Sunday 27 December 2009

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.

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