Thursday 31 December 2009

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
It's been a busy week. On the evening of Christmas Day my better half and I sat down to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 1939 film that introduced Basil Rathbone as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective, Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as his trusty assistant Dr John Watson. Somehow we've managed to work through the entire series of fourteen films featuring this pair within a week, this being the last of them. It's been a fascinating journey, all the films being entertaining and surprisingly different. Even now, over sixty years on and though Holmes has beaten out Count Dracula as the fictional character most frequently portrayed on screen, Rathbone and Bruce are still the first actors most people see when they think of the characters.

This one begins inside Dartmoor Prison, where a prisoner called John Davidson is refusing to tell what he knows in order to get an early release, apparently happy to carry on making music boxes until his sentence is served. At the Gaylord Art Gallery, a London auction house, three of these music boxes promptly come up for bidding and are sold for a song. Valued at five pounds a pop, the first sells for two, the second for only one and the third for a mere ten shillings, given that it goes to a Scotsman. We find out who bought them because one man was seriously interested in them but got there too late to bid. He's Col Cavanaugh and he bribes the owner with more money than the boxes brought to merely acquire the names and addresses of the buyers.

The first is Julian Emery, known to his old friends as Stinky, and he goes to see one of them after being attacked in his own home. That old school chum is Dr Watson to whom he tells a strange tale of a theft, the only item stolen being a small wooden music box almost identical to the one he bought at Gaylord. It was a worthless piece surrounded by other hugely valuable items in his music box collection, all of which were left untouched. That night, after Holmes and Watson take a look at this collection, a second attempt is made to steal the Davidson music box, this time successfully. Unfortunately the crime becomes murder as Stinky is left with a knife in his back, courtesy of a rather jealous chauffeur called Hamid. It wasn't even necessary as his employer, Mrs Hilda Courtney, was about to leave with the box anyway.

Courtney is the mastermind behind these crimes, yet another female mastermind in a series that had quite a few of them. This time out she's played by Patricia Morison, who like many charming young ladies in Holmes movies is a clever actress adept in the art of diguise. Holmes bumps into her at the house of the third buyer, Mr Kilgour, only to fall for her cover as their charwoman and let her slip straight through his fingers. What's most interesting here is that early on in the film, Watson is reading the latest issue of The Strand magazine, complete with his account of A Scandal in Bohemia which prompts a quick discussion of the lady Holmes described only as The Woman, Irene Adler. From that point on Mrs Courtney can only be compared with the one member of the sex that ever truly impressed Holmes, and she comes out pretty well all things considered.

Soon the pair are at an impasse, given that the key to the mystery is in the tunes in the music boxes and all three are needed to complete the message. Holmes has one and Courtney two, but really they're even because the master detective already has the tune to Emery's box in his head. Each will have to risk much to complete the key, to both set traps and try not to walk into any, and this cat and mouse game is fascinating to watch. Frank Gruber wrote two stories for this series, which happened to be the last two, and they leave it on a high note. If it could have continued, which Universal would have been happy to allow, his work bodes well for it to only get better. To be fair he adapted the original Doyle story, very loosely as always, and Leonard Lee wrote the screenplay, but there's an obvious consistency between these two final films that can only be down to Gruber, the director having been Roy William Neill for the last eleven, often very different, films in the series.

There were no more because Rathbone had tired of the role. He hadn't just played the same character in fourteen films over a span of a mere eight years, he'd also played it on radio in no less than 210 weekly episodes of a long running series, one that unlike the films stuck with the appropriate Victorian setting throughout. When Rathbone stopped playing Holmes the Universal film series came to an end but the radio show continued, with Bruce carrying on as Dr Watson but Tom Conway stepping into Rathbone's footsteps as the master detective. While that would seem to be a major challenge for anyone, he was at least used to that concept having recently succeeded his brother George Sanders as the Falcon in another long running detective film series. Sanders initiated the role but only played it four times in 1941 and 1942; Conway racked up ten appearances between 1942 and 1946, but at least he officially played the original Falcon's brother, inheriting the title but not the character. As Holmes, he had to fill Rathbone's boots a little more literally, playing the same role that his predecessor had made his own.

As has been the case throughout this Sherlock Holmes series, many faces are highly recognisable, not just because of who they are but because of how often they turn up as different characters. This film is no exception and in fact contains some of the most frequent returning actors. Col Cavanaugh is Frederick Worlock, in much better temper than he was as Prof William Kilblane in Terror By Night earlier the same year. This was his sixth Holmes. The appropriately named Holmes Herbert and Olaf Hytten also rack up their sixth appearance each, this time playing the folks who run the Gaylord Art Gallery. By comparison Ian Wolfe, who I knew well before watching these films, is a mere part timer, only reaching his fourth Holmes here, but at least he got a promotion, this time playing the Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

I'm even starting to recognise Harry Cording, who Wikipedia highlights as the epitome of this sort of behaviour. Even though Wikipedia only lists seven appearances, Dressed to Kill counts as at least his eighth, as he'd started as early as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second film in the series, but only as an extra. He wasn't particularly obvious early on, to the degree that I can only picture him in three of those eight roles. He's Hamid here, the jealous poetry reading chauffeur, and perhaps the only time he's been more obvious was as the tattooed seafarer Capt Simpson in The House of Fear. It's easy to wonder what these actors did after the series ceased but with the notable exception of Gerald Hamer, they were generally bit players through and through and racked up many such roles in whatever films happened to be shooting at the time. IMDb lists no less than 275 film appearances for Cording from 1925's The Knockout to East of Eden only thirty years later.

It's been a fascinating journey and tomorrow is not going to seem the same without a couple more Rathbone/Bruce movies to watch. Then again I'm only forty films into Rathbone's career and have a few more ready to go on DVD. I think I'll be watching a few more Sherlock Holmes movies first though as comparisons, given that TCM have also gifted me with a 1922 silent version with John Barrymore, one of the English films from the thirties with Arthur Wontner, and a 1965 film with John Neville. The ever reliable Internet Archive also has a few more, including more Wontners and the debut of Raymond Massey in 1931's The Speckled Band. There's always more Holmes and I may even need to go see the new one, released on Christmas Day to theatres under the simple title of Sherlock Holmes and with Robert Downey Jr in the title role.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Terror By Night (1946)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The Star of Rhodesia is apparently one of the most famous stones in the world, famous enough to be pictured in a magazine and famous enough for us to be treated to the beginnings of a story like Jacques Tourneur's The Jonker Diamond. However this is a Sherlock Holmes B picture, the shortest of the Rathbone/Bruce series, and so we can pause only briefly to point out that this diamond has caused the death of many over the years. Given that it's even appearing in this series, we can be sure that this number can only increase. If only it wouldn't be terrible taste, we'd start hosting sweepstakes at the beginning of Holmes movies to guess at how many are going to die, here because of some rock that was pulled out of the ground by a humble kaffir. Yes, this film is from another age, even brought forward fifty years from its appropriate timeframe.

After spending most of Pursuit to Algiers on a boat, we spend most of Terror By Night on a train, hurtling through the night from London to Edinburgh. Holmes and Watson are on board, hired by the Hon Roland Carstairs, the son of the owner of the Star of Rhodesia to guard it and ensure its safe passage home. Insp Lestrade is on board too, though obviously not for his claimed aim of a salmon fishing holiday. The stone's owner, Lady Margaret Carstairs, was in London to make an appearance at Buckingham Palace and naturally wore her valuable jewellery. Beyond the royal occasion, she's a snooty soul, calling Holmes and Watson policeman and shrugging off the size of the Star by explaining that before her husband gave it to her for their fifth wedding anniversary, he had it cut down to a mere 423 carats so as to be less ostentatious. Of course it still looks like a goose egg and there's been one attempt to steal it in London already.

