Home > Reviews > Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, Part 2 (spoilers)

Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, Part 2 (spoilers)

Continuing my reviews of the WWII-era Sherlock Holmes film series that Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce did for Universal Studios:

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (’43): This one’s a loose adaptation of “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” and it’s the first Universal film that isn’t specifically about a military or intelligence matter. Rather, it engages more peripherally with wartime themes, establishing that the Musgraves have volunteered their estate as a convalescent hospital for shellshocked soldiers, several of whom are featured in the story. It’s a good showing for Watson, who’s been working at the hospital and gets to wield a lot of his medical expertise. He calls in Holmes to investigate an assault on a fellow doctor, and Holmes arrives just in time to deal with a series of murders revolving around the Musgrave Ritual, which is rewritten here to be based on a chess game rather than the more basic, less visually interesting set of directions in the original. It’s a reasonably effective story, culminating in Holmes pulling one of his classic gambits to lure the murderer into a trap and a confession, and Watson again makes a better showing than usual, readily catching on to Holmes’s plan for once and being a key offscreen player in the trap for the killer. The movie also establishes a mutual dislike between Watson and Lestrade, with Watson having contempt for Lestrade’s intelligence and abilities. This will be a recurring thread going forward.

This is one of the most generic titles in the series, since Holmes faces death in just about every film. Still, I guess it is marginally more applicable here, since Holmes’s climactic gambit involves faking his death (not for the last time).

This film mercifully loses the weird, swept-forward hairstyle Rathbone sported in the first three Universals, which was like some kind of strange combover for his temples. He now has neater, slicked-back hair like in the Fox movies, which makes him look distinctly more Holmesian. This will be his standard look from now on.

The Spider Woman (’43): This one is packed with allusions to elements from the Holmes canon, notably The Sign of the Four and “The Final Problem,” among others.  After an opening montage detailing a series of “pyjama suicides” sweeping London, we see Holmes in a situation that seems out of character — on a Scottish fishing vacation with Watson. Since when did Holmes concern himself with any activities that didn’t serve the pursuit of crime? Luckily, it turns out to be part of a scheme to fake his own death (see?), a la Reichenbach Falls, so that the mastermind behind what he renames the “pyjama murders” will be put off their guard — or her guard, as he deduces using rather chauvinistic logic (in that the indirect, subtle murders are “more feline than canine”). To lure out this “female Moriarty,” Holmes dons brownface once again, and almost the same alias he used in Secret Weapon, this time as a turbaned Indian gentleman named Ranji Singh. Once again, his accent isn’t even remotely Indian, but is maybe in the vicinity of a stock “Arab sheikh” accent.

Anyway, the mastermind is Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard), who preys on debt-ridden compulsive gamblers by getting them to sign over their insurance policies to her accomplices, then kills them inside locked rooms, which Holmes discovers is done by means of a tarantula slipped into a vent by an unknown party (hence the title). But before then, she figures out that “Singh” is an impostor and recognizes him as Holmes, keeping that knowledge to herself, though he knows she knows, and she knows he knows she knows, and he — you get the idea. Later, she brazenly comes to Baker Street and pretends to be meeting Holmes for the first time, subverting his scheme to catch her by returning the incriminating insurance policy — yet also attempting to murder him and Watson with a clever gas trap that almost succeeds. Anyway, the game of cat and mouse continues until it arrives at a rather melodramatic cliffhanger: Deducing that her accomplice small enough to sneak into vents is an African pygmy (or rather, noted Little Person actor Angelo Rossitto in unfortunate blackface), he tracks her to a carnival, gets captured, and is tied up behind a Hitler target in a shooting gallery, with Watson himself doing the shooting that almost does him in — a deathtrap replicated almost exactly in the 1966 Batman 2-parter “The Penguin Goes Straight”/”Not Yet, He Ain’t,” with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara in place of Watson and Lestrade — and now that I think about it, the resemblance between Nigel Bruce’s Watson and Neil Hamilton’s Gordon is rather striking. I can’t help but wonder if the homage was intentional.

Anyway, this is another effective battle of wits between Holmes and a criminal genius, made distinctive by featuring a female mastermind. Much like Irene Adler, Miss Spedding comes as close to defeating Holmes as any foe he’s ever faced (although she’s far more brutal about it). And Universal tried to capitalize on this film’s success a few years later by featuring Sondergaard in an unrelated horror film misleadingly called The Spider Woman Strikes Back.

