I wonder how Eugene Pallette felt–more, how his co-stars felt–about having the closest thing to a close-up in The Benson Murder Case. I’ve never been more acutely aware of shot distance than I was during the film. Tuttle has a standard pattern. Long shot–usually a lengthy long shot, sometimes an entire scene is one shot–followed by a medium shot for emphasis. At the end, Pallette gets the European medium shot (waist up) for one of his punch lines. Sadly, Pallette’s only got three or four jokes as his befuddled police detective in this Philo Vance entry. He and William Powell–who work well together–probably only have five scenes together.
What makes Benson Murder Case even more peculiar is its pacing. It’s a murder mystery where the murder doesn’t occur until almost a third of the way into the film–the film runs just under seventy-minutes and I don’t think Richard Tucker dies until after minute twenty. I wondered, as the film concentrated on Tucker’s dealings with his various co-stars, if there was supposed to be some confusion about who was going to die. Then I remember it was called The Benson Murder Case, which just made it stranger. While Tucker is supposed to be an unlikable jerk–he’s a stock broker who puts solvency ahead of his clients’ whims during the Crash of 1929–anticipating his death isn’t really all that interesting. After minute ten, I figured there was a chance he’d make it through most of the film. It would have been more interesting if he had.
The long first act introduces not just Tucker, but his antagonists–Natalie Moorhead, Paul Lukas, William ‘Stage’ Boyd and May Beatty–and then the second act refocuses on Powell and the investigation. There’s also district attorney E.H. Calvert’s re-election bid, which the film’s running time can’t make space. The result is the film’s initial characters disappearing for a while, only to reappear as subjects–Powell’s not even the protagonist until the latter half of the second act (remember, the film’s only seventy minutes), spending almost an entire interrogation off camera.
It’s a disjointed experience, bound together by some competent acting and a sufficiently mysterious mystery. Boyd is a fine villain, Moorhead and Lukas are good. Powell’s good, but Benson really shows how an actor needs close-ups to identify with the viewer. He’s got a character here, not a personality.
Tuttle’s quizzical direction also draws attention to the artifice. It’s obvious the film was shot on three-sided sets. They’re real high and well-decorated, so they’re interesting to look at (they have to be, given the length of the takes), but they’re empty of any meaningful content.
It’s an amiable seventy minutes, the kind of film good for passing time and nothing else.
Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Barlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Archie Stout; edited by Doris Drought; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Natalie Moorhead (Fanny Del Roy), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), Paul Lukas (Adolph Mohler), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (Harry Gray), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Richard Tucker (Anthony Benson), May Beatty (Mrs. Paula Banning), Mischa Auer (Albert), Otto Yamaoka (Sam), Charles McMurphy (Burke) and Dick Rush (Welch).