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.

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