This film has only a peripheral acknowledgment of WWII, namely the shooting gallery with cariatures of the Axis leaders as targets. While the Universal films were initially part of the propaganda push that drove most Hollywood productions in the early years of the war, from here on the films are pure escapism, none of them even acknowledging the existence of the war until the final installment in 1946. I suppose that, as the war dragged on, the audience’s need for escape increased.

The Scarlet Claw (’44): This one opens with Holmes and Watson attending a conference on the occult in Quebec, making it the second and last film in the series to be set in North America (the first being Sherlock Holmes in Washington). Holmes’s rational skepticism clashes with the credulity of the occultist Lord Penrose (Paul Cavanagh), who learns that his wife has been killed, apparently by the same supernatural monster whose existence he’s been arguing for. He rejects Holmes’s help and rushes home, but the next morning, Holmes receives a letter mailed the previous day by the murdered woman herself, imploring him to help her. Regretting that he could not aid her in time, Holmes resolves to take the case. “For the first time ever, Watson… we’ve been retained by a corpse.”

This takes him to the village of La Mort Rouge (“The Red Death” — how Poe-etic) deep in the marshes, where, even though it’s a Hollywood movie taking place in a Francophone province, most of the characters speak with English or Scottish accents. Holmes and Watson recognize the victim as a noted actress who vanished two years earlier, and it turns out there are several others who came to town two years before, all of them turning out to be connected to the mystery. There’s a lot of interplay with the various colorful villagers, and several more murders committed with the title weapon, a five-pronged garden weeder that leaves marks like an animal’s claws. Holmes finally deduces that the killer is a fellow actor from the first victim’s company, living in town in more than one disguise. To prevent the final murder, he must determine which of the villagers is not who he appears.

Wikipedia says this generally considered the best of the Universal Holmes films, and thought I’m not sure I’d go that far, I agree it’s excellent, with an effectively eerie mood and a good strong mystery that shares a few resonances with The Hound of the Baskervilles (which is name-dropped by Watson as an earlier example of supernatural debunkery — although it no doubt happened decades later in the Universal continuity than in the Fox films). It’s also surprisingly dark and tragic at times. I did figure out in advance who the villain was, because I recognized his profile when he was in shadow. Appropriately, the actor playing the master of disguise is one of the numerous actors in this series to play multiple roles, sometimes in several consecutive films. I didn’t really find him all that impressive as a villain, but I guess that’s why he was cast, because he had to be convincing as a nice guy.

Rathbone still manages to effortlessly capture Holmes’s character, and though Bruce endures a few slapsticky moments as Watson, he’s not quite as dense as in some earlier installments, and he has some admirable moments, such as when he expresses righteous outrage at the sight of a man striking his daughter to discipline her. He feels more like the Watson of the original stories than he has in some installments, and I hope that trend continues.

One odd thing is that several characters — including the woman who wrote Holmes the letter — described sensing an inexplicable premonition of doom prior to their deaths. It was never explained what the basis for that sensation was, though I suppose perhaps it could’ve been a subliminal awareness that they were being watched and stalked. Still, given the movie’s rationalist viewpoint, with the supposedly supernatural phenomenon proving to be a hoax, it’s odd that something like premonitions of doom would be left un-debunked.

The Pearl of Death (’44): This one’s based on “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” (also the basis for a recent Sherlock episode, “The Six Thatchers”), and is a vehicle for Rondo Hatton, the towering, acromegalic actor who made a career playing brutish killers in movies. Its first act feels somewhat modern. It begins in medias res with a disguised Holmes out-conning a chameleonic thief, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers in her second role in the series), in order to steal back the stolen Borgia Pearl, which Drake was meant to obtain for her boss, the criminal mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander). Later, in the museum where the pearl is displayed, Holmes’s own arrogance plays into Conover’s hands, when he sabotages the alarm system to demonstrate how vulnerable it is, unaware that Conover is already there and ready to snatch the pearl at the earliest opportunity. It’s a rare moment of fallibility for Holmes in this series. Conover is soon apprehended without the pearl, and Holmes is certain he must have either passed it to an accomplice or hidden it somewhere.

Fans of the canon (or Sherlock) will know where this is going, although the movie changes things up from the story. Holmes learns of a series of baffling murders in which several unrelated people have their backs broken — the trademark of Conover’s enforcer, the Hoxton Creeper (Hatton) — and have had china inexplicably smashed around their bodies. Holmes and Watson eventually piece together (literally) that the china was smashed to hide the real target of the attacks, the plaster busts of Napoleon owned by the victims — one of which Conover hid the pearl in while it was still drying. This leads them to the shop where Drake is working undercover and has already smashed two of the busts, leaving only one, at the home of a doctor where Holmes arranges to have his final confrontation with Conover and the Creeper, using psychology (and the Creeper’s romantic fixation on the creeped-out Naomi) to turn the killer against his master. Holmes then shoots the Creeper dead in self-defense, but Universal spun off Hatton into two more “Creeper” movies unconnected to the Holmes continuity, as well as featuring him in the Spider Woman non-sequel mentioned above, and would’ve done more if Hatton hadn’t died before the films were even released (a reminder, albeit a grim one, of just how quickly they churned these films out).

