Archive

Archive for September 2, 2017

Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, Part 3 (spoilers)

September 2, 2017 7 comments

Concluding my reviews of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce:

The Woman in Green (’45): This one is darker in tone than the last few, and opens with an odd bit of narration directed at the audience (as opposed to the previous film, where the opening narration was being directed to Holmes and Watson by the man requesting their help). The narrator is Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton), making his sole appearance in the Rathbone series — perhaps because the comic-relief Lestrade was inappropriate for a story about a Jack the Ripper-style crime spree in which women are being murdered by someone who cuts off their right “forefingers” (aka index fingers). Holmes and Gregson discuss the case at an upscale club where they observe Sir George Fenwick (Paul Cavanagh in his third role in the series) with an attractive blonde woman in what I have to assume is a green outfit (the dialogue never specifies and the film’s in black-and white — nor is her wardrobe ever relevant to the story, making this a fairly random title). The woman, Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke, previously a military driver in The Voice of Terror and the Musgrave heiress in S.H. Faces Death), takes him home, sets a relaxing mood, and speaks to him in a hypnotic tone… and then he awakes in a dive hotel the next morning with a dead woman’s severed finger in his pocket! He goes back to Lydia to ask what happened, and is confronted by a debonair blackmailer. When his daughter later calls in Holmes to help with his troubling behavior, they find him shot in the back, clutching a matchbook from the club where Holmes saw him with the mystery woman.

Holmes realizes the murders are being done merely to set up blackmail victims by planting the fingers on them — and only one criminal mastermind is diabolical enough for such a scheme. That’s right, it’s the third and final appearance of Professor Moriarty, and no sooner does Holmes voice his suspicion than Moriarty, the blackmailer we saw before, lures Watson away and pays a call on Holmes. This time, he’s played by Henry Daniell, who’s noticeably younger than the previous two Moriartys, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill. There’s no continuity with previous films, or perhaps there was an unchronicled case between films, since Watson believes the professor was hanged in Montevideo the year before. Anyway, the Holmes/Moriarty interaction is less achingly polite and more brief and hostile than before, in part because the two geniuses know each other so well that they don’t even need to have the conversation out loud. (This is based on their exchange in “The Final Problem.”) Daniell makes an effectively chilling Moriarty, but in a colder, less genteel way than his predecessors, so that kind of civil interplay doesn’t suit him as well.

Anyway, there’s soon an attempt on Holmes’s life which Holmes avoids using the old “decoy bust of Caesar silhouetted in the window” trick, loosely based on the gambit from “The Adventure of the Empty House.” (Rathbone points to his aquiline nasal bridge and remarks that “Throughout history, prominent men have had prominent noses.” As the bearer of a somewhat Roman nose myself, I appreciated that.) He and Watson discover the sniper to be deeply hypnotized, giving Holmes the key to the murders. The woman in green must be a hypnotist! This leads them to a society of hypnotists (recommended to Holmes by his brother Mycroft, mentioned here for the only time in the series) where Dr. Watson is put through a predictable comic-relief scenario, but the woman shows up to entice Holmes into a trap set by Moriarty. Playing on his curiosity, she lures him home and offers to hypnotize him, though since he’s a “difficult subject,” she offers him an herbal sedative, a fictitious “Oriental drug” that the screenwriters rather amusingly named “Cannabis japonica.” So she’s basically giving him weed. Once he’s under, Moriarty appears and commands him to write a suicide note and jump off the roof — but of course he was faking until Watson and the cops would show up. Of course, Moriarty tries to escape arrest and falls to his death for the third time in three appearances. Come on, guys, I know he canonically went over Reichenbach Falls, but this is getting repetitive. (Also… He keeps dying and coming back with a different face, sometimes a younger one. Is Moriarty a Time Lord? Maybe he actually is the Master!)

