Tag Archives: S.S. Van Dine

The Greene Murder Case (1929, Frank Tuttle)

If it weren’t so predictable, The Greene Murder Case would be a little better. Not much better–part of the film’s charm is the obvious foreshadowing, since director Tuttle’s obviously on a limited budget and he couldn’t do much anyway.

There are no natural exteriors, which is fine; the one artificial exterior–Tuttle’s establishing shots tend to be of people in offices or rooms–is fantastic. The majority of the film takes place in a large house and the roof plays into the film for a few scenes. At first, it appears to be a model with special effects putting people on the roof. But then the people start interacting with the rest of the house. It’s unclear how they accomplished the effect, but it looks fantastic.

With these Philo Vance films, I’m always curious why William Powell gets top billing… he barely has a presence. Tuttle often shoots over his shoulder to the suspects even. He’s fine; Greene doesn’t ask a lot from him. Eugene Pallette’s mildly amusing as his sidekick. Pallette’s the comedy relief, but not over the top.

The suspects are also the potential victims in Greene. Jean Arthur is okay. Her role’s a little broad. The script really does none of the actors any favors but Ullrich Haupt is worth a mention. First, he’s terrible. Second, he’s supposed to be a devastatingly handsome stud but he’s this wormy German guy. It’s funny.

Greene isn’t not much of a mystery, but it’s not a bad seventy minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Louise Long, adaptation and dialogue by Bartlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Verna Willis; music by Karl Hajos; produced by B.P. Schulberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Florence Eldridge (Sibella Greene), Ullrich Haupt (Dr. Arthur Von Blon), Jean Arthur (Ada Greene), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Gertrude Norman (Mrs. Tobias Greene), Lowell Drew (Chester Greene), Morgan Farley (Rex Greene), Brandon Hurst (Sproot), Augusta Burmeister (Mrs. Gertrude Mannheim) and Marcia Harris (Hemming).


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The Studio Murder Mystery (1932, Joseph Henabery)

The Studio Murder Mystery is a lame little short mystery. It takes place at a Hollywood studio, just before and after a troublesome star is murdered. The before parts aren’t so bad–Henabery has a little fun with the movie in the movie stuff and the scene at the commissary where the cast’s gossip establishes the ground situation works too.

But then there’s the murder and the detectives arrive. Donald Meek’s the criminologist, John Hamilton’s the experienced copper. They have absolutely no chemistry together and Burnet Hershey’s script toggles between the two investigating. They never work together on the case.

The conclusion has a meager chase scene. Studio was obviously done cheap and Henabery just doesn’t have the chops to make a cheap chase work. He also can’t get it to pace well–the mystery is too thin–and Studio drags at nineteen minutes. The last handful are agonizingly boring.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph Henabery; screenplay by Burnet Hershey, based on a story by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Edwin B. DuPar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Donald Meek (Dr. Crabtree), John Hamilton (Insp. Carr), Robert Middlemass (Boris Seminoff), Thelma Tipson (Dolly Demarest), Walter Fenner (Ian Stevens) and Jane Bramley (Mae Norton).


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The Trans-Atlantic Mystery (1932, Joseph Henabery)

The Trans-Atlantic Mystery is an early thirties mystery reduced to two reels. Gone is personality for the protagonist, gone is any humor between protagonist and sidekick; forget about a romantic interest or even any actual investigation.

Instead, it’s some scenes of criminal plotting, some violent activities, introductions to the suspects and then a little bit of suspense.

And, until the finale—when the detectives catch the criminal—it works really well.

But Trans-Atlantic has the benefit of good production values (though director Henabery is mediocre) and some excellent performances. Ray Collins is a vicious criminal who cajoles a victim’s valet into his criminal enterprise. Walter Kingsford is great as the valet (after the first “act,” he has more to do than Collins).

As the detectives, John Hamilton and Donald Meek are too tepid. They—and the rushed resolution—ruin the finale.

It’s too bad, it was rather neat.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph Henabery; screenplay by Burnet Hershey, based on a story by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Edwin B. DuPar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ray Collins (Waite), Walter Kingsford (Dodge), Betty Pierce (Daisy), John Hamilton (Inspector Carr), Donald Meek (Dr. Crabtree) and Harry T. Morey (Ship’s Captain).


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The Benson Murder Case (1930, Frank Tuttle)

I wonder how Eugene Pallette felt–more, how his co-stars felt–about having the closest thing to a close-up in The Benson Murder Case. I’ve never been more acutely aware of shot distance than I was during the film. Tuttle has a standard pattern. Long shot–usually a lengthy long shot, sometimes an entire scene is one shot–followed by a medium shot for emphasis. At the end, Pallette gets the European medium shot (waist up) for one of his punch lines. Sadly, Pallette’s only got three or four jokes as his befuddled police detective in this Philo Vance entry. He and William Powell–who work well together–probably only have five scenes together.

What makes Benson Murder Case even more peculiar is its pacing. It’s a murder mystery where the murder doesn’t occur until almost a third of the way into the film–the film runs just under seventy-minutes and I don’t think Richard Tucker dies until after minute twenty. I wondered, as the film concentrated on Tucker’s dealings with his various co-stars, if there was supposed to be some confusion about who was going to die. Then I remember it was called The Benson Murder Case, which just made it stranger. While Tucker is supposed to be an unlikable jerk–he’s a stock broker who puts solvency ahead of his clients’ whims during the Crash of 1929–anticipating his death isn’t really all that interesting. After minute ten, I figured there was a chance he’d make it through most of the film. It would have been more interesting if he had.

The long first act introduces not just Tucker, but his antagonists–Natalie Moorhead, Paul Lukas, William ‘Stage’ Boyd and May Beatty–and then the second act refocuses on Powell and the investigation. There’s also district attorney E.H. Calvert’s re-election bid, which the film’s running time can’t make space. The result is the film’s initial characters disappearing for a while, only to reappear as subjects–Powell’s not even the protagonist until the latter half of the second act (remember, the film’s only seventy minutes), spending almost an entire interrogation off camera.

It’s a disjointed experience, bound together by some competent acting and a sufficiently mysterious mystery. Boyd is a fine villain, Moorhead and Lukas are good. Powell’s good, but Benson really shows how an actor needs close-ups to identify with the viewer. He’s got a character here, not a personality.

Tuttle’s quizzical direction also draws attention to the artifice. It’s obvious the film was shot on three-sided sets. They’re real high and well-decorated, so they’re interesting to look at (they have to be, given the length of the takes), but they’re empty of any meaningful content.

It’s an amiable seventy minutes, the kind of film good for passing time and nothing else.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Barlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Archie Stout; edited by Doris Drought; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Natalie Moorhead (Fanny Del Roy), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), Paul Lukas (Adolph Mohler), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (Harry Gray), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Richard Tucker (Anthony Benson), May Beatty (Mrs. Paula Banning), Mischa Auer (Albert), Otto Yamaoka (Sam), Charles McMurphy (Burke) and Dick Rush (Welch).


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