27 April 2013 | robert-temple-1
A murky pool of mystery
This is the seventh Philo Vance film, the first after the retirement of William Powell from the lead role, and the first and only one starring Warren William as Vance. William is very insouciant and droll, more so than Powell was. (Powell had not yet fully found himself, as he had not become the future Powell of the Thin Man films. But then, he had not found his Loy yet either, with whom he was later to create his ALL-LOY of magic, fusing his silver with her gold.) William also has greater warmth and manages a far better rapport with Eugene Palette as the idiotic Sergeant Heath. When Palette keeps boasting of 'my knowledge of criminality', William genuinely grins sympathetically and teases him very gently like a friend. This works very well, since in previous films, Palette had been floundering around like a stranded fish and over-acting to an embarrassing extent, and Powell never engaged with him. On the other hand, this film lacks the effectiveness of the coroner's grumbling except with exasperation. In the previous film (THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, 1933, see my review) we saw him (played by Etienne Girardot, who despite his French name was born in London and in his films is 'as American as apple pie') being interrupted at his meals and rushing off to examine bodies, but this time that standing joke is taken for granted, no screen time is given actually to showing his frustrations, which are merely referred to in occasional lines of dialogue, and hence that comic sub-plot does not work nearly as well. The story line of this film is however a superior and unusually mysterious one. It concerns a sinister and mysterious pool behind a large house which they call 'the Dragon Pool'. People swim in it all the time, treating it as a swimming pool, but it is a natural feature, not an excavated pool, and it has bizarre features. It links to extended sink holes beyond, and is said to contain a mysterious aquatic dragon who comes out at night and occasionally eats people who dare to swim after dark. This is said to be an ancient Indian legend, and the pool was reputed to have been regarded by the Indians with awe and fear. The film concerns the disappearance and presumed murder of one of the characters who dove into the pool one evening and never reappeared. The pool is drained but nothing is found. An eccentric rich man lives in the house, whose sitting room is full of identical fish tanks (a low budget prevented these from being properly effective, and they look cheap and unconvincing) which contain rare and exotic fish. There are several scenes where the man and his visitors watch 'Japanese fighting fish' killing one another in tanks. That certainly sets a sinister tone at the very beginning of the film. This is definitely a superior Vance film, and the story is so unusual that it could be remade as a very effective modern film if the right people realized its possibilities.