We don't have long to wait before the customary first murder and there are plenty of the usual suspects. The victim is Roland Carstairs, dead of apparent heart failure and with no signs of violence, but the Star of Rhodesia is gone, stolen from its box at a rather convenient moment. There are the usual suspects aboard, of course, literally given that this is a Universal Holmes movie: Gerald Hamer and Frederick Worlock are both back, yet again, for their fifth appearances in the series. The only real surprise is that some of the actors involved were newcomers, actors like Geoffrey Steele and Alan Mowbray having precisely the sort of faces that are right at home in these Holmes films.
Mowbray is the least suspicious, given that he's only there as a friend of Dr Watson, Maj Duncan-Bleek by name and an old chum he knew from his years in India. There's the expected femme fatale, this time a sultry young mourner by the name of Lydia Vedder, transporting her mother back to Scotland in her coffin. New Yorker Renee Godfrey is highly pleasant to her eyes but her attempt at an English accent is pretty dire. Given the value of the diamond (a massive £50,000, imagine that), Lady Margaret might have a motive for having the stone stolen herself, perhaps for insurance reasons. Mr & Mrs Alfred Shallcross are ready with their own confessions the moment anyone starts to talk to them. That leaves Prof William Kilbane, an irascible mathematician who is outraged that anyone could possibly want to talk to him.

What's more, Holmes is convinced that he's up against another nemesis, old to him but new to us, in Col Sebastian Moran, one of Prof Moriarty's most efficient henchmen. He's never met Moran but has been nearly killed by him nonetheless on three separate occasions. The only other solid fact they have on Moran is that he dabbles in mathematics for fun and relaxation. Of course after setting up Kilbane, scriptwriter Frank Gruber promptly sets up everyone else he possibly can as a mathematical dabbler too. It isn't difficult to figure out whodunit but there's still a good deal of pleasure in working out the how and the why of it all. There's depth here and some good writing to back it all up. Fortunately Gruber would be back for the last in the series, Dressed to Kill.

I was really impressed by Dressed to Kill when I last saw it back in 2005, watching the four Universal Holmes movies that had fallen into the public domain. It's going to be interesting to see how it stands up on a further viewing, having watched the entire fourteen film series in order in a single week. These films are a really mixed bag, though more in tone and style than in quality. I've rated all of them good, from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Terror By Night, with only two exceptions: the rushed and propaganda heavy Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and the con of a film that was Pursuit to Algiers. I rated them both OK, and looking back see that both were blissfully free of the sort of actual detective work that makes Holmes such a fascinating character. Terror By Night has plenty of it.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Holmes and Watson are at Stimson's planning a fishing trip to Scotland, but circumstances seem to have other ideas for them. The pair are invited in a rather circumstantial manner to 26 Fishbone Alley, London at 8.00pm, an obtuse invitation Holmes can't resist. After all, if it's a trap it promises to be an interesting one, or so he says. It's all very cryptic and with good reason too. King Stefan of the European nation of Rovinia has been assassinated, in a murder cleverly disguised as an accident and the powers that be in that country want to solicit the aid of the master detective in transporting the King's son Nikolas safely back home. He's been in England at school.

They have a plane arranged for Holmes and Nikolas to fly out in, but due to last minute hitches there apparently isn't enough room for Watson too. Assuming shenanigans, Holmes sends his trusty assistant out to Algiers on the SS Friesland, and surprises him by turning up on the same ship with Prince Nikolas in disguise as Watson's nephew. This saves them from being shot down over the Pyrenees but doesn't remove them from danger, given that the entire ship seems to be populated by suspicious characters and more join at Lisbon, people like the dimunitive knife thrower Mirko who is desperately trying to sound like Peter Lorre.

In fact there's nobody on the boat who isn't suspicious. Mirko arrives with the beret clad and fiendishly calm Gregor, who challenges Holmes in no uncertain terms during a game of shuffleboard, every line having a double meaning because he's the mastermind type. Backing them up is the giant mute Gubec, played by the 6'5" professional wrestler Wee Willie Davis. Two older gentlemen, Kingston and Jodri, are about as suspicious as suspicious could be, given that they seem to do nothing except hang out in odd places where Watson can hear them and talk about recovering bodies and other potentially nefarious deeds. It doesn't help that Kingston is played by Gerald Hamer, fresh from playing a memorable psychopath in The Scarlet Claw.

Even the ladies are suspicious. The young and delightful singer from Brooklyn, Sheila Woodbury, who has a highlighted habit of leaving her music behind wherever she goes, latches onto first Watson and then his 'nephew', apparently taking every opportunity she can to finagle young Nikolas into potentially fatal situations. Then there's Agatha Dunham, the inevitable bossy woman that every cinematic sea voyage has to have, a little more Agnes Moorehead than Margaret Rutherford, but that only suggests the sinister in a film like this, especially when she decides to host a party. She takes three mile walks before dinner, even on board ship, and she has a revolver in her bag.
As always this is a short B movie, running a mere 65 minutes, and that's not long to introduce so many characters and give them an opportunity to justify their presence. It's impossible not to set up a mental checklist of everyone who we're introduced to on board and then check them off whenever they're thwarted in a nefarious deed or firmly identified as one of the good guys. Some of them don't even hide what they are, which inevitably makes the rest a little less worthy of attention. Another thirty minutes would have been enough to blur all these characters into much more satisfying shades of grey, but that's thirty minutes that the filmmakers don't have and we can only imagine.

Somehow along with all the back and forth about who's going to do what and how our heroes are going to keep the new king safe, writer Leonard Lee, who would go on to pen the last of this series too, manages to cram in a whole bunch of other stuff. There's a subplot about the Duchess of Brookfield's famous emeralds that we know just have to surface somewhere. There are a few in jokes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans, perhaps as an apology for detouring so far from the original stories especially by timeshifting the great detective from the Victorian era to modern wartime. The case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra is one of many cases only hinted at in original Doyle stories, this one in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. There's even an opportunity for Nigel Bruce to flex his singing muscles. He not a bad lip syncher as singers go but now I want to hear what he really sounds like.

The biggest problem is that it's really pulling a fast one. There's some interesting trickery going on to keep our attention, but this is a detective yarn entirely free of detection, an action movie almost free of action, a crime story without a crime. It's enjoyable while it's playing but once it finishes it leaves something of a hole, and the more you wonder about the hole the less satisfying the film becomes. What did I just watch? To steal a comment from Flying Saucers Over Hollywood, a documentary about Plan 9 from Outer Space, I watched a 65 minute magic trick and at the end of the film Holmes had precisely nothing up his sleeve. There's not a rabbit to be seen.

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.

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Director: Ralph Nelson
Stars: Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine
After Sidney Poitier's less than successful attempt at a difficult story in Kenya in Something of Value, he's back there again but this time it's doubling for South Africa and his part is a little more appropriate. He's a black anti-apartheid activist called Shack Twala, who's served ten years on Robben Island, that famous prison that also housed Nelson Mandela, but who we meet being released from a Capetown Supreme Court after his lawyer Rina Van Niekirk effectively manoeuvres the prosecution into withdrawing their case and letting him go. It's all cause for celebration and they're on their way to her office to break open a bottle of champagne when they're stopped by the cops to get clobbered by irony.

