Plot: Philo Vance (James Stephenson) was dispatched by the U.S. government on his latest assignment, to go undercover and gather information on Archer Coe, who was suspected of selling valuable plans to foreign entities. As usual, he is able to get the job done and finds hard evidence of Coe’s crimes, but he is nabbed before he can get the papers into the proper hands. So while he can confirm Coe’s involvement, without the actual evidence, moving forward to shut down the operation is no simple task. When Vance pushes to go back and confront Coe, he is stunned to learn that Coe has turned up dead, found in a locked room with a gun. Of course, Vance is certain this was no suicide, but can he secure the evidence this time to prove his case?
Entertainment Value: This murder mystery borrows from an earlier Philo Vance yarn, The Kennel Murder Case, but the result isn’t as effective. This feels like a watered down version of that movie, with a weaker cast and despite some word-for-word replication, this just isn’t able to hit those same notes. William Powell’s shoes are tough to fill, so to remake The Kennel Murder Case was an uphill battle from the start, so this was quite an odd choice to revisit. On its own merits, Calling Philo Vance is a passable murder mystery and the narrative is still interesting, but it is hard to separate it from Powell’s take on Vance and Michael Curtiz’ skilled direction in the original. The story is still good, even in this weaker adaptation and I do think there is some value in seeing an alternate take, if you have that kind of interest in cinema. But to me, this is one of the weaker Vance movies I’ve seen and I’d be more likely to steer fans toward The Kennel Murder Case instead, since it handles the material with more skill.
One of the main reasons this remake falls short of the original is that William Powell is a tough act to follow, for anyone, regardless of their talent level. James Stephenson is more than competent here, but he is unable to summon the kind of charm and presence that Powell managed in the same narrative. The Vance character has been played by some cinematic titans and Powell was one of the very best, so while Stephenson is fine here, that is just a lot to ask of any performer. I just didn’t connect with his take on Vance, it lacked the charisma of some of the other incarnations, which I think is one of the main draws of the character and series. That’s not a knock on Stephenson, just a personal preference, as he is passable here. The supporting cast fares a little better and add some entertainment to Calling Philo Vance, but again, following such talent as Mary Astor, Eugene Pallette, and Helen Vinson is not easy to do. The cast here also includes Henry O’Neill, Margot Stevenson, and Sheila Bromley.