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Sherlock Holmes Faces Death Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 2, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    Sherlock Holmes Faces Death Review

    “You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it, pickled in alcohol, to the London Medical Society.”

    For many people, Basil Rathbone is still the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Tall, erudite, shrewd and majestically calculating, he is the epitome of the unfazed, unintimidated, brazenly confident detective at his most in control. No cocaine for Rathbone. Just that ever-probing Roman nose, dynamite brain and fierce contempt for what everyone else regards as the downright unknowable. Behind those piercing eyes, there is a veritable tsunami of synapses firing off, and the actor truly gives the impression of possessing a boundless capacity for logical deduction. Right in the middle of watching this glorious collection of fourteen classic yarns, I was able to go and see the Svengali show from mind-trickster extraordinaire, Derren Brown, and I was immediately struck by the incredible similarity between the modern showman and the cinematic sleuth. Not only do they have exactly the same face and aquiline profile – you have only to stitch a goatee upon Rathbone and to place a deerstalker on Brown's head and a Meerschaum in his mouth and viola, they are twins – but they carry the same irascibly confident speech pattern, the same impetuous deportment and the identical aura of supreme self-awareness. Derren Brown, I believe, has modelled his stage and screen persona upon that of the great detective as characterised by Rathbone. And its not a bad shtick to adopt.

    After a career that had already swung from villains to heroes and back to villains, Basil Rathbone accepted the part of Sherlock Holmes in 1939's The Hound Of The Baskervilles, for 20th Century Fox. He would further the film's success with The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which was released in the same year. Then the franchise moved over to Universal, and another twelve features followed, running up until 1946's Dressed To Kill. Rathbone grew to resent the rut that he had gotten himself into, though he never allowed this to show through in his performances, and his portrayal is revered and studied by scholars and casual fans alike.

    Nigel Bruce, on the other hand, can still be the thing that rankles many devotees of the great detective. His bumbling Dr. Watson, a comic foil for Holmes and the stress relief of many a taut encounter, is the biggest departure, tonally speaking, from the stories and the milieu that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created. Me, however … well, I love him, and not least because the way that he appears here, alongside a not inconsiderable degree of his bluff 'n' bluster, reminds me perfectly of my own father. So that's two deadringers that make viewing this cavalcade of murder, treachery and adventure both charmingly affectionate and surprisingly contemporary at the same time, for me, at any rate. Bruce had already been a familiar face on the big screen, and his staunch English bull-in-a-China-shop behaviour had been seen in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Treasure Island, She and The Charge Of The Light Brigade. Both fallible and distressingly gullible at the same time, Bruce deconstructs the extremely intelligent and quick-witted Watson that Doyle devised to create someone who amounts to little more than a stooge, and yet the device clearly works. It is tempting to believe that Watson is “us”, our conduit into each mystery - he asks the questions and Holmes fills in the details. But the marvellous Dennis Hoey, as the long-suffering Insp. Lestrade, of the bumbling Scotland Yard, is certainly thicker, still. All, it would appear, are blundering dunderheads compared to the incisive, hawk-like Holmes, who never misses a trick and is always three or four steps ahead of the rest of us.

    Whilst both Sidney Lanfield and Alfred L. Werker helmed the first two entries, respectively, with considerable élan and whip-crack excitement it must be said, it was Roy William Neill who came to embody the physical thrust and mental unravelling of the movies afterwards, directing eleven of the fourteen films. One of Universal's most consistent and reliable players, Neill was the man behind the fabulously daft Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (see separate review), and his sense of pace and energy was easily translated from such horror hokum to the world of the thriller. Indeed, his love for mystery and menace served the series exceptionally well, for he was able to imbue even the more run-of-the-mill espionage capers with a distinctive mood.