They're arresting a whole bunch of blacks so Rina has to stop the car and they ask for passes. Twala, as a prisoner freshly released from prison, won't have one until that afternoon, so he gets hauled out of the car and arrested too. Rina and her boyfriend Jim Keogh, a English mining engineer working in Zambia and only on holiday in South Africa, protest and end up in a fight that leaves them all fugitives from the law. This is apartheid-era South Africa, not a place where the police take kindly to being attacked, even from white folks resisting a completely insane arrest, so they're all in serious trouble. Even Keogh, a white man who neither lives nor works in South Africa, is looking at five years for striking a policeman plus another five for assisting a black man in the committing of a crime. Twala of course can't dream of a sentence anywhere near that light.
So they hit the road for the 900 mile drive to Johannesburg and we start wondering what we're actually watching. Is this a comedy? We certainly get plenty of very dry but very funny humour on the road. Part of it is that Caine and Poitier are two seasoned and accomplished actors who play very well off each other indeed, but they're aided by some great situation comedy. 'Are you in trouble?' asks the highway policeman, when he sees two men filling up their water tank from the river. He can only imagine. By the time we meet Saeed Jaffrey as Dr Anil Mukarjee, an Indian dentist sympathetic to the black cause who has Poitier almost in apoplexy, we can't avoid the comedy. There are dogs in this film that know how to play along with the jokes. But it's not just a comedy.

Is it a road movie? Poitier has been there before on a number of occasions, handcuffed to other people, running from the authorities. Michael Caine could easily be taking the Tony Curtis role from The Defiant Ones, but they don't clash the way Poitier did with Curtis, the racial angle being reserved for the secret police, who are clearly the bad guys, not that that's much of a stretch. Anyway, they get to Jo'burg pretty quickly, so the road part is over and done with. Is it a romance? Keogh ends up back with his girlfriend for a pleasant bubble bath in her apartment, hardly surprising given that she's played by the delectable Prunella Gee, even though her wig is a little obvious at times. Twala breaks his ten year fast by doing Dr Mukarjee's fellow dentist, Dr Persis Ray, in a secret compartment behind a bookcase, and I honestly don't know if hers is a wig or not, given that I know her principally from Star Trek: The Motion Picture where she had no hair at all.
So is this a political drama? It certainly sets itself up as a serious film to begin with, with Poitier turning from prisoner #34 in the hands of his white female lawyer to a political fugitive, with a white accomplice no less, thus making this something of an indictment of South African authoritarian police enforcement. Beyond the idiot local Capetown Cops, Nicol Williamson's Major Horn is a capable state security agent following Twala and Keogh, rattling on about 'kaffirs twenty years out from the trees' but as realistic as his assistant Van Heerden is merely a sadistic psychopath who knows it and loves it. So why don't they arrest them, instead of merely placing a tracker on their car? Perhaps it's because at heart this is really a thriller wearing a lot of different masks, caught up in a story about faith, betrayal and integrity, not to mention £750,000 worth of diamonds and the abiding recognition that the further we get through the film the more we wonder what the title is supposed to mean.

Don't get me wrong, this is an enjoyable film. It looks good, shot in Kenya, both in the inner city and out in the bush, in a lavish apartment and an Indian dentist surgery, in court and in the streets. We even get a jeep chase scene through the countryside with the police chasing Prunella Gee in her underwear. It's a fun ride, with solid performances from Caine and Poitier, not to mention the supporting cast on all sides. The name I haven't mentioned thus far is Rina's husband Blane Van Niekirk, because he's played by a personal favourite of mine, Rutger Hauer. This is the earliest I've seen him, before even Dutch films like Keetje Tippel and Cold Blood, and it's fascinating to see him so young. At the end of the day, it's just too schizophrenic to really know what to think of it, but it ends very well indeed. The last twenty minutes may be something of attempt to patch it all together but it's the best twenty minutes of the film and it has more than a few believable twists. It also makes us wonder once more about the eightyfive that went before it.

Monday 28 December 2009

The House of Fear (1945)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Knowing that it has a mere 69 minutes to run, The House of Fear gets right down to business, as an insurance agent explains why he's asking Sherlock Holmes to come to Scotland. It's a standard mystery setup, centred around an extraordinary club of seven men living together in an isolated mansion. It's called Drearcliffe House and it's perched on a cliff on the west coast of Scotland, the ancestral home of the eldest of them, Bruce Alastair. They're all past middle age, all without next of kin and all reasonably well to do, and they've all signed their insurance policies over to the group, apparently utterly oblivious that any group who set up such a scheme is bound to start getting bumped off. Don't they watch the movies?

Sure enough that's what's happening and there's a definable pattern. As they sit down to dinner together each night, Mrs Monteith, a housekeeper so austere she could have played Frankenstein's Monster, brings in an envelope that's been stuck under a door and delivers it to one of the club members. It contains nothing but orange pips, beginning with seven and decreasing one each time, and it's a particular omen of death. By the next night the recipient will be dead, two of them having already succumbed: Ralph King, retired barrister, driven off a cliff and burned up in the wreck; and a former actor called Stanley Raeburn who drowns. All are identifiable but none go complete to their grave.

Holmes leaps at the challenge, especially when he looks at the photo of the seven members of the club and recognises one of their number. He ought to, given that he'd argued with him two films ago in The Scarlet Claw, but that was merely yet another example of actors coming back over and over again to play new characters. Actor Paul Cavanaugh would soon be back again for the next film, The Woman in Green. Holmes really recognises Dr Simon Merrivale, a man who disappeared years ago after being acquitted of the murder of his young bride, so it's the Flying Scotsman and the first cart to Inverneill for Holmes and Watson, though they find a third man burned to death by the time they get there, Guy Davies.
This is textbook stuff, as even though we're set up from moment one to believe one man is the killer we're also given plenty of hints that it could be everyone else too. Every man of the seven could have done it, except the dead ones of course, and we're given good reason. Alan Cosgrave came up with the idea in the first place, putting him under obvious suspicion. Capt John Simpson is an irascible soul, the easiest to believe would have the mentality to murder in cold blood. Dr Merrivale doesn't just have suspicion through his past history but is an avid reader of lurid murder novels. Even their host, Bruce Alistair, is suspicious because he's so utterly cheerful that he's too good to be true. We could easily believe that he's a cult member yearning for the day he'll get to take his kool aid.

It certainly kept me guessing all the way to the end and while the revelation isn't the most surprising one in the world, it's a lot more surprising than previous films in the series. In fact some of them, like The Spider Woman, dispensed entirely with all such guesswork and told us whodunit in the movie's title. This is by the far the most traditional mystery, at least thus far, even if it's not perhaps up to the quality of The Scarlet Claw, and it bodes well for the series that it's stayed so strong, even built up to this level of quality ten movies in. There's certainly precedent if you look at such a B movie series as the direct equivalent of a modern TV series. Even now we're cursing the cancellation of Dollhouse, which has consistently improved as it's run on. If they'd have cancelled the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes movies at this point, I'd be cursing Universal in precisely the same way.

I'm sure I've seen the Victorian era Holmes movies made for Twentieth Century Fox before, albeit as a kid, and more recently I've seen the four Universal ones that lapsed into the public domain because they're so easily available, on dollar DVDs and 50 movie box sets everywhere. Yet working through the complete series in order I'm coming quickly to the opinion that it may be some of the others which I quite possibly haven't seen before that are going to stay with me. In particular, the five Universal films from Sherlock Holmes Faces Death to The House of Fear are pure entertainment, very different stylistically but consistent in their outlook. A few closing comments notwithstanding, they feel fresh after the slightly forced propaganda trilogy that preceded them and Rathbone and Bruce, not to mention Dennis Hoey as Lestrade, settle more into their characters with every film, working off each other blissfully. I've seen at least three of the last four before. It's going to be interesting to see how they play a second time around.

