Plot: A group of affluent citizens attend a social gathering, though few in the crowd seem to have any affection for each other. So the mood is tense and perhaps even aggressive, as tempers flare and insults are lobbed. But when the party moves to the “cursed” swimming area known as the Dragon Pool, it looks as if someone’s temper might have gotten out of control. A few of the party goers dive in, but one never surfaces again and there’s no trace of an escape or struggle. The “curse” leads some to believe that the legend of a real dragon might be true, but when the police arrive, Detective Philo Vance (Warren William) is certain there’s a reasonable explanation. Given the nature of those in attendance and the rivalries involved, Vance has a slew of suspects to look into, not to mention concerns over the dragon legend. Is this just a clever killer using superstition to cover his tracks or is Vance onto a genuine, supernatural event?
Entertainment Value: I liked this murder mystery, as it steers into horror elements and even some comedic moments, while also delivering a tight, efficient thriller with some terrific performances. The narrative in The Dragon Murder Case is a fun one, as it leans into some superstition and local legends, which I always appreciate, but it also stays rooted in the usual Philo Vance mystery vibes. So while a dragon might be on the loose, Vance sticks to the clues and works his powers of deduction, providing a nice balance with the genre threads present. The movie is also able to do a lot with a brisk run time of just over an hour, keeping a consistent forward progress, but weaving in twists and of course, red herrings to keep us on edge. The horror influences are welcome, but so are the bursts of comic relief and The Dragon Murder Case is also smart about humor is used, keeping that balance intact. There’s a lot to like here, as it hits the expected notes that will please murder mystery fans, but it also works in some fresh touches to lure in and entertain other audiences as well. I’d recommend this to anyone with even a casual interest in murder mysteries.
This couldn’t have been an easy jump-in role for Warren William, following in the footsteps of Basil Rathbone and William Powell, no small feat, to say the least. But he is of course up to the task and delivers a terrific effort here, one that allows him to show off the usual charm of his performance range. He is smooth and likable as Philo Vance, in a serious and effective performance, though William is perhaps a little too restrained in some instances. Not to a severe degree by any means, but I think he holds back at times and doesn’t let his full persona come across. This could be to provide a better straight man to Eugene Pallette’s wild comedic relief, but I can’t be sure. In any case, William is fun to watch here and it is easy to see why he was able to make so many great detective films in his career. Pallette is hilarious and over the top as usual, with most of the film’s funniest moments and memorable lines. The cast also includes Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Helen Lowell, and Robert Warwick.