    I love the fact that the series attempted to move with the times from the apparent Victorian era, which was entirely appropriate, to the days of WWII, even though this made absolutely no chronological sense whatsoever. This revealed two distinct things. The first was that the character of Sherlock Holmes was so damn strong and indelible that, like Doctor Who, he could quite simply exist in any period and still not lose any of his essential characteristics. Secondly, it meant that Universal knew they had a winner on their hands, and a commodity so well depicted and etched by their two leads that it didn't really matter all that much what they did with them in each thrilling instalment, the audience would still lap them up. This is totally borne out by the fact that Sherlock Holmes could be used as a fairly faithful adaptation of Doyle's original text (The Hound Of The Baskervilles), as crazy escapism to take peoples' minds off the war (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes/The Spider Woman/The Pearl Of Death), as staunchly patriotic jingoism to remind folks that they were on the winning side (The Voice Of Terror/The Secret Weapon/Sherlock Holmes In Washington) and as a sort of bizarre menace that recalled the studio's heyday with horror (The Scarlet Claw/The House Of Fear/Faces Death). The best thing about Sherlock Holmes, throughout all the incarnations that he has had, in every form of medium from literary spin-off and stage-play to slapstick farce, film and videogame, is that you always know exactly who and what you are dealing with. He is one of the most, if not the most, dependable characters ever created in fiction … so much so that there are still plenty of people out there who really believe that he was a genuine historical person.

    And even if Robert Downey Jnr, Richard Roxburgh, Rupert Everett, Jeremy Brett, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cushing and Reginald Owen all made their mark upon him, Basil Rathbone was the man who brought the dynamic gentleman detective into the sort of public consciousness that even Conan Doyle couldn't have commanded, and without the success of his interpretation, the character could just as well have never progressed any further than the small screen, or even merely remained languishing in the pages of classic literature.

    The UK had that sumptuous boxset of the full collection of films that Optimum put out a few years back. That set is still a wonderful item, what with its collector art cards and fabulously substantial feel, but now that the films have been gathered together once again and presented in high-definition, the temptation to upgrade was something that could not be denied. So, here, we have the US region-locked edition of all 14 films spread over 5 discs, courtesy of MPI, who had previously put out SD DVD editions in the States. These are terrific little thrillers that work excellently when viewed as late-night double-bills, but are just as enjoyable even when casually dipped into. Yet, this notwithstanding, I can't help finding that there is an addictive quality to them. Once you get into the mood, you just can't help throwing disc after disc into the player, and you shouldn't be surprised to discover that you've gone through the entire run in extremely short order. The pattern may not suffer much in the way of deviance across the span of the fourteen films, and you are always going to know who will win in the end, but each story is malleable enough to wrong-foot you, to surprise and even confound you. Even without Watson regularly dropping the ball, Holmes makes mistakes, or simply pursues the wrong clue long enough for another victim to meet his or her maker, and these elements continually add spice to the pot.

    Rathbone may allow his Holmes to be a little more compassionate than many incarnations – his treatment of the little girl in Dressed To Kill or of young Billie in Adventures, say – but he still imbues his stylisation with some harsh jibes in the direction of ponderous authority, usually epitomised by Lestrade, and scathing responses to the villains once he's got them on the hop. The writers don't let Rathbone have his way all the time, though. This Sherlock is only a junkie for the adrenaline rush of a new case, and there is none of Doyle's in-built neurosis or societal/emotional ambivalence, but they still see to it that he has a patriotic swagger, a pertinent and up-to-the-minute world-view, and a conscience that is often surprisingly optimistic and charitable. It is great to see that Rathbone allows the character some bad hair days too, with the more typical slick-back order sometimes exploding into Gabriel Byrne-style floppy weirdness.

    We are in the marvellously mysterious realm of grand old Gothic Horror with The Hound Of The Baskervilles, the most famous and cherished of all Holmes adventures, the fan-favourite The Scarlet Claw, the dark and spooky House Of Fear, all of which remind us of Universal's prodigious and prolific pedigree as pioneers in classic and pulp fright films. But The Hound is a unique story in many ways. For one thing, the plot about an ancestral curse, nefarious neighbours with big dogs, escaped convicts and treacherous moors, sees to it that the main character is actually missing for a considerable amount of time. Even in literature – and the books are told from Watson's point of view, anyway – this is quite a radical step. And when breaking the stories out for a cinematic treatment, this could have been seen as a serious misstep. Yet the story is so good, and so well told, that we probably wouldn't miss the sleuth even if his presence didn't still seem to loom over the proceedings.