The Pearl of Death (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The ferry is coming into Dover and Naomi Drake, the lovely thief who's on board to steal the cursed black pearl of the Borgias, makes only one mistake. She successfully sneaks it away from the courier delivering it to the Royal Regent Museum but she attempts to smuggle it through customs through use of a clergyman who's really Sherlock Holmes in disguise. That's never a good idea and she should know better given that she's Evelyn Ankers, one of Universal's most prominent scream queens, returning to the series after something of a gap after Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror where she got to learn Holmes's methods pretty well.

This time she's on the other side of the law. Her boss, Giles Conover, is waiting for her, even though the actor playing him, Miles Mander, was murdered in cold blood in the last movie, The Scarlet Claw. Conover is a fiend, apparently, all over Europe like a plague though the police can't pin anything on him and most people have never even heard of him. As Holmes memorably details to Watson, he's there whenever there's a crime without a motive, a robbery without a clue, a murder without a trace.

He's there at the Royal Regent Museum too, when Holmes makes a rare blunder. Eager to prove a point by demonstrating to the curator, Francis Digby, quite how flimsy his museum's electric security system is, he successfully deactivates it on the sly, only for Conover, who has been working there for the past few weeks as a general workman, to take advantage of the situation, promptly stealing the pearl and escaping through a broken window. He's back quick enough, captured by the police chasing him, but of course the pearl is long gone. The whole thing was so obvious that we expect it all to be yet another clever setup on the master detective's part but apparently it's a real slip. Perhaps the escape of the fake maid in The Scarlet Claw was the beginning of a gradual decline, though with five more films to go in the series after this one that must be a very slow gradual decline.

The important thing is that Conover didn't have time to hide the pearl in a really safe place, so he chose the best thing at hand and that means that the race is on, each contestant attempting to retrieve the pearl before their opponent. This chase pits our heroes most obviously against Conover, who has the sheer effrontery to turn up at 221B Baker St in disguise to lay a not so subtle trap for his opponent: a simple spring loaded knife in a book from a master criminal? That's not even worth considering. However it also pits them against his assistants too. We've already met Naomi Drake, who Ankers gets to portray in a progression of disguises as the film progresses, even more than Holmes himself. You have to love a movie that features so many characters played by so few!
The other assistant is an even more memorable one, a mute known only as the Oxton Creeper and played by the never forgotten Rondo Hatton, described here by Holmes as having 'the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla'. Here, the Creeper is merely a hired thug working to retrieve the pearl for Conover, breaking a few backs in the process at the signature third lumbar vertebrae, but Universal quickly leapt upon his popularity and turned him into a new monster. Under a new name and with the power of voice, he returned in a couple of further movies, House of Horrors and, both released in 1946, the year he died.

Hatton had a face you'd never forget, due to the onset of acromelagy, a bone deforming disease of the pituitary gland which the overeager Universal publicity department claimed was caused through being subjected to German poison gas while fighting on the western front in World War I. He was apparently a sensitive man, nothing like the character Universal were so keen to exploit, though it's sad that he died as his career was beginning to take off. Its a testament to his talent, or at least his face, that he made such an impression here given that he really has next to nothing to do. His name lives on in the form of the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, given annually for merit within the genre across multiple media.

Based as always on an Arthur Conan Doyle story with such looseness that it's hardly recognisable except for a particular gimmick or theme, this one is a chase movie and it's a fun one. People are murdered, china is smashed and both sides narrow in for the kill. Rathbone and Bruce haven't got tired of their parts yet, Ankers appears to be having a lot of fun and Mander almost as much while the Creeper lurks in a sinister manner behind the story waiting for the right moment to emerge. Further down the credits, Ian Wolfe gets the dubious distinction of playing pretty much the same character in two Holmes films, yet still not be the same. He played an antiques store clerk in Sherlock Holmes in Washington and here he's running an antiques shop, so perhaps that could count as a promotion. If only he'd get promoted to the key supporting actor slot. He deserved it.

The Scarlet Claw (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
It's grim up north again for Sherlock Holmes but for a change it's not the moors of Yorkshire or the wilds of Scotland, it's the French Canadian province of Quebec. Apparently the town of La Morte Rouge, which translates to the rather lurid The Red Death, is so named because of a series of mutilations a century ago, leaving men and sheep dead with their throats torn out. Now the monster is back, or so it seems, slaughtering sheep anew. The locals are afeared, because everything supernatural seems to be abroad in the town, from strange lights appearing on the road and disappearing into the misty marshes to the church bell tolling when it shouldn't. And when the priest investigates, he finds Lady Penrose dead under the bell.

Lord Penrose has the best alibi in the world. He's in Quebec, addressing a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, trying to persuade Holmes and Watson how the slaughtering of sheep is proof of the existence of the supernatural. Holmes argues for facts not wild interpretations, of course, even though his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a well known advocate of the supernatural, from the Cottingley Fairies to psychic manifestations, and frequently incorporated such things into his stories. In fact one of his short story collections, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was banned in the Soviet Union for supposed occultism.
Before the conversation can go too far, Lord Penrose is summoned to the phone to be told of the death of his wife, and while Holmes naturally offers his assistance Penrose just as naturally believes such an offer would be made only to disprove his theories of the supernatural. The kicker is that Holmes promptly receives a letter from Lady Penrose, sent to him before her death because she felt sure that her life was in danger. As he points out to Watson, this is the first time they've ever been engaged by a corpse. It's an interesting mystery, one of the best in the series, eschewing the propaganda and pulp theatrics of prior Universal Holmes offerings in favour of traditional detective work, which becomes something of a joy because the killer is both one and many people all at once. It's well constructed and well played out.

There's much to enjoy here, from Rathbone's grim determination to Bruce's even more overt blithering than usual. There are a couple of surprising scenes, one the harsh death of a character that we didn't expect and the other an unforgiveable slip on Holmes's part. Both raise an eyebrow and a wonder as to whether the writer was deliberately trying to make a point or not. It would be easy to read too much into such things, but they do seem out of place. It's certainly much tighter a script than the last entry in the series written by Edmund Hartmann, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. That one wasn't quite sure what it wanted to be but this one is very sure indeed. It's surprising that Hartmann didn't go on to write further Holmes scripts.
The acting is solid, though Ian Wolfe gets far too short a part, as he sadly always tended to. It's good to see Miles Mander and Gerald Hamer is a joy. Hamer, a Welshman and the father of the well known Ealing Studios director, Robert Hamer, was a character actor who didn't rack up the same sort of volume of credits as most of his peers, averaging only a film a year for 26 years. No less than five of those are Holmes movies though, and a number of others are entries in other detective series, including the Saint, Bulldog Drummond and Arsene Lupin, suggesting that he truly appreciated the genre. This was the middle one of the five, and happily gave him more to do than the last couple. He shone in the first, as the British secret agent murdered at the beginning of Sherlock Holmes in Washington and he shines here too. He'd be back for Pursuit to Algiers and Terror By Night.

If there's a downside here it's that the film, set up to recognise the importance of Canada to the English speaking world during wartime, just doesn't feel Canadian enough. The sets, actors and accents are mostly interchangeable with previous entries in the series set in England and only the odd character really stands out as being from somewhere else. With that morale boosting element restricted to the final comments, once again from a Churchill quote, it's the easiest thing in the world to forget that we're in Canada at all, let alone French speaking Canada. There's also the lack of resolution to the whole supernatural angle, which is debunked quickly but promptly ignored. Lord Penrose simply disappears from the film, as if he loses all importance once there's no supernatural element to wonder about any more. As the longest but one film in the Universal series, things like that feel surprising, but then again it still only has 74 minutes to play with.

