Starring Basil Rathbone, Roland Young, and Leila Hyams
My rating: 1/2 star
Painfully creaky and incoherent.
Some old movies are classics. Some are just old. The Bishop Murder Case falls into the latter category.
I like mysteries from the golden age of detective fiction. I like elaborate plots; old, dark houses; colorful, eccentric suspects; and detectives who gather all the suspects in a room to reveal the identity of the killer.
As much as I was poised to like this film, I couldn’t get through it without stopping a few times. The first difficulty it presented was simply a factor of age. It was released in January of 1930, being made a scant two years after sound first entered motion pictures. The technical craftsmanship shows the limitations of early sound filmmaking. The camera work was creaky. The sound levels were uneven. The performances were given in two different styles: those that still looked like the pantomime of silent film and those that were tailored to sound film.
To overcome these technical limitations, the film needed a strong story, interesting characters, and filmmakers with an eye for innovation. This film lacked all these qualities.
Viewers will have difficulty following the mystery due to the lack of exposition. I played the opening three times, and I still couldn’t figure out what kind of institution provided the setting. It might have been a hospital, a school, or merely a wealthy man’s home. I don’t know. Maybe if I had read the source novel by S.S. Van Dine first, I might have had an easier time. But the film doesn’t take time to orient the audience to the story.
The characters are left undefined. It’s difficult to follow a mystery if you don’t know who the victims are and what the relationships are between the victims and the suspects and the suspects with each other. Some people are being murdered in ways that resemble nursery rhymes. Chess plays a role, too. One victim discovers a bishop from a chess set before she is killed. That’s about all the information the script gives us. I’m not even sure if the murderer dropped it deliberately. I watched the film carefully; it’s just indecipherable.
Detective Philo Vance, who has been played most notably by William Powell and Warren William, here is played by Basil Rathbone, later in his career to be Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone gives an unexpectedly bland performance. His interpretation of the character doesn’t go beyond a detective who solves crimes better than the police. I can’t use any adverbs beyond “better than the police” to describe how he does it because nothing in the script or Rathbone’s performance is beyond simply being functional.
Leila Hyams plays the ingénue—the beautiful damsel whom everyone wants to protect from the big, bad murderer. Hyams is lovely. But her character lacks personality. The script never gives her an action she takes on her own. The film does contain one dynamic shot, which is where Hyams’s face is reflected in the three panels of her triptych mirror.
The film’s best performance comes from Roland Young as a supercilious intellectual. His is the only role where script and performance come together to create a character with a recognizable personality. George F. Marion’s character was recognizable by his hunched back, but the script never reveals any attributes of his inner nature. His character does like to play chess, but so do other characters, such as the one played by Charles Quartermaine, who is distinguished only by his fondness for chess.
By the time The Bishop Murder Case reaches its conclusion, which features probably the first use of a trick, one that viewers will find familiar, that is now old hat. I had lost all interest in the killer’s identity. Even after the revelation, the crime remained largely inscrutable. That may be the fault of the original novel. For example, one thing that remained unexplained was the use of nursery rhymes. The only rhyme (heh-heh) and reason behind it seems to be to create a puzzle for the audience.
I like old mysteries. I like old movies. But most viewers will find this one painfully antique or downright unwatchable.