A fairly good one, effectively moody and intense, aside from Watson’s hypnotic humiliation. It does rely a bit too much on coincidence and convenient timing, with Holmes just happening to see the culprit and her victim together, and Moriarty just happening to show up mere minutes after Holmes reveals his suspicion of the prof’s involvement. Interesting change of pace, though, to see Holmes pursue a suspect by romancing her.

Pursuit to Algiers (’45): Interestingly enough, though this is the first Universal Holmes film to come out after World War II, it’s also the first since the initial three to have a storyline involving international intrigue. But the escapism of the past few films is still in effect. Even though the war would still most likely have been ongoing at the time of production, the story deals with an imaginary nation called Rovinia and its internal intrigue, with Holmes taking the case due to vague platitudes about the cause of world democracy. WWII isn’t even mentioned.

Before that, though, we see Holmes and Watson preparing for a fishing vacation, and this time it isn’t in service to a scheme as in The Spider Woman. This seemed out of character to me, given Holmes’s known lack of interest in anything unrelated to crime, but on further exploration, I find that there are references to Holmes enjoying fishing in “The ‘Gloria Scott'” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.” So if it’s an inconsistency, it falls on Doyle rather than Universal. (Well, perhaps he enjoys fishing because it gives him time to think.) In any event, he’s lured into the case by a very convoluted series of messages that pretty much required recruiting an entire tavern worth of performers and several men on the street, which seems to rather defeat the purpose of a secret message, as does having Holmes and Watson talk about it openly as it happens. Anyway, it leads them to a meeting with representatives of Rovinia, who want Holmes to escort the heir to the assassinated king back home. Holmes is assigned a small plane, requiring Watson to take a cruise ship, the Friesland, and meet Holmes in Algiers. (This is implicitly meant to be the unchronicled adventure Watson hinted at in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” “the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which so nearly cost us both our lives.” We also get to hear Watson’s partial account of the affair of the giant rat of Sumatra, alluded to in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.”)

Much as in The Spider Woman, Watson briefly believes Holmes has been killed in a plane crash with the prince, but soon discovers that Holmes ditched the plane before the crash (it’s not explained how) and stowed himself and the prince aboard the liner. Most of the movie is thus a ship-based story, with the leads interacting with their colorful fellow passengers, many of whom have secrets, and one of whom is a beautiful singer (Marjorie Riordan) who performs several songs in the film, mostly for Dr. Watson, with whom she bonds. Nigel Bruce also performs “Loch Lomond” in an unexpectedly strong, operatic voice. And there’s a trio of bad guys after the prince, including a deadly knife-thrower played by German actor Martin Kosleck, who reminds me slightly of a young Peter Lorre, and who has a clash or two with Holmes, to his detriment.

The title is highly misleading. Algiers had a cinematic reputation as an exotic land of intrigue and romance (thanks largely to the 1938 Charles Boyer/Hedy Lamarr film Algiers), which is presumably why they chose to invoke it; but the movie ends just as the ship reaches Algiers and the city is never actually seen, nor do any of the passengers have any connection to it. They could’ve chosen any other coastal destination with zero impact on the story.

Despite all the intrigue and music and so forth, I find this the blandest film yet in the series. The cruise ship setting is a bit too static and claustrophobic, the setup is a bit too contrived, and there’s no real mystery, no murder to be solved, just some obvious bad guys to thwart and a couple of red herrings to expose. While Holmes still gets to be exceedingly clever and devious, it doesn’t really feel like a Holmes story otherwise. This steamship adventure is the first suggestion that the series is running out of steam.