The Spider Woman (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films reach 1944 and land no less a leading lady than Gale Sondergaard. She was so successful as the Spider Woman of the title that she got a sequel, 1946's The Spider Woman Strikes Back, though in true Hollywood style it had precisely nothing whatsoever to do with this one. Unfortunately she's not one of the pyjama suicides that are plaguing London, because she would have made a rather charming one, but given that the film is called The Spider Woman, we can only assume she's behind them for some reason that we're soon to be let in on, given that the film is only 63 minutes long.

Everyone's wondering where Sherlock Holmes is, because he certainly isn't in London investigating the murders where you might expect him to be. He and Dr Watson are fishing in Scotland because apparently he's been having dizzy spells and feels he's no longer up to the fight. They have been reading up on the cases though, while pretending not to, and even bring a rather inappropriate description to bear. 'Filthy pyjama murders' really doesn't sound right and Bertram Millhauser, the scriptwriter, needs spanking for that one. It's bad enough to make even Holmes want to join that long string of suicides, and sure enough he faints away to death, off a high bank into the river which sweeps away his body, leaving only his trusty Watson behind.

It's a particularly nasty trick to play on Watson and Lestrade and especially poor old Mrs Hudson, but he plays it nonetheless, reappearing mysteriously in disguise as a postman only when Watson donates his papers to the British Museum and deservedly receives a good punch to the jaw from Watson in the process. He's come back to London to find out which Machiavellian mind is behind the murders, as he believes them to be. He also believes they're the work of a woman, picking her victims from the ranks of well to do gamblers, and he didn't even have the title of the film to go by, or even the way we first meet the Spider Woman, Adrea Spedding by name. She's happily discussing her crimes with her assistant, Norman Locke, who in the form of Vernon Downing has got over the facial tics he had in the last Holmes film as Lt Clavering.
This setup is a gift for any fans of Rathbone's many disguises as he gets to put on a few here. He's a great postman, but not such a great Indian soldier. The best disguise has to be the one that isn't though, with a bug expert called Gilflower calling on Holmes to help him to identify a spider, only for Watson to think it's yet another disguise and torment the poor man. Then again perhaps he deserves it, given that he thinks that a spider is an insect. That's another thing Millhauser needs to repent for, because it's propagated throughout. To continue Holmes' tirade against the fake exotic bug collector Matthew Ordway, 'any scientist would know that a spider is an arachnid not an insect!'

Millhauser doesn't even attempt to make a mystery out of whodunit here, instead concentrating on how it was done, and he does conjure up a suitably fiendish and ingenious method for us to figure out. The purest detective fiction ever gets is the locked room murder, and that's what all these murders are. The victims all went to bed in locked rooms and promptly committed suicide. The method isn't entirely new, bearing some similarities to The Murders in the Rue Morgue but ratcheting it up a few more notches, courtesy of the wonderful Angelo Rossitto who doesn't get enough of a role. The best part has to go to a kid called Larry, apparently Adrea's nephew who even Holmes calls a 'cunning little beggar'. Unfortunately he isn't listed at IMDb, even with an 'uncredited' credit, so I have no idea who he is but he certainly made an impression, which was precisely the point.

The film does too, being fine pulp entertainment but without a huge amount of substance. Even Sondergaard gets next to nothing to do, especially as she could easily have been spun out into the female equivalent of Prof Moriarty, pun very much intended for a change. For someone with such cunning and forward thinking as Adrea Spedding, she really didn't deserve such a quick capture, but then the end of a film hurtles towards the cast so quickly when it's only 63 minutes long. It's more like an episode of a TV series, which to be fair is a good comparison to film series like this. Characterisation is really reserved for the regular cast and takes place over the run of a season, with the guest stars turning up to look good and play a part and be gone again. It would have been fun to watch one of these a week, wouldn't it? As long as it wasn't on Fox, because they'd have shown them out of order and cancelled the thing halfway through its run.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Something of Value (1957)

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Rock Hudson, Dana Wynter and Sidney Poitier
Beginning in Kenya, which is British East Africa in 1945, we find that a white settler by the name of Henry McKenzie seems to be a pretty good sort. He understands the land and the people on it. He treats his servants well and respects their customs. The local priest even suggests that he knows the ways of black witchcraft better than he knows the Bible. After his wife died, his son Peter was mostly raised by a black woman along with her son, Kimani, but as they grow up neither finds it easy to adjust to the ways of adulthood where Peter, being white, is the master and Kimani, being black, is the servant. They're friends and it's difficult to feel any other way, though that friendship is tested when they argue in their friendly way, because Peter's brother-in-law Jeff Newton insists that he slap Kimani to teach him a lesson, and when he refuses he does it himself.

We soon see even more palpable differences, ones that McKenzie seems to understand if not have a solution for. Karanja, Kimani's father, becomes a father again, but as the baby is born feet first he promptly has it killed and buried beneath a pot because breech birth is a sign of a curse. When he gives evidence to the court, he willingly details what he did and why, further explaining that it was not murder because the child was newborn and only becomes a person, a member of the tribe, on his first birthday. For these reasons, he'd do the same thing again should the circumstances arise, thus prompting a discussion that is really the key to the film. It's one thing to bring the law of man and God to the natives, but how can the settlers make them understand it? Without understanding, McKenzie fears for the future. As the opening text tells us: 'When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace them with Something of Value.'

Sure enough Kimani promptly leaves, and becomes caught up in a network of native resistance, people who want to throw out the foreigners and take back their own land. Kimani sees their ways as extreme but stays with them nonetheless, even as the years pass and he grows into a leader, partly because he marries their oath giver's daughter. When the time comes for them to rise and perpetrate their night of the long knives, he still has doubts, especially as the first place they hit is the McKenzie ranch, but he goes along nonetheless and while he's slapping Jeff Newton, his compatriots are slaughtering everyone else, children included. They're the Mau Mau and theirs was a particularly bloody time in African history. With six million blacks and forty thousand whites in Kenya at the time, the Mau Mau uprising saw over ten thousand killed in action and probably fifty thousand more from the civilian population.
Director Richard Brooks told a lot of human stories in his career and they work so well in retrospect because they tend to be told cleverly in shades of grey rather than overt black and white. Films like Battle Circus, The Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood are very different films but they have much in common. It's hard to say precisely why Something of Value fails to join them, but perhaps the biggest reason is that it feels like a shades of grey story but contains nothing but black and white people. There are perhaps two of substance. Walter Fitzgerald gets a great character in Henry McKenzie, a white settler who farms land in Kenya without any hint of exploitation of the blacks. Juano Hernandez gets the black character with most depth, playing Njogu, the man who administers the oath to the Mau Mau but has never taken it himself, because of his beliefs.

