Crime mysteries proved a very popular genre in the ’30s and ’40s; especially those featuring an on-going detective character–Philo Vance, in this case. Paul Lukas plays the detective. The mystery concerns the apparent poisoning of Lynn Llewellyn (Donald Cook), and the murder of Lynn’s wife, Virginia (Louise Henry). Priscilla (Alison Skipworth) is Lynn’s mom–who also ends up dead; Arthur Byron, her brother Richard. Rosalind Russell plays Doris, Priscilla’s secretary, and Amelia (Isabel Jewwell) is Lynn’s ne’er-do-well sister. There’s some kind of junk science going on with the alleged poison, more ’50s sci-fi territory actually. Like many films from this genre, comedy is thoroughly mixed in.
Richard introduces Philo to his family with “He’s no ordinary detective, he’s a gentleman.” Philo has received info that Lynn is in danger; he and Doris go to see the D.A. (Purnell Pratt). Just as Doris lets on that Priscilla has had a new will drawn up, there’s another anonymous threat to Lynn. Adjourning to the casino, Philo and Doris show the letter to Richard. Sergeant Heath (Ted Healy) is detailed to keep an eye on Lynn.
Back at the mansion, Doris is shadowed by a silhouetted figure on the stairs. At the casino, there’s a little too much attention focused on Lynn’s getting a glass of water–sure enough, he passes out–they think he’s been poisoned. Simultaneously, Priscilla’s apparently been poisoned at home. Lynn’s going to be ok, she isn’t. Amelia was the one to find Priscilla. The D.A. does a version of ‘the usual suspects’ routine by quizzing the servants and family members.
Mrs. Llewellyn recounts the evening. Amelia, drunk as usual, was going off about her husband. Amelia talks about the matriarch having an attack of some kind, and then about her talk with Virginia just before she died. There’s some stuff missing in the doctor’s bag. Meanwhile, Sgt. Heath thinks that Doris is the murderess. That’s a joke, but what had got his attention was that Doris found the new will in a cubby hole.
Amelia, still boozing, first thinks Priscilla did it, and then, just about anyone, including herself. Vance then questions Robert about his interest in toxicology (he’s written books on the subject). He looks into various containers, carafes, and flasks. Or was the poison in some candy? “Stop arguing and get pumped!” is Heath’s splendid contribution to the maid Becky’s possible poisoning.
The weird thing is that there was no trace of poison in the corpse. Even weirder, it seems that Priscilla has died, but not before leaving a deathbed confession that she had killed Virginia. Apparently, Priscilla shot herself. But the uber-cranky Dr. Doremus (Charles Sellon) admits “anyone in New York could’ve shot her.”
Philo is cogitating on the fact that water was involved in all of the mishaps with the family. After talking to Dr. Kane he mentions “heavy water.” After leaving there’s a tell-tale call from Kane to Robert. Sneaking around the house, Philo and Doris get into the basement. Jeepers, a secret lab. “It’s heavy water” he deduces. The stuff is valuable. They’re locked in, but soon Robert shows up. Killing off the competition means Richard will inherit the whole deal; the new will is dead, as it’s unsigned.
Philo gets on the phone with Doremus, and they meet up in the lab with the D.A.; but no one will believe that Priscilla didn’t kill Virginia. Later on, up in the house, Lynn pulls a gun on Philo; shouldn’t be a shocker, but it is for me. Lynn framed his uncle for Virginia’s murder, pretending to use the heavy water to incriminate Richard. The police show up just as Philo is getting shot. But with blanks. So, no harm done to the good guys. All’s well.
The ending helped quite a bit–not that Lynn shouldn’t have been a suspect, but because we’re set up so well to buy into Richard’s guilt; especially with the well-conceived heavy water device. That’s an entire lab devoted to a red herring. So, the plot worked fairly well. Other than Rosalind Russell and Charles Sellon, though, none of the performances really stand out.
Lukas does decently as the ‘gentleman’ detective. He’s got the right suave personality. His accent per se isn’t a problem, but in a few situations it doesn’t help–when he’s talking fast it can be hard to make out what he’s saying, and he mispronounces some words.
The atmosphere is on key, featuring the swanky mansion; and the tone balances the underlying humorous element with the serious content. This is entertaining, but not very memorable.
Farmermouse is probably snoozing away in the rumble seat of Philo’s elegant Packard roadster. And he’ll give this six gulps of whatever Amelia’s having. 6/10