REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK


PHILO VANCE, DETECTIVE. Official Films, 18 minutes. (Originally Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, PRC, 1947; 58 minutes). Cast: Alan Curtis, Sheila Ryan, Tala Birell, Frank Jenkins, James Bell, and Frank Fenton.

PHILO VANCE'S SECRET MISSION

   Philo Vance, Detective did not include any onscreen credits except for the actors listed above. (The actor listed as Frank Jenks in all the databases is credited on screen as Frank Jenkins.) According to the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) database and imdb.com, the original film was written by Lawrence Edmund Taylor and directed by Reginald LeBorg. S. S. Van Dine received no screen credit.

   In 1947 PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) made three Philo Vance theatrical films: Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, Philo Vance’s Gamble, and Philo Vance Returns. Both Secret Mission and Gamble featured Alan Curtis as Philo with his assistant Ernie Clark played by Frank Jenkins. In Returns Philo was played by William Wright (without Jenkins).

   The PRC version of Philo Vance resembled the generic detective hero of the average 1940s Poverty Row studio film series more than S. S. Van Dine’s creation.

   By the 1950s television had become the gluttonous beast with an insatiable appetite for content that it remains today. When the networks were unable to fill the needs of the TV stations, the stations turned to syndicated producers such as Ziv, CBS TV-Films and Official Films. Distributors such as MPTV (Motion Pictured for Television) acquired the rights to B-movies, cartoons and short films such as Philo Vance’s Secret Mission and sold them to the hungry hungry hippos aka the local TV stations.

PHILO VANCE'S SECRET MISSION

   One of the major problems facing MPTV and others was local stations taking a dull ax and editing programs to suit the local station needs. This could be the cause for a 58-minute theatrical film to exist in a renamed TV version suitable for a half hour time slot. More likely, Official Films, one of the top syndication companies at the time, did the editing and sold it in a package of half-hour mysteries.

   Fortunately, the TCM database has a complete synopsis full of spoilers and credits for the 58-minute film short.

   Jamison (Paul Maxey), co-publisher of pulp magazines, has invited writer Philo Vance to his office to discuss the possibility of Vance writing a mystery based on Jamison’s former partner’s murder seven years ago. With his assistant Ernie Clark and a woman who is not introduced, says nothing and no one says anything to her during the long scene (she is Vance’s secretary Mona), Vance meets the suspects.

   Mona (Sheila Ryan) will be in nearly every scene of Philo Vance, Detective, while most of the rest in this scene will end up victims of the missing forty minutes and not be seen again.

   Jamison’s other partner is upset over the idea of leaving pulps to publish “books.” The company’s two main writers also hate the idea of mystery books (there are too many of them now). When Jamison announces he had solved the murder of the dead partner, office secretary and victim’s wife (Tala Birell) faints. Jamison invites Vance to his house that night to discuss the case.

   Vance and Mona arrive to meet Jamison. They hear gunshots and a cry for help. The two break into Jamison’s home to find blood on the floor but no body (just like the earlier murder). They call and wait for the sheriff.

PHILO VANCE'S SECRET MISSION

   “I think I am going to faint,” says Mona, half seriously.

   “Why don’t you wait until the police come and I’ll catch you in my arms,” suggests Philo, who is busy on the phone.

   Vance and Mona leave but a motorcycle cop chases them down. The murdered man’s body is in Vance’s car trunk. Next we see a cop using the police radio informing all police cars to look out for an armed and dangerous killer, and the cop is nice enough to add Philo “and girl companion” have been released.

   Now the editing becomes noticeable. We miss all the scenes with the suspects, clues to motive, where the murder weapon came from, and information about the first murder. One entire character, Joe the cover photographer, ends up on the editing floor.

   Instead we jump to Vance and Mona driving to the first victim widow’s home. They are followed and shot at. Vance fights with the bad guy who runs away unseen in the dark. Vance rushes to the widow afraid she would be next. Instead he finds her packing for a cruise where she plans to marry her finance.

   More scenes vanish including (according to the TCM synopsis) the denouncement scene where Vance names his girl friend Mona as the killer (that I would need to see to believe).

   But it was all a ruse to trap the killer. At the cruise ship the killer is revealed, Vance suggests he and Mona take a cruise together, but then he heads for the exit when she suggests they get married at sea. She stops him with a long kiss.

   It would be unfair to judge the cast and production with forty minutes missing from the 58-minute film, but the story holds up considering. There are times the viewer is confused by what is going on such as why does Vance think the widow is in danger. But while the editor of this television version has removed the mystery, the story barely survives to find a home in the crime genre with the relationship between Vance and girl friend Mona providing most of the entertainment.

Sources: TCM.com database, IMDb.com, Billboard. If you wish to avoid spoilers you can read Steve’s review of the original film here. I need to find a copy of the original, if only to see Sheila Ryan posing for a pulp cover.