Nobody else really gets a part that they can sink their teeth into. Rock Hudson is the star, playing Peter McKenzie, and he does surprisingly well in the African bush, looking surprisingly like Cary Grant in the rain, but he's hardly a righteous British colonist, leaving us in the strange situation of finding him believable in the country but not in the family. Why they cast an English family and then added an obvious American to be the focus I really don't understand Worse than the accent though, Peter comes off as nothing less than a saint and that gets tiring after a while. While his father has understanding of the ways of both the white settlers and the Kikuyu people, Peter appears to be blissfully unaware of the difference. It's an admirable trait but only if it's chosen; it simply doesn't make sense to have it intrinsically.
His real opposing number is Sidney Poitier, who fails to get his teeth into the part of Kimani Wa Karanja. There are lines and scenes and parts of the film where he shines because he's Sidney Poitier, but when Poitier can't realistically portray a black man fighting oppression in a film about race, you know there's something wrong with the part. Poitier was always the most eloquent and civilised black actor on the screen and we believed his parts utterly because of that. Here though he's called upon to descend into the depths and he just can't do it. He simply cannot be the savage because everything he is tells us that it's alien to him. It's the wrong part for him and if this film really highlights anything, it's that the studios just couldn't get away with throwing Poitier into every single film that called for a black leading man.

There are performances worth watching here, but they're generally pretty shallow parts. Michael Pate reminds of James Coburn and he plays a farmer called Joe Matson as solidly as Coburn would play it, trigger happy and as racist as anyone else in the piece. Wendy Hiller is excellent as Peter's sister Elizabeth, initially annoying but going on to shine in a few dramatic scenes that highlight how much better she is as an actress than Dana Wynter who may be the leading lady but gets saddled with nothing but a throwaway character. It was good to see William Marshall, albeit briefly, in a role as a Mau Mau intellectual. He was such a powerful actor it always seems a shame to remember him primarily for his two roles as the lead character Mamuwalde in Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream. Sadly this film ends up with about as much substance as they had and isn't as much fun.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
It's been interesting watching through the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films in order and in a short period of time, because it really highlights the changes that the series went through. The first two, made by Twentieth Century Fox, were set in the Victorian era just like the original stories. When Universal took over in 1942, it promptly brought the characters into the modern day, pitting them against the Nazis for three wartime propaganda movies. Even within these three there's a recognisable arc: the first was overt propaganda, the second became less so as it went on and the third was more of a morale booster. Here we're still obviously in wartime, given that half the characters are in service but the propaganda elements are gone, leaving us with a contemporary detective yarn, and there's even a nod back to the first in the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles, with a similar setting.

We're at Musgrave Manor in Northumberland, which has been the seat of the local lords of the manor since 1518. The locals don't like the place though. 'Not that I'm one that goes spreading stories,' says some guy at the Rat and the Raven, but he promptly begins spreading stories, all about corpse lights and cruel men and the wailing of lost souls. It's certainly a grim place, where the wind howls and the lightning whips and the clock strikes thirteen. Dr Watson is there, volunteering his time, because the Musgraves have opened up the place as a convalescent home for officers with combat fatigue, and his assistant Dr Sexton has already been attacked and almost killed in the dark by a knifeman. 'This place is positively ghoulish,' says Holmes as he walks up to the place, summoned by his friend, and sure enough, they soon stumble over the corpse of Geoffrey Musgrave, hidden under leaves.

The Musgraves are a mixed lot. Geoffrey was the eldest and he's agreeable only about being disagreeable, especially now that his sister Sally apparently plans to marry an American flight officer, Capt Vickery, who is recovering at the hall. In between the two is Phillip, much more like the usual jovial lord of the manor in his tweed jacket and ways that are still officious but far more polite than his brother's. However he's next to be murdered, and the clue to it all seems to be in a strange tradition of the Musgraves: after the death of the eldest, the heir assumes his role and the new heir recites a ritual over the body of the deceased with the whole household as witnesses. Needless to say Holmes figures it all out.

To be honest, the mysterious ritual is hardly a particularly mysterious one. Obviously Holmes has to be able to discover it, realise its importance and then crack its meaning all in the scant 68 minute running time, but when we can do it without much effort too then perhaps the writers haven't been trying hard enough. It's also pretty easy to work out whodunit as well as why, especially as they recycle a concept from The Hound of the Baskervilles in the process. Beyond that though, the writing is solid, with some especially sharp banter, easily the best of the series thus far. 'That's obvious, a child could do it,' says Watson at one point. 'Not your child,' replies Holmes drily. It isn't just Holmes and Watson though, as Dennis Hoey is getting into the swing of things as Inspector Lestrade, this being the second of six appearances he'd make in the series. He plays wonderfully off both Rathbone and Bruce.
The characters are interesting because of their circumstances. Each of the officers staying at the manor is damaged in some way, not physically but mentally. Capt Vickery seems to be convalescing rather well, but then anyone who gets special attention from a character played by Hillary Brooke ought to get well pretty quickly. Maj Langford, Capt MacIntosh and Lt Clavering have a little further to go, but they're getting there. When Watson travels back to Baker Street to talk to Holmes, he gets rushed straight back to Northumberland because these officers are all on the edge, liable to flip at any moment if the slightest stress befalls them. Well, none of that gets played up at all, the officers instead doing everything they can to help Holmes out in his investigations. The script would certainly have benefitted from much more exploration of the mental issues plaguing these characters, thus providing them all with the depth that is only hinted at here but we can't complain too much given that the writers had only a little more than an hour to play with. I particularly enjoyed Vernon Downing's facial tics as Clavering though.

It's a good looking film too, perhaps because Roy William Neill was getting used to the setup. He directed all the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes movies from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon onwards, making this one his third of eleven. The camerawork is excellent and the lighting just as good, making the whole thing look crisp and stylish. The composition of frame is notable on many occasions, especially when Holmes is mirroring the human chess game on his smaller board. There is a message at the end, similar in some ways to what had gone before in the previous three films but far less explicit. Basically it's a message about helping others instead of grabbing everything for ourselves. That's hardly controversial, especially as I'm watching during Christmas.

The regular cast was beginning to be established here, not just Rathbone and Bruce, but also Dennis Hoey as Lestrade and Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson, and the other actors cast are generally a little less well known. Most are returning actors from previous films, but not major ones, there being no Atwill, Daniell or Zucco here. Gavin Muir gets his biggest part of the series here as Phillip Musgrave, but he was also in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Gerald Hamer as Maj Langford survives the film at least; he was the British secret agent murdered in Sherlock Holmes in Washington. He'd be back for another three films in the series yet. Olaf Hytten was the doubting admiral in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and he had another four Holmes movies to go.

Hillary Brooke had an uncredited role in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and would be back again for The Woman in Green in 1945. She was always a welcome addition to a cast, bringing character and elegance to her roles, however throwaway they often were, which unfortunately was why she never landed the big ones. For some reason, studio execs felt that intelligence and elegance weren't compatible with sexiness. Also always welcome is Halliwell Hobbes, probably the most recognisable face in the supporting cast here, as ever playing the butler. Milburn Stone, who plays Capt Vickery, went on to be the doctor in Gunsmoke but he must be young here as my wife didn't recognise him. Peter Lawford has a tiny role as a sailor at the Rat and the Raven but if you blink you'll miss him.

All in all, this is a solid entry that mostly suffers through its lack of running time. It feels like a pretty good hour and a half movie compressed into slightly less good 68 minutes. It is one of the shorter entries in the series, which dropped to as short a length as 63 minutes on a couple of occasions, but they're all short, only two more running over a minute longer than this. It certainly helped the filmmakers to churn them out pretty quickly but it didn't help them to tell particularly deep stories.

Saturday 26 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
The third of the Universal wartime propaganda pictures for Sherlock Holmes, this one has a surprising message, basically an emphatic affirmation of wartime relations between the UK and the USA. Perhaps by the fifth year of war trying to convince everyone that Nazis were bad was more than a little redundant given that everyone had been sold on that for a while, and perhaps the whole 'overpaid, oversexed and over here' concept was running wild enough that there was felt a need to counter it. As the master detective said in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, 'No-one in the world is safe now, Watson, least of all us.' That works just as well if you put that last word in capital letters.

