clair, the studio brought in Frank Tuttle (who was uncredited) to direct scenes for a sound version of the movie incorporating scenes from the silent version; this would prove to be no problem for William Powell – who had already made his “talkie” debut in Interference (1928), Paramount’s first all-speaking movie – as this film would be the beginning of his ascent to stardom after paying his dues as a supporting player on the Paramount roster. That would not be the case for Louise Brooks (the “Canary” of this movie), who irritated the studio brass by refusing to take part in the sound reshoots; while Brooks would go to Weimar Germany and would achieve cult status for her collaboration with director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, Margaret Livingston would dub Brooks’ voice – which wasn’t as bad as the press and studio claimed – for the sound version of this movie and would end up causing the decline in Brooks’ career here in America. Star-crossed paths aside, the film itself works due to Powell’s solid performance, effective cinematography by Harry Fischbeck and solid support from Brooks, Jean Arthur, Eugene Pallette, Charles Willis Lane, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Lawrence Grant, E.H. Calvert, James Hall and Ned Sparks (with Dennis Morgan making his film debut in an uncredited part). In the end, The Canary Murder Case is intriguing for the combination of two of Paramount’s notable stars (who were on different paths) and as a solid little mystery.

The Greene Murder Case (1929; 3.5 out of 5)

The Greene Murder Case Screenshot

Every New Year’s Eve for the last 10 years, the Greene family – headed by bedridden matriarch Julia (Gertrude Norman) – assembles at the family mansion overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan to see if they’ve been abiding by the terms of Tobias Greene’s will, which would promise the inheritance of his assets to those surviving if the terms are fulfilled by New Year’s Eve 1934. This New Year’s Eve however, results in the shooting death of Chester Greene (Lowell Drew) and the wounding of Ada Greene (Jean Arthur); when Philo Vance is called in to investigate, he uncovers some family secrets concerning Ada’s place in the family. However, when both Rex (Morgan Farley) and Julia Greene end up dying and another attempt is made on Ada’s life, Vance must wonder if Ada is really the intended target of the killer’s wrath or if the killer is much closer to home than initially expected.

After The Canary Murder Case did some respectable business at the box office, Paramount gave the green light for The Greene Murder Case to go ahead as the second big screen outing for Philo Vance. With Frank Tuttle now taking over the director’s chair, the film brings back William Powell, Eugene Pallette, and E.H. Calvert from the first film reprising their roles; Jean Arthur also returns, but in a different role here compared to Canary. Here, the pacing is a little quicker and the script here neatly sets up the atmosphere in the spooky Manhattan mansion; cinematographer Henry Gerrard – taking over duties here from Harry Fischbeck – makes the most of the confined nature of the film. The only major downside here is that the identity – or at the very least, hints to the identity – of the killer becomes apparent, stilting any suspense towards the climax; however, the performances of the cast are nicely done, including support from newcomers Florence Eldridge and Gertrude Norman notably standing out from the bunch. The Greene Murder Case shows William Powell becoming more comfortably suited in his growing on-screen persona as the sophisticated gentleman and delivers on its premise despite a shortcoming in its execution in the plot revealing an important plot point sooner than needed. But the studio was not quite finished yet with Mr. Vance…

The Benson Murder Case (1930; 3.5 out of 5)

The Benson Murder Case Screenshot

As the Wall Street Crash of 1929 unfolds around him, unscrupulous stockbroker Anthony Benson (Richard Tucker) will find that falling stocks and the vanishing fortunes of his clients will be the least of his problems. On a dark and stormy night at his luxurious country estate in the Hudson Valley, Benson is shot dead in the presence of his guests, including the famed amateur sleuth Philo Vance, who happens to be there with New York City D.A. John Markham (E.H. Calvert). As each of the guests had motive to kill Benson, Vance must sort through the deceptions of each of the suspects to determine who had the most motivation to see the crooked stockbroker dead at their hands.

For the final Philo Vance film Paramount made, The Benson Murder Case showcases some advancement in both visuals and nascent sound recording in the series. Starting off with a memorable montage of the panic surrounding the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – in which stock boards are literally melting down in one memorable visual – director Frank Tuttle wastes no time in setting up the main mystery. Here, the mystery – loosely based off of the real life unsolved murder of bridge expert Joseph Bowne Elwell in 1920 – takes on a topical relevance given the state of the country at the time; cinematographer Archie Stout also brings a nice sense of atmosphere to the proceedings. The lone downside is that the film is a little more leisurely paced than the first two films in Paramount’s series, which could be more off-putting to those who like their mystery films fast and to the point; however, Powell is good as always – although he was starting to tire of playing the Vance part – and supporting players Pallette and Calvert are welcome returns as well, joined here by newcomers Paul Lukas, May Beatty, William “Stage” Boyd, Natalie Moorhead, Richard Tucker and Mischa Auer. In the end, The Benson Murder Case brought Paramount’s series of Philo Vance films to a close with a neatly done mystery, a leading man continuing his ascent to stardom and sound production values to help set up Powell for greater future success with The Thin Man series of films when he went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Powell would portray Vance one final time in The Kennel Murder Case (1933), but this time for Warner Bros. and for two major reasons: pressure from the studio due to his reluctance to take the part and a lack of good scripts coming his way.

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

All three films in the Philo Vance Collection are presented in their original 1:20:1 aspect ratios, taken from brand new HD masters created from 2K and 4K scans of the best available 35mm film elements for each film; Canary and Greene are the beneficiaries of the 4K scans for their HD transfers, while Benson received the 2K scan for its HD transfer. For the most part, film grain, fine details and gray scale for each film is faithfully represented; there are instances of scratches, tears and dirt present on each of the transfers, with some instances of wobble present on the transfers for The Greene Murder Case and The Benson Murder Case. Still, this release is likely the best each of these films will ever look on home video.

Audio: 4.5/5

The original mono soundtrack for all three films in the Philo Vance Collection are presented on DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and brief music scoring (Karl Hajos for both The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case, and Charles Midgely for The Benson Murder Case) for each film is presented faithfully with some instances of crackling, popping and hissing present due to both age of the materials used for the transfers and limitations of the sound recording of the era. Still, this release is likely the best each of these movies will ever sound on home video.

Special Features: 3.5/5

Commentaries on The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case by novelist/critic Kim Newman and writer/journalist Barry Forshaw – Recorded for this release, Newman and Forshaw delve into the backgrounds of both Canary and Greene, including the film’s production and differences between the film and the source material for both films.

Commentary on The Benson Murder Case by professor/film scholar Jason A. Ney – Recorded for this release, Ney goes into the many facets of the film’s production, including the Spanish language version shot simultaneously, where it fits in William Powell’s career, censorship issues and differences between this film and the book.

Bonus KLSC Trailers – BlackmailLucky Jordan The Hour Before the Dawn

Overall: 4/5

Though they had largely faded from the public eye over the years, Paramount’s Philo Vance Collection represent a bridge between the silent and sound eras in film and as an early and important part of William Powell’s career as he was beginning his ascent to stardom. Kino has done a great job in rescuing these films from home video obscurity, with decent HD transfers and three solid commentary tracks for each of the films in this set. Very highly recommended.

 

Mychal has been on the Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2018, with reviews numbering close to 300. During this time, he has also been working as an assistant manager at The Cotton Patch – his family’s fabric and quilting supplies business in Keizer, Oregon. When not working at reviewing movies or working at the family business, he enjoys exploring the Oregon Coast, playing video games and watching baseball in addition to his expansive collection of movies on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD, totalling over 3,000 movies.

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