    I've never seen a version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles that I didn't like, and although the Rathbone interpretation isn't the best around – Hammer's lavish take is fantastic, but the 2002 version, which pitted Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart against a truly nightmarish hound could well be my favourite – it is a beautifully constructed thriller that makes vigorous use of the old moorland sets left over from the Universal horror shows. Occasionally lax direction from Lanfield suggests that he didn't really understand what type of film he was supposed to be making – Victorian parlour whodunnit, pacy thriller or outright horror? - but the cast, including the incredibly gaunt John Carradine and Eily Malyon as the shuddersome housekeepers with a dark secret of their own, as well as the excellent Lionel Atwill, all give a good account of themselves, and the two leads prove undeniably that they their characters done to a tee. Poor Malyon seemed to have the perfect face for such roles – she would play housemaid and werewolf-bait in both The Undying Monster and She-Wolf Of London, and a nasty teacher in Jane Eyre. We have seances, hot pursuits through old London town, missing shoes, diabolical flashbacks, eerie happenings out on the moors and, naturally, a great big savage hell-hound on the rampage. It's got everything you could wish for, including spooky caves and mysterious old mansion. And it was a rip-roaring success.

    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which followed on almost immediately, is the one that sets the template, the characters and the overall style in motion. We have Moriarty getting off with murder right at the start, a startling confrontation between him and Holmes after the detective’s vital evidence has arrived too late to condemn the fiend in a court of law, and then a heinous plot hatched in which everything that makes these two adversaries so worthy of one another will be brought into play. What I love most of all in this audacious entry, besides the exciting climax in the Tower of London, is the simply wonderful way in which we are drawn into the minds of both men during two splendidly constructed scenes in the first act. One is set in Moriarty’s house, in which the criminal mastermind reveals his fastidious obsession with plants at the same time as his cold-hearted devotion to threatening his own minions, clueing us in very precisely to his warped and dedicated mental state. The other is situated over in 221B Baker Street, in which Sherlock Holmes is busy conducting his own makeshift experiment in combating the annoyance of the common housefly, before being assailed by a slew of potential new investigations – all of which are interconnected. Both are set to hypnotic music – Holmes is crucifying his violin (as is his wont) with a small plucked cluster of aggravating ascending notes whilst Moriarty has a melancholy recorded lament playing in brooding encouragement of his plants – and the cumulative effect is actually quite mesmerising. It is also important to note that Moriarty’s theme, here, becomes a sort of sinister keystone of the story, with its macabre historical relevance and sense of threat, via a spooky moonlit sonata performed in an eerie, almost surreal style later on beneath the young Ida Lupino's bedroom window.

    With George Zucco claiming the role of the redoubtable Bond-villain prototype, Prof. Moriarty – he would be replaced by another vintage villain in the guise of Lionel Atwill in The Secret Weapon, and then Henry Daniell in The Woman In Green – the story is a rollicking adventure with a near-perfect balance of thrills and light-relief.

    The story that seems to appeal greatly to Holmes-aficionados and fans of this series, in particular, is 1944's The Scarlet Claw, a tremendous Scooby-Doo horror-show in which the denizens of an isolated Canadian town are getting their throats torn out by some mythical beast that likes to prowl the fog-bound marshes, as though inspired by that Baskerville Hound. Ex-cons, faded thespians, hiccuping postmen and a dispassionate patriarch vie for attention against a supernatural glowing predator that is menacing the area. The confrontation between fact and fiction, truth and terror is wrought about with bravura direction, some smart and skin-prickling set-pieces and a great Universal monster-mood. George Kirby does his best to screw things up with his dreadful performance as the town priest, but this is still one of the “go-to’s” of the series, and one that, like The Hound, always guarantees to give you the creeps. The weird visual conceit of the luminescent marauder is actually quite stunning to behold and, for a tantalising second or two, genuinely has you wondering just what it is that Sherlock is going up against this time. It is also the recipient of some terrific comic rug-pulling. Holmes unleashes Watson on a one-man fact-gathering mission in the local tavern, but warns him to stay inconspicuous, in the full knowledge that the old fellow will prove a huge distraction to anyone wanting to interfere with his own more deliberately covert investigation out on the moors. The scene with Watson getting steadily more and more inebriated, along with the postman-witness who “claimed” he couldn’t drink because it gave him the hiccups but gives it damn good go anyway, and holding court over a gathering of massively suspicious-looking varmints all showing a keen interest in his expertise in criminal detection is absolutely priceless. Whenever the postman hiccups, the drunken Watson apologises and the postman then thanks him … just before hiccuping all over again. It is like something from Laurel and Hardy and yet it doesn’t hamper the propulsive nature of the story, or the dark and ominous tone of the film at all. The film also boasts a scene that was clearly an inspiration for one of the creepiest moments in Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear, and also seems to provide something of a visual inspiration for Hitch's Psycho, and it makes fine use of Hans J. Salter's nervous scores from The Wolf Man and Son Of Frankenstein (which featured Basil Rathbone as the mad scientist's offspring). Salter would score the majority of these films – much of it original, but much of it, as here with The Wolf Man (which also crops up in Dressed To Kill), purloined from his monster movies.

