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At the end of each year, the extremely wealthy but odious Greene family gets together at the spooky old family castle to establish terms of a will, though they despise each other. This year, they start being mysteriously murdered one by one, and the police use Philo Vance to examine the clues and suspects. Written by
As a life long fan of murder mysteries in general and William Powell in particular, I was thrilled to finally get a chance to see this early sound Philo Vance mystery. A follow-up to Paramount's THE CANARY MURDER CASE (1929), this was adapted from "SS Van Dine's" third Philo Vance novel(originally published in 1928 to runaway business) and also stars the wonderful Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath and a young Jean Arthur in the ingenue role of Ada Greene.
The intricate plot finds gentleman detective Philo Vance assisting his old friends District Attorney Markham and Sergeant Heath in a case of multiple and attempted murders at the Greene Mansion in New York's Upper East Side. It seems that someone is killing members of the Greene family, ostensibly for a stake in the large inheritance left by the long dead patriarch, Tobias Greene, whose fortune was accumulated (we come to suspect) by less than honorable means.
I'll admit that, although anxious to finally see this film after reading about it for years, I wasn't expecting much. I had heard that the film was talky, creaky, and static, as many early sound productions seem to modern sensibilities. Perhaps it was because of these lowered expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised by some of the great stuff found here. The film abounds with wonderfully creepy atmosphere and a real sense of menace, and the climax, set in the rooftop garden of the formidable Greene mansion (a fantastic set, by the way), is thrillingly shot, with trick photography and a last minute-in the nick time-rescue.
The screenplay is a faithful simplification of the Van Dine novel (the book's first two murder victims, for example, are compressed into one and the character of Julia Greene is jettisoned) and Powell's Philo Vance is much more likable than his literary counterpart. The identity of the murderer, while possibly surprising to the relatively innocent audiences of 1929, is fairly easy to spot by the more jaded modern viewer raised on scores of mysteries and taught to always suspect the least likely. This does not detract from the fun.
Playing the part of Philo Vance was a huge boost to Powell's career, and allowed him to move from villainous heels to debonair man-about-town roles. After a parody appearance as the detective in 1930's PARAMOUNT ON PARADE, Powell played Vance twice more [in Paramount's THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930) and Warner Bros. THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933)] before moving to MGM and forever being associated with the role of Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN series (an even BIGGER boost to his career!)
Yes, the film is invariably hampered by the limitations of the early sound era, but once the modern viewer accepts these limitations, there's a lot to enjoy here.
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