This unified message is hammered home a few times, from beginning to end. At the outset the name of the airline taking a British secret agent to Washington with a vitally important MacGuffin is Transatlantic Airways, a very telling detail in a film that pays massive attention to detail throughout. It ends with the same sort of propagandistic lines that ended Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, but this time instead of coming from Shakespeare, they come from a then recent speech Winston Churchill gave to the US Congress, soon after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the trigger for the Americans to finally join in the fight. The sentiment must have been unmistakable in 1943.

Much of Sherlock Holmes in Washington is phrased as a detective story, which might sound redundant to say given that it's a Sherlock Holmes film after all, but neither of its predecessors really fit the same bill. We're given no opportunity to sharpen our skills by playing along with the detective in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, because there are no clues and no hints, the whole film being an overt propaganda message that the great Sherlock Holmes can outwit the Nazis even if we haven't the faintest idea what's going on. This approach vanished from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon a little way into the film, at which point it became more of a pulp adventure with Holmes taking on Moriarty yet again. There's more actual detective work in the opening scenes here than in both of those films put together, whether that refers to the lead character or we the viewers.

We know, for instance, that a British secret agent is on board the flight to Washington that takes off just after the opening credits, but we don't know who he is. Not even William Easter knows who he is, and he's been tasked with kidnapping him and the documents he carries too. We do know that Easter is a villain, only partly because he's played by Henry Daniell in sinister mode, but we watch a carefully choreographed couple more scenes before learning who else is who. Then we have to either wait a while or translate the clues we're given to find out where the documents are, because they're certainly no longer in the form they started out as, and while this secret agent is certainly carrying them to Washington he doesn't appear to have them with him.

Back in England, a member of the Home Office invokes the assistance of Sherlock Holmes to look into the kidnapping of someone he had worked with, Alfred Pettibone by name, the very agent who was undercover on the flight to Washington. So we get to follow more clues to get ourselves ahead of Easter, with a great many people apparently on precisely the same trail. It's great to actually start having to try to work things out in a Sherlock Holmes movie again after two whole films without the opportunity, but the real joy here is in the choreography. By the time we find out how Pettibone concealed the documents we instantly know where they are too, but none of the characters in the film do, so we get to watch them all try to catch up with us.

Moreover we get to watch the documents change hands like a game of pass the parcel at the whim of a delightfully twisted writer with an acute sense of irony. There's much of this irony throughout, as not only the documents but even characters in the story are whisked around or away right under everyone's noses. It's something of a madcap chase and it's never boring. This is certainly the most consistent and enjoyable of the three propaganda movies Universal made with Holmes, and it bodes well for the continuation of the series. This left it five down and nine to go, with many of the precedents set.

One of these precedents is the reuse of actors, which could easily be confusing to modern viewers unused to the workings of the studio contract system during Hollywood's golden age. Actors were usually employees of a studio, and didn't get much opportunity to act with anyone from a different studio unless there was a trade going on or a punishment for bad behaviour. That meant that over the course of a series like the Sherlock Holmes movies, which numbered many films in a short span of time, many actors kept coming back again and again. Wikipedia mentions Harry Cording as a great example, given that he played different characters in no less than seven of these films, but these are small roles and I can't picture him even after watching two of those seven today.

Currently, five movies in, the names that leap out are Henry Daniell, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill, all of whom are personal favourites anyway and so hardly difficult to spot. Daniell was Alfred Lloyd, one of the Intelligence Inner Council in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, he's the sinister henchman William Easter here and he'd be back a few films later to play Prof Moriarty in 1945's The Woman in Green. Zucco only appeared in two of the Holmes movies but both were highly prominent roles and he was done for the series after this film. He was Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and here he's still the archvillain of the piece but under a different name, Richard Stanley. Atwill also made two Holmes movies and was already done, having played Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and a neighbourly doctor, James Mortimer, in the first of the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles. In case you're wondering, yes, Moriarty appeared in three films in the series, each time played by a different actor and he died each time too. Sometimes it's amazing how easily characters could be resurrected in the golden age.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Basil Rathbone begins this film, the second Holmes movie for Universal and the second of the three overt wartime propaganda entries in the series, in the disguise of a bookseller peddling his wares in the inns of Switzerland. Never mind needing to be called in by the British government, Holmes is already in, perhaps inevitably as evidenced by the fact that Baker Street is partially rubble because of the Blitz but also because it was simply the right thing to do at the time, which sentiment is of course the precise point of these propaganda movies. This one revolves around the Tobel bombsight which Holmes is working undercover to secure for the Allies.

This has a real life analogy, the Norden bombsight, which was developed for the US Navy but leaked to the Germans by Nazi spies in the American factories. Here the Tobel is a Swiss device that Holmes manages to acquire, with its inventor, Dr Tobel, for use by the Allies. The danger of course is that those Nazi spies try to get hold of it anyway, something that Tobel goes to great trouble to avoid happening. He demonstrates his device successfully on Salisbury Plain but proceeds to refuse to simply hand it over, instead splitting it into four sections to entrust to separate scientists to construct. Unfortunately he promptly disappears and the coded message he leaves instructions to have given to Holmes under such a circumstance is stolen by Prof Moriarty.

And so we find ourselves in a Sherlock Holmes story that fits intriguingly into both the old school and new school approaches, very tempting to explore as a direct comparison between the two. Like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, it's set during the Second World War with Nazis as the opposing menace but the propaganda angle is far less overt. With the exception of a few odd lines here and there the only real rallying call comes in the final scene after everything has been wrapped up and the filmmakers remind us that the same can't be said for the war. Holmes is involved in the war effort from moment one and he stays there. We should be too.

However, the war takes much more of a back seat than in the previous film, hinting at a future return to the old world of one on one battles with a dedicated master criminal, always such a pleasure to the Holmes fan. Based on the story The Dancing Men about as closely as Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was based on the story His Last Bow, ie not very closely at all, it does at least feature a plethora of the sort of details that kids like me lapped up when I was a youngster: substitution ciphers with clever twists, ingenious devices to aid the ability to be followed, polite discussions about methods of murder, let alone the frequent disguises that range from good to bad and include the in between.

There's also a monstrous battle of both wits and egos, as Holmes and Moriarty relish the opportunity to duel each other once more, one upping each other with every line or action. There are scenes here that remind of Wallace Shawn's death scene in The Princess Bride, where Holmes knows what Moriarty's going to do so he does this but Moriarty knows that Holmes knows so he has this in mind instead and so on. It's nonsense, of course, but it's blissful nonsense, precisely what any Holmes fan wants out of such a film. It's almost schizophrenic in the way we rush from war of ideology abroad to a war of wits at home among the secret passages, but it runs in the right direction at least.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Director: John Rawlins
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
After two films for Fox in 1939, Sherlock Holmes was temporarily silenced. After all, these were Victorian stories featuring a Victorian character and 1939 was the beginning of a different age, the Second World War. Perhaps Fox couldn't help comparing the fictional villain in their second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with the real life villain making himself very known at the time. Excluding the fact that Adolf Hitler and Holmes's nemesis Prof Moriarty were both notorious villains, they're utterly different because their villainy is from a completely different age. Holmes was effectively and suddenly irrelevant.

