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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Woman in Green (1945)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
My favourite Christmas present this year was a Sherlock Holmes marathon on Turner Classic Movies, partly because among the commonplace and the obscure, they showed the entire series that featured Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his trusty Dr Watson. Well almost. With Holmes the most portrayed fictional character on screen, it's testament to Rathbone's talents that he's remembered today as the best of them all, even though purists probably prefer Jeremy Brett's version for British TV in the 1980s. So it's a real treat to work through all fourteen films in order, and that includes this one, the eleventh, though we had to resort to a DVD copy because for some reason TCM decided to miss it out, even though it's in the public domain and wouldn't have cost them anything. They've even shown it before. Fortunately we have a few copies on DVD sitting in odd box sets here and there because of that public domain status, so we can keep the series intact.

The criminal in The Woman in Green is once again called a fiend, more than once too, because it seems to take that monicker to invoke Holmes in a case. He's also described yet again as the worst since Jack the Ripper, but for once the comparison is a fair one. There's a serial killer abroad in London, a skilled surgeon who targets women and takes a single finger as a souvenir from each. We join his story as the fourth victim is about to get hers, as she surely does, and Scotland Yard and the CID remain utterly lost. Insp Gregson from the latter, substituting for Insp Lestrade of the Yard, narrates our story and brings in Holmes to investigate.

As always we watch a whole host of familiar faces. After giving up Sally Musgrave's potential fortune in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, Hilary Brooke seems to be aiming at money in this film. This time out she's Lydia Marlowe and she's the young girlfriend of Sir George Fenwick, a wealthy and highly respected member of the aristocracy. He's played by Paul Cavanagh, who has obviously recovered from both Lady Penrose's death in The Scarlet Claw and Dr Merrivale's trip to jail in The House of Fear. He fears that he's the killer, given that he's taken to waking up in cheap boarding houses without a memory of most of the night before, each night having its own murder, and sure enough a mysterious man comes to him to back that thought up.

He's the infamous Prof Moriarty, who has survived sure death twice in this series already and who Watson tells us was apparently also hanged in Montevideo a year earlier. Apparently he survived all three of these visits to certain death and now looks like Henry Daniell, back from William Easter's jail term earned during Sherlock Holmes in Washington. If you had any doubt, you can be sure that Holmes is truly amazing because he recognises Moriarty even though Daniell is the third actor to play the character in this series alone. Whatever he looks like, he's as fiendish and devious as ever, conjuring up a horrific set of crimes that isn't as simple as it looks, give that there are many murderers and yet only one all at once.
After beginning grimly it becomes something of a charming film. The murders are horrific, and would have even more so had the original script been followed, as it called for young girls to be killed instead of young women. Presumably this is why Dr Simnell, whose character is intriguing but utterly wasted here, has a freaky doll fetish. Yet murder is almost completely replaced by the slightly less horrific crime of blackmail, though of course there's still plenty of horror behind it all if you think about it. An old nemesis is brought back to challenge Holmes and a new one is added into the mix, a lovely one too that reminds us of Gale Sondergaard in The Spider Woman. There's even a highly pleasant diversion at London's Mesmer Club, in which Watson gets hypnotised and we almost but don't quite get to meet Mycroft, Sherlock Holmes's smarter brother, as he's apparently a member. Mycroft was a notable absentee from the Rathbone/Bruce series, as was Holmes's drug use, something else that's hinted at here and perhaps only once elsewhere in the series, in an offhand comment by Moriarty in a previous film. 'The needle to the end?' he asks during the finale of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.

Daniell has an annoying calmness as Moriarty, his take on the role being highly subdued compared to what I've seen in many a classic movie from him, even from around this time. He made six films in between Sherlock Holmes in Washington and The Woman in Green, and I've seen three of them: Watch on the Rhine, Hotel Berlin and The Body Snatcher. He wasn't the focus of any of them, but I still see his face when I think of the middle one. Of course there isn't enough of him here, but there's never enough of anyone in a 68 minute B movie. Paul Cavanagh dies pretty quickly, not having a lot of luck in Holmes movies: first he loses his wife, then he gets locked up and finally he gets murdered. No wonder he didn't return for a fourth film.

There seems to be a lot more of Hillary Brooke, and that can never be a bad thing. I've only seen her in films, as early as 1937 if you count her uncredited appearance as a photograph in Stage Door (or 1940 if you want a speaking role as I believe she spoke in The Philadelphia Story) and as late as 1956 for the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. No, that wasn't about Sherlock Holmes. The role that most people remember her from though is one from television, as she was Lou Costello's girlfriend on The Abbott and Costello Show. It's a strange place to imagine her but she apparently played up the elegance as a contrast and they left her out of the usual pranks they loved to pull on everyone. She deserved a much more important film career.

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