Terror by Night (’46): The second movie in a row to use the “passengers on a conveyance” format, this film is set almost entirely within three cars of a railroad train. The budget must’ve been getting really tight by this point, limiting them to these claustrophobic stories. (This is also the first film in the series to run less than an hour, though only three of the Universal films surpass 70 minutes.) The introductory narration (anonymous this time) reuses the “fabulous jewel with a trail of death” setup previously used by The Pearl of Death. It feels very derivative from the start, and mostly it isn’t very interesting, just a lot of moving back and forth among compartments in a single car as Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade conduct their various investigations and interrogations of the passengers. Watson is more clueless than ever; not only is he totally unhelpful (aside from getting the drop on the baddie in the climax, though Holmes does most of the fighting that follows, or rather his unconvincing stunt double does), but he borders on actually impeding Holmes’s work — alienating one suspect by attempting his own clumsy interrogation, diverting Holmes from a key clue to pursue a red herring, and failing to notice Holmes hanging on the outside of the train when one of the villains kicks him out. It’s his most unflattering portrayal yet. By this point, Bruce’s Watson really has become the caricature that everyone remembers him for these days.

There’s a decent guest turn from Alan Mowbray as the villain, who further makes Watson look bad by impersonating an old war buddy of his with Watson none the wiser, but who turns out to be Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right hand from “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Also notable is the main female guest star, Renee Godfrey, who’s gorgeous as all get-out, but does such a terrible Cockney accent that it took me several scenes to figure out that’s what it was supposed to be.

Once more, the title is pretty random — not misleading so much as uninformative. Okay, the story does take place mostly over one night, but as with the past couple of movies, the title emphasizes something that isn’t really that significant to the plot. But I guess Murder on the Edinburgh Express would’ve been too derivative…

The plot does have a decent twist or two toward the end, but it’s yet another “The villains seem to get the drop on Holmes but he turns out to have been two steps ahead of them all along” ending. The main novelty it offers is that Holmes’s plan depends on Lestrade being quick on the uptake for once, and the Inspector rises nicely to the occasion, a good ending for his final appearance in the series.

Dressed to Kill (’46): After the last two cheap, formulaic entries, I was afraid the Rathbone series would come to a disappointing end, but fortunately that isn’t the case. I doubt that Roy William Neill, the producer/director of all but the first of the Universal Holmes films, could have known that he was nearing the end of his life (he died of a heart attack after this film), and Universal still had three years on the contract, but it’s as if they decided to go out with a bang anyway, or maybe to try to revitalize the series after the last two tepid installments.

This one not only pulls out all the stops, going for a longer run time and a more expansive production, but it gets back to its Holmesian roots, with abundant references to the canon, particularly “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which in the film’s continuity has only just been published in The Strand (55 years later than in reality, and less than four years before the magazine ceased publication). Holmes feels more like himself, with more of his intensity and idiosyncrasies on display than we’ve seen in a while, and while Watson is not particularly on the ball, neither is he particularly dimwitted or the butt of jokes this time, and his musings accidentally inspire key revelations in Holmes twice. This is also the first film in the series since The Spider Woman to acknowledge WWII in any way — indeed, in a particularly disturbing way, when the villains attempt to murder Holmes using the same kind of poison used in the Nazi gas chambers.

The plot is clever, involving the hunt for a trio of “musical boxes” made by a prisoner and encoding the location of the treasury printing plates he stole in the tunes they play. Holmes’s rival in the search for the boxes is the brilliant and lovely Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), whose brilliance and cunning rival Irene Adler’s, and who similarly manages to outsmart him, in this case luring him into the gas deathtrap, as well as stealing a trick from “Scandal” to get Watson to reveal where the final music box is hidden. Morison makes Courtney a worthy rival for Holmes, the best in a while. All in all, I’d call this one of the best films in the series, and a worthy finale.

The title’s still in the same oddly generic vein as the previous few, though. I have a hard time figuring out how Dressed to Kill applies to the story, unless it’s a reference to Courtney’s skill at disguise and/or her elegant fashions. It’s also generic in that it’s the third of four unrelated films using the title — the others being a 1928 gangster film with Mary Astor, a 1941 mystery with Lloyd Nolan, and a 1980 erotic thriller directed by Brian De Palma and starring Michael Caine. (Not to mention the Roger Corman sexploitation film Stripped to Kill from 1987, and its sequel 2 years later.) I wonder why the title is so popular, and why they used it here.