A mere three years later he was brought back to a new relevance as a wartime propaganda weapon. Universal hired Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce to reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson, but otherwise ignored the two Fox films entirely. The gaslights and polite criminals of Victorian London are gone and in their place the looming threat of the Nazis, or as Holmes calls them in a patriotic piece of rhetoric, 'the cut-throats of the world.' Holmes and Watson look a little older, though a mere few years perhaps rather than the needed fifty or so. There's no explanation needed and the opening text deliberately avoids one. 'Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging,' it says, as if he's a mythological character like Robin Hood or King Arthur, one that can apparently be conjured up in the hour of his country's direst need.

The need here is provided in the title of the film. The Voice of Terror is a Lord Haw Haw type, a Nazi radio broadcaster thundering out news of military disasters for the Allies, hammering home the superiority of the Third Reich by embarrassing their opponents. The Intelligence Inner Council in London, tasked with combatting this menace, is apparently powerless, one of their number even losing a son in one of these disasters. It's made clear that they're effective at every other task but they're stumped by this one, so Sir Evan Barham, who went to school with Watson, calls in Holmes for a fresh approach to the problem. It's not just a problem for government. 'No-one in the world is safe now, Watson,' says Holmes, 'least of all us.'
Given the skimpy 65 minute running time, there isn't much opportunity for Holmes to work his magic in detail, so instead of the standard set of clues for us to filter through, we watch the master detective watching everyone like TV's The Mentalist, who after all is a character that owes his entire existence to the Holmes method of acute observation and deduction. Rather than us trying to keep up with him, we're not even given the opportunity as he's at least a few steps ahead of us at all times. We're merely left waiting for whatever revelations he feels it appropriate to let us in on at whatever points he feels it appropriate to do so, seemingly plucking the answers out of mid air. It's as reticent with its detail as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was sparing; instead of an intricate cat and mouse game we're given a propaganda message.

It was well timed, of course. After the initial patrotic rush of signing up to kick the ass of the Germans, we had found that it wasn't quite that simple and an inevitably short and victorious war stretched out with no end in sight. Yet by 1942 we had turned the tide as the Nazis overextended themselves, so that the question was becoming more about endurance. Films like this and characters like this helped to boost morale and helped us to endure. On that front there's enough sacrifice and overt patriotism to meet that need, Holmes the mythical saviour aided less by the trusty Dr Watson and more by the capabilities of the filmmakers, working to an obviously scant budget but with great talent to bring to bear: Universal scream queen Evelyn Ankers as a Limehouse prostitute who fights the good fight after one of Holmes's speeches; and other reliable names like Henry Daniell and Montagu Love.

There's also Reginald Denny, who was aiding the war effort in another way as well, designing and building radio controlled target drones for the army through a company called Radioplane. He was a consummate modeller who ran a model aircraft shop on Hollywood Blvd and a kit company called Reginald Denny Industries, but he took that knowledge a step further during wartime, making him something of an aviation pioneer. There's even a movie story in here too, a photo shoot at his Radioplane plant close to the end of the war bringing to photographers' attention a young employee by the name of Norma Jean Mortensen, attention that led to an ever so slightly important screen career under the more famous name of Marilyn Monroe.

Song of Love (1947)

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid and Robert Walker
Undeniably one of Hollywood's greatest actresses, Katharine Hepburn nonetheless only had one voice. She used it to massive effect but anything that really warranted an utterly different accent tended to make her look horribly miscast. Of all the great actors she was the one who seemed to be horribly miscast most often, whether it be as a Chinese peasant girl, a queen of Scotland or a backwoods hillbilly. Here, playing the nineteenth century pianist and composer Clara Schumann, I expected another horrible miscasting, but found that the film's very human story utterly engaging regardless what accents are brought to bear. It doesn't hurt that Hepburn is utterly believable in the opening scene performing virtuoso piano music at the Royal Opera House in Dresden, something that requires her to act but not speak.

It's 1839 and she's still Miss Clara Wieck, building a powerful career as a pianist through the teaching and guidance of her father, sheer unbridled talent and no doubt an appreciation of how good she looks in a concert gown. It can't hurt that the performance we see is a command performance for the King of Saxony with people as important as Franz Liszt accompanying the royal family. This story of her life and those of other prominent composers with which it interwines is told with the usual adjustments to literal truth but it is at least honest enough to admit it from moment one. 'Certain necessary liberties have been taken with incident and chronology,' it tells us, and even though I'm not well enough acquainted with the real versions to know which scenes are real and which are liberties, it's not difficult to work them out, at least some of them.

For instance, I'd bet that the real showdown between Professor Wieck and young Robert Schumann for Clara's hand doesn't come on the stage at a command performance. Wieck wants his daughter to play, to go on to a great career. Schumann, who had studied with them for years, wants to marry her, and Clara is all in favour, even though she's ten years younger. She even changes her encore to play a piece of Schumann's, impressing the young prince no end but surprisingly not furthering the composer's career too much. It takes Liszt's intervention in court for the judge to rule in favour of their marriage and that's unfortunately it for Leo G Carroll's part as her father. It all rings of Hollywood script manipulation, but done by a Hollywood that knew how to do this sort of thing without making us throw up our hands in disgust. Unless we knew the history, of course.
The years fly by and a decade later the Schumanns are struggling by with seven kids and living on Robert's meagre earnings as a music teacher. Into this madhouse comes Johannes Brahms to study, picking not just New Years Eve but the night that Bertha the housekeeper quits to make his entrance. The conveniences continue throughout, Schumann tottering on the brink of melancholia just as his opera comes back with a rejection letter, prompting some notably Hollywood shenanigans to be set in motion by Brahms and Liszt, not always just a favourite in Cockney rhyming slang. It's all as sweeping and grandiose as much of the music is tender and romantic, but it's done capably and professionally and while these seams show they don't feel glaringly obvious. They may be liberties, but they're crafted as such.

It would be strange for a story all about musicians to not be full of music and Song of Love doesn't skimp on that front, as much as the title is as much about the relationship of the Schumanns as it is the music they compose and play. It's wonderful music too, of course, and the majesty of the production does justice to it, wisely treating us to a number of scenes of discovery, always the best emotional scenes in my book. To my mind the emotion when the Schumanns first hear Brahms play is the same emotion as when Jeff Goldblum first sees the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. It's real swell in the throat stuff because we don't just see or hear what's there but the possibility and promise of what will follow, the magic of a lifetime and a moment all at once. 'I wish I could write something like that,' says Schumann, the master speaking to the student and the would be student at that.
All the names involved live up to the lofty challenges they're tasked with, playing these historical characters in the way that so characterised golden age acting, less as people and more as themes. Kate Hepburn is excellent, though she fails utterly to look 71 years old at the finale. I don't know how adept she was on the piano but she really appears to be playing this often difficult material and that's certainly not through the fakery of CGI or split screen or some other cinematic device, it's real. If it's acting it's very capable acting indeed, if it isn't then it suggests that she would at least have been worth listening to as a pianist. The same goes for Robert Walker as Brahms, in many ways the opposite of Robert Schumann. Brahms is utterly in control of his musical genius while Schumann struggles with his, yet Schumann has a grip on love that in turn Brahms has to struggle with.

If Hepburn and Walker are pianists, at least believably so, it would seem that Paul Henreid and Henry Daniell, who play Schumann and Liszt, aren't. They get plenty of opportunity at the keyboard but while we watch fingers play we don't pan back to see these actors attached to them. They're both excellent, all four of these actors playing off each other with appropriate warmth to keep such a song of love being sung until the very end of the film. There's not much opportunity given to supporting actors, the story being woven closely around these four, but Carroll is spot on and Else Janssen impresses as Bertha, however much Brahms can wrap her round his little finger. With music like this to conjure with, that's often what the filmmakers do to me, historical accuracy or no historical accuracy.