Perhaps one reason for the character’s comparative absence among pop culture’s top of mind is that no one actor “owned” the role. In fact, across the six examples in this three-DVD set, not a single actor plays the metrosexual man twice; it’s like a George Lazenby switcheroo each time. Furthermore, two of them are arguably remembered best for other mystery franchises: Basil Rathbone for Sherlock Holmes, and William Powell for The Thin Man.
Rathbone’s turn, 1930’s The Bishop Murder Case, kicks off the set and may be the best of the bunch. Beginning with a man discovered outdoors dead with an archery arrow through his chest, it’s a puzzler chock-full of literary clues that cannily drive the plot like pawns in the chess game it references. Fake cityscapes add to its Golden Age charm.
Perhaps the most famous is Powell’s fourth and final go-round as Philo in 1933’s The Kennel Murder Case. That’s not because it represents an early directorial at-bat for Casablanca captain Michael Curtiz, but because it’s popped up on so many public-domain DVD releases … but never looking this good. Involving an apparent suicide of a sportsman, the film excels as a locked-room mystery, especially considering that this particular locked room isn’t located on the ground floor!
Kennel’s quasi-remake, 1940’s James Stephenson-starring Calling Philo Vance, is inferior and closes Warner Archive’s set. In between and all pretty decent are Warren William, Paul Lukas and Edmund Lowe taking on, respectively, The Dragon Murder Case (1934), The Casino Murder Case (1935) and The Garden Murder Case (1936). —Rod Lott