    The Holmesian ploy of donning disguises gets some decent screen-time in various adventures. Naturally, the most famous instance of all is in Hound Of The Baskervilles, when he becomes the dishevelled old vagrant who has been living out rough out on the moors whilst waffling Watson has been under the impression that he was solving the case all on his lonesome. But the best moment comes in The Secret Weapon, when Holmes assumes the character of a menacing scarred seadog and holds violent and intimidating sway over a tavern full of ne’er-do-wells. He actually looks ruthless – perhaps something of the swashbuckling villains that Rathbone used to portray surging back to the surface once more – and his vicious way with a broken glass and a knife genuinely makes you forget that this is the hero we are looking at here. One problem that we get with these Mabusian disguises is that Rathbone’s voice is occasionally dubbed-over by someone else, which can be quite amusing, especially when we have already cottoned-on to the fact that it is our Sherlock that we are looking at. In Adventures we get a jaw-dropping moment when a vaudeville performer sings that perpetually annoying song “Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!”, only to have the performer swiftly revealed to be none other than Holmes, himself, and the entire sequence brilliantly turned upon its head. And you have to hand it to Nigel Bruce, mourning over the apparent “death” of his lifelong friend, for making the deception of Holmes’ greyed wig, willowy moustache and fake nose removal so credible in The Spider Woman. And it is not just Sherlock who likes to raid the costume box, either. Assassins tend to foil our boys whenever they can by dressing up as maids, child-minders or kindly old men. The villain in The Scarlet Claw can actually lay claim to playing half the cast-list, such is his capacity for changing his appearance.

    The dialogue is terrific. There is a tremendous amount of wit and sophistication to the verbal exchanges that is patently unrealistic but, at the same, pure gold when issued from the mouths of Rathbone, Bruce, the various Moriartys and Hoey's ever-exasperated Lestrade. Despite Watson’s ineptitude and arrogant idiocy, the sheer adoration that Holmes holds for him simply shines through. For those who begin wonder – and not without good reason – just why the sleuth bothers with him at all, it is clear that Watson is both the student that Holmes is trying to educate (almost certainly his most obstinate case ever) and the loveable family that this Sherlock does not have. No Mycroft Holmes here, other than a throwaway reference in The Woman In Green. There are one or two moments when Holmes berates his partner-in-crime-solving for cocking something up, usually just before some astounding leap of logic is made, but there are a great many more when Watson’s own failures are the very crux that Holmes needs to exploit in order to advance in an investigation past a sticking point.

    The Second World War made Holmes into something of a clandestine agent working tirelessly against the Axis. He would usurp the dastardly propaganda of a spying radio-ham, and his evil network, in The Voice Of Terror, but not before several miniature train-wrecks and munitions factories went up in smoke. The Secret Weapon would have the detective trying to keep an advanced bomb-sight out of German, and Moriarty's hands, and Holmes would receive plenty of Churchill-esque backslapping for his troubles. Unfortunately, several entries resorted to a final spoken coda from Holmes that have become excruciatingly difficult to listen to nowadays. The last words from him in The Scarlet Claw actually quote Churchill in a truly gag-inducing example of sanctimonious pride restoration that, in this particular case, has absolutely nothing at all to do with the story that we've just watched. But such things are concessions to the collective audience frame of mind.

