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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.

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.

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

I’ve been thinking lately about all the different versions of Sherlock Holmes I’ve seen in recent years, which led me to consider the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes series from 1939-46, none of which I’ve seen since they were aired on TV in my youth. I’ve long shied away from them because of their infamously revisionist take on Dr. Watson, turning him into a doddering old fool instead of the stalwart and capable partner of the canon and most modern adaptations. But recently I got to thinking that I should at least see them for comparison purposes, and as a key part of the history of Holmesian adaptations. They’re hard to find on DVD, but between YouTube, the Internet Archive, and the library’s streaming service, I was able to find them all online. Only a few of them are in public domain, but the copyright owners don’t seem all that concerned with enforcement, since there are multiple copies available on YouTube and elsewhere, with varying degrees of quality. So I figure they’re pretty much fair game, though I tried to favor the library versions where feasible (the first time I’ve actually “borrowed” streaming movies from the library). Indeed, the public-domain ones are embedded directly into their Wikipedia pages, though the editions available there are of low quality.

The first two Rathbone/Bruce films were big-budget efforts made by 20th Century Fox in 1939, and were all but unique among pre-1950 Holmes screen adaptations in being period pieces rather than updated to contemporary times, as I discussed on Locus Roundtable a few years ago. (The only other exception I know of onscreen was the 1916 silent film adaptation of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play, although the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which Rathbone and Bruce starred in throughout the same period as their movie series, was also set in the past.) The series was discontinued when World War II broke out, on the theory that audiences would be more interested in stories about chasing enemy spies and saboteurs rather than classic mysteries. When Universal picked up the rights in 1942 and brought back Rathbone and Bruce, they simply updated it to the present day so that Holmes was chasing enemy spies and saboteurs (why didn’t Fox think of that?).

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939): The first film hits the ground running, doing a pretty faithful adaptation of the famous novel and presenting Holmes and Watson as well-established figures. Even so, the introductory scene of Holmes and Watson does a fine job establishing the basics of what they do and what their personalities are, so novices can easily catch up. (Then again, it’s based quite closely on the novel’s opening scene, so the credit there goes to Doyle.) Rathbone is an excellent Holmes indeed — perhaps a bit more upbeat and charming than some versions, but good at conveying Holmes’s intellect, intensity, and sterner side. There’s a marvelous split-second expression of resigned impatience on Rathbone’s face when Holmes questions a hansom driver about the color of his passenger’s eyes and the driver lacks the observational skills to answer. As for Bruce, his infamous Watson characterization isn’t in place yet; since this is largely faithful to the book, Watson is capable, aggressive, and not without cleverness, though nowhere near Holmes’s level. But there are moments where Holmes takes his amusement at the expense of a flustered, annoyed Watson, and I can see how the later persona must have arisen from the filmmakers writing to the actor’s strengths and the nature of his chemistry with Rathbone. Still, I can’t say I’m massively impressed by Bruce yet.

As for the rest of the film, it plays to ’30s film conventions by focusing a lot on the romance between Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) and Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), who get first and third billing while Rathbone gets second and Bruce is relegated to the top of the diagonal list of supporting players (since Fox was unsure their star power was sufficient to carry a film). Greene and Barrie are adequate enough as romantic leads, but their interplay is still secondary to the mystery and suspense. The film reveals the killer’s identity surprisingly early, well before Holmes reveals it, but this is necessary to create suspense in the climax.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (’39) is nominally based on Gillette’s seminal stage play, but has little in common with it aside from featuring Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) as the villain and including the character of Billy the pageboy (Terry Kilburn), who was created for the play and later added to the canon. Otherwise it’s an original story in which Moriarty engineers a convoluted murder scheme as a “toy” to distract Holmes while the Professor goes after a much bigger prize. The woman at the center of the former scheme, Ann Brandon, is played by Ida Lupino, whose name I know mainly from her later work as a director and from appearances in The Twilight Zone and Columbo. At this age, she was quite lovely and also projected compelling strength and intelligence, reminding me of Carrie Fisher in her Princess Leia days. Her character is smart, perceptive, and courageous, insofar as a woman in a 1930s movie could be, which means she still had to do her share of screaming and fainting.

