A man dives into an open air swimming pool and vanishes, never to be seen alive again. When the pool is drained, the only clue to be found is what looks like the footprints of a dragon on the muddy sediment … It’s time for super sleuth Philo Vance to investigate what many now think was perhaps his last major case, both in print and (the following year) onscreen.
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog.
There before us, in the shallow mud, was the unmistakable imprint of what seemed to be a great hoof, fully fourteen inches long, and corrugated as with scales.
On the stultifying hot evening of 11 August at the palatial New York estate of Rudolph Stamm (“one of the foremost aquarists in America”) an already edgy late-night house party turns tragic when the guests – including his sister Bernice, her childhood sweetheart Leland, her current fiancée Montague, and the latter’s ex-girlfriend, Teeny McAdams – decide to go for a swim. Stamm himself stays behind having already got himself drunk, not surprising given that most of the guests can’t stand each other. Montague jumps in to show off his diving prowess, but never emerges. Leland and shady financier Greeff go in too but can’t find any trace of him. The police arrive, with Vance (and his biographer, Van Dine) in tow – they drain the pool and only find footprints of what look like a beast of some kind. Stamm’s seemingly dotty mother warns them that there is a supernatural creature that dwells there …
“What dragon, indeed!” She gave a scornful hollow laugh. “The dragon that lives down there in the pool below my window.”
Initially it seems that Montague may have eloped with mystery woman Ellen Bruett, but in the end his body is discovered in a pothole in another part of the estate, as if dropped there from the sky, bearing strange, talon-like scratches. When Greeff goes missing too, he becomes the most likely suspect, but his body also turns up dead in the potholes. It seems as if the creature is picking them off one by one and then flying off with the bodies …
“This is not a household,” he replied, “where life runs normally. The Stamms, as you may know, are an intensely inbred line”
One of the things that attracts me to these kinds of ‘Golden Age’ books, and I accept that this is possibly a very ‘sui generis’ take on the pleasure they can afford, is that they tend to mirror a certain development in the shifting relationship between literature, genre and the reader as they grow and mature. We begin as readers grasping for a rigid code, a binding set of rules, a key to understanding that can guide us through our youth, giving us something to hang on to as we try to to find ourselves in the wilderness of life and literature. As we get a little older and more experienced we are less inclined to adhere to strict codes and demand more freedom before eventually discarding such things – only to return late in life with a sense of nostalgia.
“Then there was one of those sleezy, pasty-faced butlers, who acted like a ghost and didn’t make any noise when he moved” – Sergeant Heath
The Van Dine books by Willard Huntington Wright, with their strict rules of engagement in terms of character and plot, feel like that to me, especially the initial quartet (well, three plus one as the fourth was added after the success of the initial ‘trilogy) that for many remain for most the peak of his accomplishment. When Wright realised just how successful he was decided to do little else – producing three more books that strain a little to match that initial burst of activity. After that the movie deals became more important, audiences started to become less keen on the rigid formula and less interested in seeing behind the impenetrable facade of its intellectually superhuman hero.
“Can’t a man get drowned without having a lot of policemen all over the place?” His voice was loud and shrill. “Montague–bah! The world’s better off without him. I wouldn’t give him tank space with my Guppies–and I feed them to the Scalares.”
The puzzles got looser, the characters thinner, the plots started to repeat themselves so that by the end the decline in quality becomes very sharp. In this book, his seventh in the series, the basic set-up is certainly intriguing, and the exploration of some of the myths surrounding dragons and sea serpents is diverting – on the other hand, the plan by the (by Van Dine’s standards, reasonably well-concealed) murderer is unnecessary convoluted and we never do get a truly adequate explanation about why they went to quite so much trouble with a miracle disappearance. John Dickson Carr would handle that side of things rather better in his 1949 Henry Merrivale novel, A Graveyard to Let. The movie tries to elide this basic lack of plausibility by moving at great speed …
“She’s nuts!” – Sergeant Heath (Eugene Pallette)
At 66 minutes, the film boils down the novel to its very barest essentials (including the deletion of one of the guests, Ruby Steel). Following the success of Kennel Murder Case, its star and director team of William Powell and Mike Curtiz were sought for a reprise – but Powell asked for more money than Warner was prepared to pay and so Curtiz turned it down, as did several other in-house directors at the studio (including Mervyn LeRoy) before Warren William took over as Vance and H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (who later would also handle some of the best Charlie Chan films) took over as director. The cast of regulars carried over from the previous film include the voluminous and voluble Eugene Pallette (Sergeant Heath) as well as the wiry Robert McWade (as DA Markham) and the crotchety Etienne Girardot (the coroner, Dr Doremus), who mainly serve as comic relief.
“I’m a coroner, not a philosopher!” – Doremus (Etienne Girardot)
Margaret Lindsay, the classiest of the second tier of Warner contract leading ladies, plays Bernice while Lyle Talbot gets to play her love interest, as always doing a great impersonation of a stuffed shirt. William does well enough, but one does inevitably miss Powell while Humberstone has none of the style of Curtiz, though plenty of energy – and there is at least one memorable shot filmed from above so that, as William leans back in a recliner, we shoot through a fishbowl hanging from the ceiling. There is also some very nice, and for the time unusual, underwater filming for the main sequence when Montague goes missing. Heath and Doremus are a great double act – indeed in the opening scene, set in a steam room, they trade old vaudeville quips (Doremus: “Ernest, it’s clear that you don’t know much about women. Now I’ll tell you, women are, generally speaking… ” Heath: “You certainly said it! They are generally speaking!”) though George E. Stone is fabulous, stealing every scene he can as the vaguely caddish, permanently soused Tatum. A hit in its day, the film is still fun for its cast and zippy dialogue, though the plot is even less plausible than it is in the book.
The original novel, along with the other 11 Vance mysteries, is available very inexpensively on Kindle and also for free as part of the Project Gutenberg. I profiled the life and work of SS Van Dine here quite recently here.
The Philo Vance series:
- The Benson Murder Case (1926)
- The Canary Murder Case (1927)
- The Greene Murder Case (1928)
- The Bishop Murder Case (1929) – review here
- The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
- The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
- The Dragon Murder Case (1933)
- The Casino Murder Case (1934)
- The Garden Murder Case (1935)
- The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
- The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
- The Winter Murder Case (1939) – review here
DVD Availability: The film is easily available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive on-demand box set, The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. It brings together The Bishop Murder Case (1930), starring Basil Rathbone as Vance; The Kennel Murder Case (1933), easily the best of the bunch, staring William Powell; The Dragon Murder Case; The Casino Murder Case (1935) with Paul Lukas; The Garden Murder Case (1936) with Edmund Lowe and Calling Philo Vance (1940), a wartime remake of Kennel starring James Stephenson. The transfers vary from great (Bishop) to average, which certainly sums up the slightly faded and scratched but respectable appearance of Dragon.
The Dragon Murder Case (1934)
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: F. Hugh Herbert, Robert N. Lee and Rian James
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Cast: Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Eugene Pallette (Heath), Robert McWade (Markham), Etienne Girardot (Doremus)
I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge bingo in the ‘animal title’ category: