BISHOP MURDER CASE, THE (directors: Nick Grinde and David Burton; screenwriters: Lenore J. Coffee/based on a story by S. S. Van Dine; cinematographer: Roy Overbaugh; editor: William LeVanway; music: William Axt; cast: Basil Rathbone (Philo Vance), Leila Hyams (Belle Dillard), Roland Young (Sigurd Arnesson), George F. Marion (Adolph Drukker), Alec B. Francis (Prof. Bertrand Dillard), Zelda Sears (Miss Drukker), James Donlan (Sgt. Heath), Clarence Geldart (DA Markham), Carroll Nye (John E. Sprigg), Charles Quartermaine (John Pardee), Sidney Bracey (Joseph Cochrane Robin), Delmer Daves (Sperling); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; MGM; 1930)

"On the same level as Charlie Chan; pick your poison."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A crime drama that's clever and well-executed but its flaws are that it's overlong, weakened by the archaic acting from the days of silent film by the supporting cast and its pace is too slow. The programmer was based on the popular S. S. Van Dine fictional amateur sleuth Philo Vance, played with a cerebral snappiness by Basil Rathbone who nine years later would become known for playing Sherlock Holmes (interestingly Rathbone refers to Holmes several times during the story). Dine was the chosen nom de plume for Willard H. Wright (1888-1939), a newspaperman, magazine editor, and aspiring serious novelist and critic. It's written by Lenore J. Coffee. Primary director is Nick Grinde ("Before I Hang"), while codirector David Burton only coached the actors on their dialogue.

NYC district attorney Markham (Clarence Geldart) calls amateur sleuth Philo Vance for consultation help in investigating the murder of a college student, Joseph Cochrane Robin (Sidney Bracey). Robin was seemingly shot in the heart with an arrow at an archery range on the grounds of the mansion of the elderly renown science Professor Dillard (Alec B. Francis), whom the vic worked for as an assistant. There's a note left at the dead man's side that refers to him as "Cock Robin"--lifted from a Mother Goose nursery rhyme. The murderer is the mysterious note sender known only as "The Bishop."

Dumb but lovable Sgt. Heath (James Dolan), around for comic relief, leads the police investigation and manages to get everything wrong. But Vance and the police work closely together and list the following suspects: Sperling (Delmer Daves) who was at the archery range with the victim, the victim's emotional best friend John E. Sprigg (Carroll Nye), a secretive inquisitive unpleasant hunchback named Adolph Drukker (George F. Marion) who is a neighbor and lives with his recluse sickly sister (Zelda Sears), John Pardee (Charles Quartermaine) an arrogant regular visitor to the mansion who plays chess with the professor, and the smug boyfriend of the professor's pretty niece Belle (Leila Hyams)--brilliant science professor Sigurd Arnesson (Roland Young).

When four people are killed in the systematic manner of a chess game, with the Bishop tipping off each of his crimes by sending the police cryptic messages in the form of nursery rhymes, Vance using his powers of deductive reasoning suss's out who is the killer and sets a trap for him.

It's on the same level as Charlie Chan; pick your poison.

William Powell played the sleuth before and after Rathbone, who was not asked to do it again even though this was one of the best versions of a Vance pic. The studios preferred the way Powell played Vance in a breezy nonchalant way, even though Rathbone's Vance portrayal was engagingly polished and faultless.

REVIEWED ON 8/4/2010       GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"