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Category:    Home > Reviews > Crime > Drama > Murder > Heist > Robbery > Thriller > Mystery > Detective > Literature > WWII > British TV Min > Pawn (2013/Anchor Bay Blu-ray w/DVD)/Philo Vance Murder Case Collection (1930 – 1940/MGM/First National/Warner Archive DVD set)/Spies Of Warsaw (2013 British TV Mini-Series/BBC Blu-ray)

Pawn (2013/Anchor Bay Blu-ray w/DVD)/Philo Vance Murder Case Collection (1930 – 1940/MGM/First National/Warner Archive DVD set)/Spies Of Warsaw (2013 British TV Mini-Series/BBC Blu-ray)


Picture: B- & C+/C+/B-     Sound: B- & C+/C+/B-     Extras: C-/C-/C     Main Programs: C-/B-/C



PLEASE NOTE: The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection is only available from Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive series and can be ordered from the link below.



Mystery and suspense are not easy to do, but these days, filmmakers and their TV counterparts don’t always even try or substitute those aspects for trickery.  Here are three new releases that show us the range of this…



David A. Armstrong’s Pawn (2013) is a violent thriller that is more about being self-impressed with its script twists and thinking it is on top of every con game you can think of than actually telling a story of any substance, made worse by wasting some good actors.  A group of men invade a diner and hold everyone hostage, but a cop (Forest Whittaker) comes in for a break and unknowingly interrupts the criminals.  Their leader (Michael Chiklis with an accent that is either angry British or Irish or maybe both) wants it all, but things start to go wrong, a few people are up to no good in ways not immediately apparent and it gets worse… for us the viewers as much as any character.


Common (who we just saw in the mess called Luv) is a cop trying to resolve the hostage situation and with a cast that also includes Stephen Lang, Sean Farris, Nikki Reed and poor Ray Liotta playing in the same genre, the actors and even some elements were here to make this work.  However, this never does, is everything you have seen before and seems longer than its 88 minutes of screen time.




A brief Behind The Scenes featurette is the only extra.



After Sherlock Holmes, it is up in the air who the moist film-adapted literary detective is, though if we had to consider who might have had the most adaptations by different studios, runner-ups (with or with TV included) would include Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Georges Simenon’s Inspector/Commissioner Maigret and S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance.  In twelve novels from 1926 – 1939, the Thin Man novelist and creator also gave us the smartest detective since Holmes with some of the most complex mystery writing of the time that was way ahead of its time in extensive scientific and factual detail.  A hit radio series, big selling books and a few later TV projects that did not work out are among the adaptations.  As well, Hollywood wanted to make some hit films out of the popular novels, but none were able to get a movie series out of it.


Paramount tried first with three films with future Nick Charles/Thin Man William Powell as Vance, starting with The Canary Murder Case in 1929 (it started as a silent film, then became a sound one, in a trilogy now owned by Universal) in three classy capers in all, a later 1937 Vance film (Night Of Mystery) with Grant Richards and The Gracie Allen Murder Case with Allen and Warren William.  PRC made the last three Vance films to this day in 1947 and that was it.  Four other studios tried to make it work including a 1936 British version (no one seems to know where a print is) with Wilfred Hyde-White as Vance, plus six films from MGM, First National and Warner Bros. now collected in The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection DVD set from Warner Archive.


The six films are as follows…



Released as Paramount’s original trilogy was wrapping up, The Bishop Murder Case (1930, co-directed by David Burton & Nick Grinde) was released between film’s 2 & 3 and has a very young Basil Rathbone solving a series of murders based on poetry and chess games.  About a decade before becoming the iconic Sherlock Holmes (these films are always making reference to Holmes for whatever reasons), Rathbone gives a very different kind of performance as a very smart, urbane detective with advanced facilities but totally different performance that works and it is a shame MGM did not hold onto him and make a series with him in it.


Despite its age and being an early talkie, this is a fine mystery tale that lays out the clues very well and effectively, has some fine acting for its time (including Toland Young and future director Delmer Daves) that is a gem and worth your time to visit and revisit.  Sound really helped the detective mystery film and this is definitive proof of that.



Warner Bros. decided to take a chance on the character and got William Powell to return to the role he had established at Paramount for The Kennel Murder Case (1933) which is also his last serious appearance as the character, paired here with future Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy, trying to unravel what a dog show, locked room and a broken vase has to do with a suicide that might not be one.  Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) keeps the pace going, but despite being a solid entry, a little bit of the spirit of the book and character are lost, yet it is a fine film on its own as it is and one of the best-realized adaptations to date.


Eugene Pallette (playing Sgt/Detective Heath as he had in the trilogy with Powell at Paramount) and Ralph Morgan also star.



