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Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Director: Alfred Werker
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino and Alan Marshal
With The Hound of the Baskervilles such a success in 1939, Fox naturally made a sequel, but this time chose not to base it on an original story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact only that first entry in a series that would eventually run to fourteen films was taken directly from Doyle's work, this one setting the precedent of departing from it by being based instead on a play. The play was simply titled Sherlock Holmes and was written in 1899 by William Gillette, something of an expert on Holmes given that he had played him on stage even while those original stories were being written, though this does become more of an interesting aside than anything else, as apparently the play wasn't closely followed. What may be most important is that in many ways it was Gillette's stage portrayal as much as anything in Doyle's work that constructed the composite character that we have come to recognise as Holmes, Gillette adding the deerstalker, Inverness cape and calabash pipe.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes introduces the Rathbone/Bruce series to the master detective's arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. In fact it sets up the ruthlessly polite antagonism between these two men from moment one, with nothing less than a written introduction. 'Eleven years he has eluded me,' writes Holmes. 'All the rest who opposed him are dead. He is the most dangerous criminal England has ever known.' He's so dangerous that we first see him in the dock, being exonerated of murder by a jury to the disgust of the judge. Holmes can apparently destroy his alibi but he arrives a few moments too late and a man in England can't be tried twice for the same offense.

So they take a ride in a hansom cab together, as polite as you could imagine but as careful around each other as they could possibly be. Holmes tells Moriarty precisely what he thinks of him, memorably so. 'You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty,' he tells him. 'I admire it. I'd like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.' For his part, the Napoleon of Crime looks upon Holmes as a spoiled boy who plays with watches, flitting from one interesting distraction to another, and he just can't resist playing with him. We know from moment one that he's deliberately setting up a trap for him but we're initially only dropped hints as to what it is, and so we have to discover the details along with Holmes and Watson.

The suggestion is that it has something to do with the Star of Delhi, one of the largest emeralds in the world, which has been gifted to Her Majesty the Queen by an Indian Maharajah and which will shortly be arriving on the cruiser Invincible. Yet we're promptly thrown into a completely different crime, the murder of a young man called Lloyd Brandon, though his sister Ann involves Holmes before it even happens. She's scared because her brother had received a strange note, a picture of a man with an albatross around his neck, dated with the day of the murder. Strangest of all, her father had received precisely the same note before his murder some years earlier in South America, hence the South American Indian funeral dirge that soon followed both killings.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is engaging and contagious stuff, obviously written by an enthusiastic fan of the character, far more so than later pastiches like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. There's never a dull moment and at 85 minutes in length it's the longest entry in the series. It's a carefully thought out pulp adventure jam packed full of detail, the question throughout revolving around quite what we should ignore and what we should pay serious attention to. It's certainly too clever for its own good at points but that's no real hardship, especially for pulp afficionados like me who appreciate the sheer vitality of such things and the vitality here is palpable. The drive of the film is the battle between nemeses, something that is more appropriately highlighted in some of the foreign markets where the foreign language titles often translate to Sherlock Holmes vs Moriarty. It feels very much like a 'vs' film even if Moriarty doesn't spend too much time on screen.

Rathbone and Bruce are top billed, of course, the series now firmly established after The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both are as solid as you'd expect given that they were invited to come back for twelve more movies. We get far more of both here than we did in the first film, which is no bad thing, there being no fog enshrouded moorland to distract our attention here. Holmes continues his tradition of deduction and disguise, Rathbone even giving us a music hall rendition of I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside here without us ever recognising him, even though he's singing a song written fifteen years after the film was set. Watson continues in his well intentioned but bungling ways, but without having become a two dimensional stereotype quite yet. They also have a number of notable actors to support them.

Chief among these is Ida Lupino, one of the toughest broads in Hollywood and so hardly someone who you'd expect to find playing a damsel in distress. She's believable as a young English rose though, down to earth but still eligible in society, because she was born in London and only moved to the US six years earlier. She landed her first screen role by accident, given that she only turned up for her mother's audition, and she racked up a decent set of credits, but it was only a year after this when she moved to Warner Brothers that she'd really become established, first as a star and then as a director, the only notable female director of the golden age. In fact her entire career could be summed up by a line Holmes uses to describe her character here: 'I think the kind of woman I take you to be would rather risk everything on one venture than live the rest of her life in the shadow of doubt and death.'

Hiding in the smaller roles are reliable character actors like Henry Stephenson as the guardian of the crown jewels and E E Clive as a Scotland Yard inspector. Clive had appeared in a different role in The Hound of the Baskervilles but wouldn't return for any further entries in the series as he died the following year. He was a late starter in the movies, already in his fifties when he debuted in Cheaters at Play in 1932 and racking up his 95 credits in a mere nine years. I'll always remember him best as Bulldog Drummond's gentleman's gentleman, 'Tenny' Tennison. Prof Moriarty is played by one perennial screen villain taking the place of another. The part should have gone to Lionel Atwill, who was a rare good guy in the previous film, but instead went to George Zucco, another regular in pulp horror and adventure movies, though his considerable talents lifted him beyond that on occasion. Both were dab hands at being sinister gentlemen, something Moriarty almost epitomises.

This was as much of a success as its predecessor, but surprisingly Twentieth Century Fox promptly dropped the series, Rathbone and Bruce following it over to Universal who picked it up and brought it into the modern day. This was one key reason why Fox passed on further films, as the Victorian setting didn't sit well during wartime. Rather than bring it into the present, they let Universal do that instead, thus leading us to the strange situation where Rathbone would alternate being the hero of the piece, battling the Nazis in the name of humanity, with being the villain of the piece, on more than one occasion one of those Nazis. You could probably find theatres in 1942 and 1943 where he'd be the good guy on one screen and the bad guy on another. That's a unique talent that kept him in work for 47 years.

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