It’s a bit odd to see Universal trying to turn a Holmes movie into a horror movie (although it does make me wonder what a Universal Sherlock Holmes Meets Frankenstein might’ve been like), but this is a pretty good one, especially in the first act. It’s a really nice twist seeing Holmes outsmart himself for a change and be hoist on his own arrogance. Although the movie does rather gloss over the fact that three people are murdered as a result of Holmes’s mistake. As for Watson, he is played as dimwitted comic relief here, but he has his moments of insight, and the film handles the Holmes-Watson relationship well in a scene where Holmes deduces that Watson has been fighting to defend Holmes’s honor after the press rips into him for his mistake. I gotta say — all anyone remembers Nigel Bruce’s Watson for these days is the “doddering buffoon” stuff, but there is more to him than that in many of the films, a stalwart, loyal, protective and principled character that’s very true to Watson and an avuncular charm very much his own, as well as an excellent chemistry with Rathbone. If not for the dimwittedness, he would have been a fairly good Watson.

The House of Fear (’45): Another very loose adaptation, this one taking the title element from “The Five Orange Pips” and inserting it into an almost completely different story, about a gentleman’s society of seven members called The Good Comrades, living together in a cliffside Scottish castle represented by the matte painting of the bombed-out church from Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Holmes is brought in when two of the men die in grisly accidents after being sent envelopes containing orange pips (seeds) — seven for the first victim, six for the second (and so on, as confirmed later). Their insurance agent asks Holmes to investigate, suspecting that one of the men is murdering the others to collect on the insurance policy they all share as mutual beneficiaries. The men have a mix of reactions to Holmes and Watson, some welcoming them, others resisting their involvement. But more of them keep getting killed off, in different ways that mutilate the bodies and leave them to be identified by their clothing, cufflinks, tattoos, and the like. This is said to be associated with a town legend that no resident of the ancestral house is buried whole, but it’s a red herring. I started to suspect part of what was going on after the third incident, though the real truth dawned on me only a few minutes before it was revealed.

It’s a fairly clever premise, though some aspects of it are perhaps a bit too easy to guess. The Good Comrades are a fairly effective mix of personalities, and there are some clever touches in the directing (like when a mention that a victim’s limbs were dismembered with surgical precision fades into a scene of one major suspect, a surgeon, carving a turkey). There’s a bit too much comic-relief Watson business for my taste, but Watson does get to make one crucial deduction that leads Holmes to the solution. Watson’s also still managing to get in his licks at Lestrade (e.g. “You stick with us, old boy, and we’ll make a detective of you yet”). Although it doesn’t make much sense to call in a Scotland Yard inspector to assist with a crime spree in a Scottish village. Despite its nickname, Scotland Yard is the HQ of the Metropolitan Police of Greater London, so actual Scotland should be outside Lestrade’s jurisdiction.

I’ll wrap up with the final four films in the next post.

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  1. August 31, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    Three of these four are among my favorites of the series (I find Spider Woman OK but am less fond of it because I prefer stories with a little more mystery and deductive reasoning in them). There are a couple of scenes in Scarlet Claw that fail the logic test (a buzzer alarm on a stairway that works on one person but not another, and I vaguely recall a sequence where Holmes first says he’s stumped about something, then later declares that some new info ‘confirmed what I already knew’–or maybe he was just doing a little self-puffery). But it’s still one of the best of the series. Speaking of Spider Woman: somewhere I read that it’s rather unlikely that there would be shooting galleries using real live ammo in England during WWII. Though they’re not as good overall, I enjoy all the remaining films–even the much-derided Pursuit to Algiers has its pleasures–though Stinky and his musical boxes is a low point for me.

    • August 31, 2017 at 4:47 pm

      I wondered about the live-ammo thing myself. I was thinking maybe they gave Watson a real gun just for the occasion… but for all his general dimness, Bruce’s Watson still had his areas of expertise that the filmmakers mostly acknowledged, including medicine and firearms, so I’d think he could’ve recognized the difference between a BB gun and the real thing.

      We disagree on Dressed to Kill, but I’ll cover that in the final post.

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