Friday, March 26, 2021

The Bishop Murder Case ( 1930 )

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 comparision 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. 


  1. The Bishop Murder Case is my favorite of S.S. Van Dine’s 12 Philo Vance mysteries. I agree that Basil is a pretty good Philo in this, but the pacing is so leisurely that the film is barely watchable. It’s a shame, really. Warren Warren is the best screen Vance in The Dragon Murder Case.

  2. The pacing here, and the awkward staging acts like a sleeping pill on this viewer. Excellent choice to bring to the screen and good idea casting Rathbone, but it all falls apart after that. Of course, if I stay awake next time who knows how I'll feel about it.

  3. For what it's worth -- most likely nil -- MGM's version of S.S. Van Dine's 1928 "Philo Vance" novel, "The Bishop Murder Case", is excellent, especially for an early talkie (it was filmed in 1929 and released the first week of 1930). But it seems as if a claque has been "out there" for ages, intent on disparaging "Philo Vance" and his creator, S.S. Van Dine, like cattle blindly following a Judas goat up the ramp to the slaughterhouse. I myself consider Van Dine, when at his best, to have written the very finest murder-mysteries extant, this from any era. "Bishop" is one of these, and the Basil Rathbone motion picture of it is superb, utilizing fluid editing, mobile camerawork, creative sound recording, even matte compositions (the New York City background very effective although the film was shot on the West Coast). And the cast, consisting of weird, eccentric types contrasted to the lovely Leila Hyams, make for fascinating atmosphere, heightened by the grotesque murders themselves, madly based on Mother Goose rhymes! S.S. Van Dine even complemented the production as being very true to his novel (as opposed to "The Benson Murder Case" of 1930 and "The Garden Murder Case" of 1936, both of which had what amounted to original screenplays!). In fact, aside from The Bishop's abduction of a little girl, this approaching the climax of the novel (the child to represent yet another Mother-Goose inspired killing), the movie truly is very faithful to its source. It was an important film for Basil Rathbone, who is better in this than in his other early-talkies, yet as I recall, didn't even mention it in his autobiography and, for that matter, expressed reluctance to even deal with his Sherlock Holmes movies, to which he owes an indebtedness he'd not have had with any of his other portrayals. I did a piece on the P.V. pictures for my "K'scope" magazine, which was later selected by the Xerox Corporation for their University Microfilms Program; wrote the liner notes Radio Archives' "Philo Vance" CD box sets (can be seen online with the announcement of the second set in the extensive series; I'd interviewed Jackson Beck, star of the ZIV radio program); and presented a Philo Vance presentation at the Syracuse Film Festival. So, I know of what I speak although, to resort to the cliche of the old maid kissing her cow, there's no accounting for taste!
    Ray Cabana, Jr.

  4. P.S. Make that "compliment", with an "i", as to S.S. Van Dine's opinion of the 1930 MGM version of his "The Bishop Murder Case".