Anyway, this is a really good movie. The interplay between Holmes and Moriarty in their early scene together is delightful, marvelously setting up their oh-so-civilised rivalry and war of intellects. Zucco is effective as the Professor, but Rathbone is superb as Holmes, with the script allowing him to be more eccentric and obsessive in a very authentic way. It really is one of the classic screen portrayals of the character (and is also the film that popularized “Elementary, my dear Watson,” though not the first appearance of the phrase). On the other hand, Watson blossoms into full comic relief here, a greater departure from the source — but the comedy is effective and funny and not always at Watson’s expense, and the lighter moments it creates help make the film more well-rounded overall.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (’42): Even though most prior Holmes adaptations had been modernized, Universal felt the need to preface its first WWII-era Holmes film with a title card stressing that Holmes was “immortal” and “timeless.” Maybe that shows how much of an impression the first two Rathbone movies had made on the culture.

But it’s worth remembering that the last original Holmes story had been published only 15 years before this movie. That’s probably why the early Holmes movies were usually in modern settings — because at the time, it was still an ongoing or recent series and hadn’t yet come to be seen as a thing of the past. But what’s relevant here is that the Holmes canon overlaps the First World War. This film is a loose adaptation of “His Last Bow,” a 1917 story about an aging Holmes on the brink of retirement capturing a German spy on the eve of WWI. That story was a departure from the norm, the only canonical story told in omniscient third person and focused on espionage instead of mystery, and it’s thus believed to have been written as a patriotic propaganda piece to boost British morale. The Voice of Terror is very much in the same vein. It keeps little of the plot, aside from the name of the enemy spy (nearly) and the verbatim closing speech made by Holmes about England weathering “an east wind” and coming out stronger. But it’s very much a morale-boosting propaganda piece of the sort that was pretty much required for Hollywood films of this period.

The B-movie budget is immediately clear in the opening montage, which uses abundant stock footage to show a series of disastrous acts of sabotage supposedly perpetrated by the Nazis on the UK, with a gloating German propaganda broadcaster, the titular Voice of Terror, describing the horrors even as they happen, so as to demoralize British listeners. The narration is actually pretty chilling despite the stock footage. A lot of the film also happens on one set, the office of a secret intelligence council led by Reginald Denny’s Sir Evan, who’s called in Holmes to track down the VoT over the protests of his colleagues. Holmes is still essentially the same as before, though with a messier hairstyle for some reason. As with the later modernized Holmeses played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, he’s adapted to the cutting-edge technology of the era, using an oscilloscope to analyze the VoT’s broadcasts and having a flashlight mounted at the tip of his walking stick. Watson is greyer-haired and somewhat more useless, playing a minor role in the story aside from giving Holmes someone to talk to, correct, and laugh at. (Though there’s an odd bit where he stops Holmes from donning his deerstalker cap before going out, saying “You promised.” Of course, a proper British gentleman like Holmes would never have worn a deerstalker in the city, only in the country. But Holmes’s deerstalker and Watson’s bowler on the hat stand are an in-joke nod to their period origins, since they otherwise wear contemporary 1940s attire and headgear.)

