When I stopped by the library a couple of weeks ago, I found seven of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films on sale and snatched them up. All I’m lacking now are Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Passage to Algiers and House of Fear. So naturally I launched a binge of Holmesian viewing, mixing in the DVDs I already had.
Rather than start with my Hound of the Baskervilles, though, I began with the first of my purchases, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939). Even though I rewatched it not that long ago, it rewatches well as Moriarty cunningly distracts Holmes from his promise to guard a priceless jewel by throwing a bizarre mystery (albatross drawings! flute music! Ida Lupino in fear of her life! Chinchillas!) in his face. George Zucco is a delightfully icy Moriarty and Watson is actually competent here, constantly chiding Holmes against getting distracted. “The kind of woman I think you to be would rather stake everything on one venture than live the rest of your life in the shadow of doubt.”
The series jumped to Universal and WW II for the next installment, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942), in which the eponymous radio broadcasts terrify England by predicting acts of sabotage and warfare before they happen; can Holmes (who has a really weird hairstyle here) restore the public’s faith by exposing the face behind the Voice?
Even though I’m no stranger to contemporary-set Holmes films, this is so very contemporary it feels quite anachronistic. It doesn’t help that it’s such a poor film, though interesting for its Screen Enemies elements (the Nazis, it turns out, started planting sleeper agents in England in 1919!). Evelyn Ankers plays a plucky lowlife who inspires the other waterfront riff-raff to rise up and fight for England! “Do you really think we are so blind, that we would strip this coast of defenses because of a voice on a phonograph record?”
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943) is a much inferior production in which Holmes struggles to protect an inventor and his cutting edge bombsight from falling into the hands of Moriarty, who will cheerfully sell the tech to the Axis. Lionel Atwill is very bland as Moriarty and Bruce’s Watson is really dense (taking a nap while on guard duty, which doesn’t end well) and the story feels padded (Holmes convincing Moriarty to kill him slowly instead of with a bullet is the kind of thing the Austin Powers films used to mock). On the plus side, it makes good use of the cipher from The Adventure of the Dancing Men and introduces Dennis Hooey as Inspector Lestrade. “This is no ordinary crime you contemplate, Moriarty — it is a staggering blow against crown and country!”
SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943) when he arrives at Musgrave Manor to help Watson figure out who just murdered the current head of the family. Is it one of the shell-shocked WW II veterans resting up there (proving again Vietnam did not create the cliche of the crazy veteran)? Could it be the drunken butler who Knows Too Much? And what does it have to do with the archaic Musgrave Ritual that each member of the family has to memorize? A strong adaptation of the source material. “Who first shall find it, better dead/The next to find it/imperils his head.”
THE SPIDER WOMAN (1943) remains probably the best battle of wits in the Rathbone series as Gale Sondegaard and Basil Rathbone dance through multiple scenes in which they both know each other has a hidden agenda but don’t say so out loud. Investigating the mysterious “pajama suicides” leads Holmes to suspect a female killer (“The method is peculiarly subtle and cruel — feline, not canine.”),but Sondergaard’s Adrea manages to stay one step ahead of him until the uninspired finish (she seems too smart to fall for Holmes’ request she kill him with imagination instead of just a bullet in the head). Overall, though, excellent, and with lots of canon references to The Devil’s Foot, Wisteria Lodge and the giant rat of Sumatra. Followed by Gale Sondegaard in The Spider Woman Strikes Back which is not really a sequel. “One of us had to be eliminated. The choice was not too difficult.”
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