Pallette continued on in The Dragon Murder Case (1934) with Warren William as Vance in who I feel was the only actor I thought really did not click with the role.  Made as a major production at First National Pictures before Warner bought the studio out, this is a tale that has not dated well as a man disappears after a swim with friends one evening that brings Vance in as three jump in but only two come out.  One man disappears.  Where did he go?  Is He dead?  Is it a killer dragon that is really on the loose?


The characters ready to accept a monster too soon is one of the many issues I had with this mixed adaptation, though Director H. Bruce Humberstone (who moved on to direct some of the best early Charlie Chan films at Fox with what he has).  Future Burns & Allen and Ed wood alumni Lyle Talbot also stars along with a decent cast and William was later Vance (as noted above) only one more time in the very comical Gracie Allen Murder Case back at Paramount which was based on an actual novel, but had a mixed result.



The film that holds up as well as any in the set is Edwin L. Marin’s The Casino Murder Case (1935) with Paul Lukas as a terrific Vance for MGM, who once again hold an actor in the role for only one film, but what a film as a note about a murder that will take place at a local casino drags him into a family conflict and plenty of dysfunction and motives as he has to sort out the case before the authorities take it seriously, with the beautiful Doris (a young Rosalind Russell in prime form) in a very strong entry.


Ted Healy takes over as Heath, Leo G. Carroll is great in an early role as a butler and this one manages to hold onto the charm and spirit of the early films and books while still having the pace of The Kennel Murder Case.  And that is a young William Demerest as an Auctioneer, while Lukas continued in a great career that included the 1935 RKO Three Musketeers, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (now on restored Blu-ray from Criterion), the Bob Hope comedy Ghost Breakers (1940), 55 Days At Peking and Sol Madrid showing what a great fit he was in genre films and much more.  We lost out again.



MGM tried again with The Garden Murder Case (1936) and actor Edmund Lowe was not bad at all as Vance, but the film was only an hour long, was too comical and despite some good moments could have been better.  Too bad MGM sold the book short, yet the cast that includes Nat Pendleton as Heath, Virginia Bruce, Gene Lockhart and Kent Smith keeps this one going.  Edwin L. Marin was even back as director, but MGM folded on the character, but that was not the end.



Calling Philo Vance (1940) was directed by William Clemens and has James Stevenson as a passable Vance in this too-soon of a remake of The Kennel Murder Case now set in pre-WWII Europe with overtones of Nazism afoot with the Warner Brothers themselves the first studio heads to want to deal with the issue.  Shorter, slicker and somehow more dated than the William Powell version, it is a nice attempt to update it, but it is just not as convincing, falls flat, runs barely over an hour and Warner folded on the character at this point too.  Oh, and that is future Superman George Reeves as a clerk on the steamship.


We hope to see more Vance on DVD and even Blu-ray, but this is a solid set and a must for anyone serious about filmmaking and mystery thrillers.  Trailers for the latter 3 Vance films are the only extras here, sadly, but you can always start reading the books in order!



So maybe if we go to reliable British TV, we’ll find better period success with a pre-WWII thriller.  Unfortunately, Spies Of Warsaw (2013) with former Doctor Who David Tennant, a British TV Mini-Series from the BBC, has him playing a French official setting up help-lines and missions against the Nazis before the war breaks out, but they are already up to their murderous intents.  In two parts at 3 hours, I had hoped this might be effective and challenging, but was shocked at the sloppiness, cheating and technical inaccuracies that plague this production.


The Nazis come across as a tad too nice and clichéd, while Tennant is not bad, he only partly shakes off his Who past.  The cast of mostly unknowns (save Julian Glover as a veteran official he reports to at a time) are not bad, but this all comes across as flat, plastic, underproduced and not effectively directed at all.  I thought this might pick up in the second half, but after a cliffhanger between installments that was lame, it never did.  Fans of Tennant might like it, but even he could not save it.


The only extra is a piece with Tennant on camera on the production.


The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Pawn and 1080p 1.78 X 1 digital High Definition image on Spies are about even as HD shoots with their own approaches to cutting and degraded images, neither of which helps them in long run and issues on both include detail and some motion blur.  The anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 image on the Pawn DVD is softer and lacks the color of the better moments on the Blu-ray.  The 1.33 X 1 black and white images on the six prints of the Vance films may show their age at times and not always be sharp as expected, but they all look like real monochrome film and are the best the films have looked on home video ever.  I like the cinematography on all the films, despite the different approaches from the different decades, as well as changes in shooting and film stocks.


The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix on Pawn should be the sonic winner here, but sound is more often towards the front speakers than expected and sounds even worse on the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD version.  The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 2.0 Stereo lossless on Spies has some Pro Logic surrounds, is as well recorded and as warm, if also not perfect can match the 5.1 film in all around playability.  The lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono on the six Vance films can show their age, especially the background noise on Bishop, which needs some cleaning up, but are decent otherwise though captions would have helped in a few moments where dialogue is unclear.



To order The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection, go to this link for it and many more great web-exclusive releases at:





-   Nicholas Sheffo


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