The leading lady is Evelyn Ankers of The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and other Universal chillers. She plays a supposedly Cockney girl from the criminal classes, whom Holmes persuades to help him out of patriotism and who rallies her fellow lowlifes with a rousing speech about doing it for England, incongruously delivered in an accent more like an American gangster’s moll. She’s nice to look at, but she’s no Ida Lupino. She ends up seducing a German agent named Meade (Thomas Gomez) as part of Holmes’s plan, though how Holmes figures out who Meade is and where to find him is never explained. All in all, a decent film, but not a hugely impressive start to the Universal series.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (’42): This one sees Holmes not merely catching a spy, but working as one — using his talent for disguise and clever planning to sneak a Swiss scientist named Tobel (William Post Jr.) out from under the Gestapo’s noses and bring him to England, where he’s agreed to develop an advanced bomb sight for the RAF. But he insists on overseeing the work himself and keeping the technique secret, an arbitrary condition that serves only to drive the plot. When Tobel disappears, Holmes learnes that he left a message for the detective with his fiancee in London, Charlotte (Kaaren Verne), but it’s already been taken in secret by Professor Moriarty (or “Moriarity” according to the credits) — here played by Lionel Atwill, who was Dr. Mortimer in The Hound of the Baskervilles three years earlier. Holmes reconstructs the code from the underlying sheet of paper on the pad (lucky he wrote it in pencil), and it’s a code Holmesians know well. The film is nominally adapted from “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” but it’s really more of a sequel, since Tobel knew Holmes would recognize the code from his prior encounter with it.

There’s even more debonair battle-of-wits banter between Holmes and Moriarty this time, but I’m afraid I don’t find Atwill quite as impressive a Moriarty as George Zucco was, even though I’ve quite liked him in earlier roles. I guess I feel Atwill makes a better good guy than a bad guy, though he played plenty of both. I do enjoy their interplay, though, and I imagine it may well have been an influence on the Doctor and the Master in Doctor Who. As for Rathbone, he gets to play Holmes in a number of disguises, but the most problematical one is when he dons brownface to play a “Lascar” (South Asian sailor in British employ) named Ram Singh, for whom he uses an inexplicable accent that sounds more like Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster than anything from the Indian subcontinent.

The film also features this series’s debut of Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), whose relationship with Holmes is less adversarial here than in the canon, though it will grow more so in later films. Lestrade and Watson are both shown as clueless next to Holmes, but they do get to save Holmes’s life with a nice bit of observation and deduction (more Lestrade’s than Watson’s) when they realize he’s being carried off in a chest with a false bottom. And Watson gets a good moment when he recognizes and explains the Dancing Men code, though he fails to recognize the extra twist Tobel adds to it. Still, it’s a better showing for Watson than in the previous film or two.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (’43): This one involves the disappearance of a British courier carrying an important document to Washington, DC, prompting Holmes and Watson to fly to the US capital to find the missing item. The document is a classic Macguffin, in that it drives the whole story but we never learn what’s in it, beyond the fact that the freedom of the world depends on it falling into the right hands.

This is easily the best of the Universal series so far, with lively and clever plotting and fun characterization, starting with the opening sequence in which we’re introduced to the courier, gradually clued in that he’s not the innocent klutz he appears, and shown his interactions with the entertaining bunch of train passengers, notably Nancy Partridge (Marjorie Lord), to whom he casually hands off the document disguised in a matchbook once he realizes enemy agents are onto him. Later, in London, H&W examine the missing agent’s flat and Holmes deduces that he’s converted the document to microfilm and hid it in the matchbook (or “match folder” as they call it in the film). From then on, it’s a hunt for the missing matchbook, and the film has some devilishly clever and suspenseful sequences as the book casually changes hands among various characters, as matchbooks tended to do in the age of ubiquitous smoking. There’s a party sequence where it wanders by chance through many different hands, including an ironic moment where it’s briefly held by the person who was supposed to receive the document in the first place, before ending up back in Nancy’s possession where it started. Later, the villain casually and unknowingly takes possession of it, and Nancy has a nice moment where she silently deduces what’s happened and chooses not to tell, even under threat of torture. It’s nicely conveyed through pure expression and gaze.

This leads to a confrontation between Holmes and the villain Stanley, played by a returning George Zucco, who’s as effective a menace as he was as Moriarty. It’s very entertaining to see Rathbone and Zucco play off each other, and to see how Holmes brilliantly manipulates Stanley into giving him the matchbook. All in all, a very cleverly crafted and well-written tale, one of the two best in the series so far.

After these first three films, the Universal series shifted away from its focus on the war and back toward more conventional mysteries. So this seems like a good place to break.

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