Monday 28 December 2009

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.

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