By the way, Rathbone and Bruce were also playing Holmes and Watson on radio in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at the same time that they were doing the films, from 1939-46, though Bruce continued for a year after Rathbone left, and the series continued with other actors until 1950. A number of episodes survive online at the Internet Archive and elsewhere, and I’ve listened to a couple, but I didn’t think too much of them. Since the radio series started in the wake of the first two 20th Century Fox films, it set its stories in the Victorian Era and stayed there even after the Universal films jumped into the present (which must’ve been a bit confusing for the audience). Although the radio adventures were framed by a retired Watson narrating them to the radio host in the present day, which would have made him exceedingly old. Unfortunately, the format means that we hear considerably more of Bruce’s voice than Rathbone’s, and Bruce’s wheezy voice isn’t all that pleasant to listen to; indeed, his performance on radio sounds somewhat more shrill than his onscreen voice. As for the stories, the mysteries in the two I heard were rather basic and obvious. I guess there’s not much room to tell a complex mystery in a 25-minute story where much of the running time is devoted to the narrator talking about how terrific the sponsor’s wine is. Plus they had to churn them out once a week for years on end, so they can’t all be gems. The radio show is an interesting curiosity, but only a handful of its episodes seem to survive, and I’m not compelled to listen to them all.

I also decided to take a look at the previous Holmes film series, which ran from 1931-7 and starred Arthur Wontner as Holmes. But I couldn’t get through the first film, The Sleeping Cardinal. Wontner is a very unconvincing Holmes to me, an older man (56 as of the first film) with a slow, reedy voice, giving little sense of Holmes’s intelligence or intensity. He does look strikingly like some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations of an older Holmes, but he probably would’ve been more successful playing the role in silent films than in talkies. His Watson in most of the series (Ian Fleming — no, not that one) is younger and livelier, reminding me of David Burke, the first Watson from the Jeremy Brett TV series. It’s almost an inversion of the later Rathbone-Bruce dynamic, which paired a strong Holmes and a weak, older Watson. A curiosity, but not entertaining enough to hold my interest.

Incidentally, I was wrong to say earlier that Rathbone’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes popularized “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” Wontner says it twice in his first two scenes. And it was already a well-established meme before then, already being referenced and parodied at the turn of the century, though its origin is hard to pin down. Here’s the most detailed article I’ve found on the subject, concluding that it was probably derived from a misremembering of the 1899 William Gillette Sherlock Holmes play, which doesn’t contain the line as scripted but contains similar lines that might’ve been conflated by the audience’s memory or by actor flubs.

I went into the Rathbone series with low expectations, figuring that it would be cheesy and inauthentic. But aside from a few weak entries, I found it surprisingly good overall. Despite the updated period and the mishandling of Watson, and despite telling mostly original stories, it’s pretty authentic in its treatment of Holmes, and it shows a lot of knowledge of the Doyle canon, with references peppered throughout, including subtle nods to things like Holmes keeping his pipe tobacco in a slipper, or a much less subtle recreation of the bit where he shot holes in the wall of 221B to test a theory (and those bullet holes remain in the wall for the remainder of the series, a nice little bit of continuity). Basil Rathbone is perfect as Holmes, in both appearance and performance, making him charming without losing his intellectual precision, eccentricity, and reserve. The series has a number of effective villains as well, including several female villains who are almost more than a match for Holmes, and watching his debonair battles of wits with them is quite entertaining. Moriarty is well-handled when he does appear, and he isn’t overused, being featured only three times in fourteen films, though referenced in several others.

All in all, I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation for the Rathbone series, as a solidly entertaining 1940s film series in its own right, as an adaptation of the Holmes canon, and as an antecedent for more recent screen adaptations and modernizations. It’s as valuable in its own right as the Jeremy Brett series that was “my” Holmes for a long time, or as Sherlock and (my preferred) Elementary today. I’m glad I decided to see it.

Advertisements