Wednesday 30 December 2009

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.

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