    A Hollywood staple of the period in which the films were made is the societal murder spree. These were game stories, in both fiction and real life, in which celebrities were either the target or the cause of foul deeds. Holmes had to solve his fair share of such crimes in the likes of The Spider Woman, which saw a spate of mysterious suicides amongst the wealthy, and Terror By Night, in which Lady Carstairs' jewels cause murder and mayhem on the London to Edinburgh train. Another typical hallmark of film serials from the period was having actors returning to play different characters in other entries, and this is in full effect with Sherlock Holmes. I think it is fun to spot those slinking back into the milieu, especially as those who essayed victims in the past so often get to then portray someone from the other side of the tracks, such as the delectable Evelyn (The Wolf Man) Ankers in The Voice Of Terror and then later in The Pearl Of Death, Harry Cording as one of the potential victim/suspects in The House Of Fear then becoming a mean-spirited thug in Dressed To Kill, or Henry Daniell and Lionel Atwill, who both switched allegiance and turned to the dark side as Holmes' main adversary, or Ian Wolfe, who clocks up at least four different roles, from a butler to the head of Scotland Yard. When you watch these films, this sort of thing adds to the welcoming feel that they have. It almost becomes a family thing.

    Violence plays a part in all of these murderous outings, and even if things are graphically quite tame, there is a degree of imagination to it all. We have the back-breaking calling card of The Creeper in The Peal Of Death, played by the great classic screen “ugly”, Rondo Hatton. The unfortunate recipient of poison gas during his military service, Hatton went on to suffer dreadfully in the bone and flesh deforming grip of acromegaly. But this meant that he was superb at portraying hideous thugs and monsters in a rash of Universal horror pictures, such as The Brute Man (in which he played another Creeper) The Jungle Captive and, erm, The Creeper (again). There are throats torn out, shootings, clubbings, knives in backs, fingers snipped off, falls from great heights, ferocious dog attacks and even the primitive bolas used to despatch a victim. Cosy these films may be but, much like the boundary-pushing horror cycle that Fox, RKO and especially Universal had happily unleashed, there remains a palpable sense of threat, and often even a frisson of the macabre. In The Woman In Green, for instance, there is even the barnstorming sequence when Sherlock Holmes has been hypnotised by Moriarty and finds himself walking on the thin ledge of a balcony a long way above certain death. Such a grim set up is tantalisingly dark and perversely amusing.

    The last couple of films lose steam, especially the train-set Terror By Night (which is pretty dire, to be honest) but then, with hindsight, it is easy to discern some sort of decline in standards simply because we know that the end of the series is coming whilst audiences at the time did not. Still, the viciously truncated running times (Terror By Night doesn't even last for an hour!) make them feel more like filler-items in a cinematic night-out, even if the stories, themselves, happily play to all the usual strengths of the formula. Dressed To Kill, which brought the Rathbone/Bruce detective duo's exploits to a close, has a very shambolic introduction, and the leads seem very tired and bored, almost musing over their careers from either side of the fireplace, an unfortunate mood egged-on, no doubt, by a completely unconvincing, almost rehearsal-like performance from Edmund Breon as Watson's ill-fated old friend, Stinky. But, admittedly, the film does pick up quite considerably after his non-accidental demise to become a neat game of tit-for-tat with the murderous trio of music-box hunting bad guys and, as well mentioning Irene Adler, the only woman ever to have bested Holmes, it even boasts a very reasonable spot of cliffhanging bother for our hero.

    Every one of these films has tremendous merit, even the admittedly lacklustre final couplet. The Collection fits in extremely well with the Charlie Chan and Thin Man serials, although I think it is vastly superior to both. For the most part, it works. The horror, the suspense, the skulduggery, the explanations and the unmaskings, and the comedy. This is a landmark series that may have pigeon-holed Rathbone, but it is one that thoroughly deserves the epithet of classic.

    These films, and this BD boxset, come very highly recommended indeed.