Sunday, July 15, 2018

Universal's Holmes Revisited, My Facebook Notes - Part 1

Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
Every so often, I have to revisit Universal's Sherlock Holmes series (1942-46), just for the love of the films - and to see how well they are continuing to hold up under time and familiarity.

Naturally I began with SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON - the first of Universal's contemporary war-themed programmers about the great Baker Street detective. In some ways, what’s old is sadly new again. I'm not going to take the time to go back and copy out dialogue, but it was eerie to hear isolationist MAGA-like rhetoric coming from the mouths of Limehouse criminals. Also interesting that the villains of these two pieces turn out to be a wealthy war profiteer (Lionel Atwill as a creepily snake-eyed Professor Moriarty) and a Third Reich officer masquerading as a high-ranking member of the British government, who is attempting to dominate the empire with terrorist appropriation of the media. Same as it ever was?

The next film in the series, SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON, is more incidentally war-related, going under the surface of international relations to explore the subject of espionage. It boasts George Zucco presiding over various MUMMY props as an international spy ringleader living under the guise of an antiques store owner who just happens to be, once again,  one of the wealthiest, most respected men in town. Henry Daniell is in it too, though he’s thrown away in a bit part. The first of the series to be produced and directed by Roy William Neill (who effectively took over from this point), IN WASHINGTON introduces the series' hallmarks of droll humor, marvelous character actors, and a more successful accommodation of the Conan Doyle literary tropes within the contemporary setting.

It was followed by SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH, based on “The Musgrave Ritual.” This is one of the series’ best, a gothic mystery set in a convalescent home for shellshocked veterans (thus the contemporary element, and one critical of the emotional fallout of war), resulting in a bevy of memorably eccentric performances. Very often I remember moments from these films but cannot assign them to a particular title; this is the one in which Holmes, testing a man's reported alibi, upsets Mrs. Hudson (Mary Gordon) by firing a series of bullets into the lapels of a head and shoulders sketch of a man on his apartment wall. A very young, pre-MGM Peter Lawford appears briefly as a uniformed customer of the pub, The Rat and The Raven. We see the Raven, but are left to take the Rat on faith.

The next three films in the series - conveniently collected on one disc in MPI's Blu-ray collection - are  THE SPIDER WOMAN, THE SCARLET CLAW, and THE PEARL OF DEATH - veer away from wartime espionage to such fantastic foes they seem to filtered in from the edges of classic Universal horror. THE SPIDER WOMAN opens with a twist on "His Final Bow," with Holmes supposedly fainting and tumbling to his death near a falls. The ensuing mystery - about a series of "Pajama Suicides" - doesn't quite fit with this preamble, or explain why Holmes' death ruse was necessary; indeed, his disappearance seems to have given London's criminal element to embark on a crime spree, a story idea that is suddenly dropped with the arrival of Gale Sondergaard, a refined villainess who earns her creepy nickname by using a rare and maddeningly poisonous arachnid to drive various wealthy men to suicide, with her as their beneficiary. Child actor Teddy Infurh makes a curious impression as her fly-catching nephew, whose odd walk seems to pay tribute to Chuck Jones' Warner Bros.' Minah Bird cartoons, introduced in 1939's "The Little Lion Hunter." Angelo Rossitto pops up briefly as Obongo, the Prancing Pygmy - who himself seems inspired by Inki, the protagonist who hunted that same Minah Bird in the Warner cartoons, five in all. This one has quite a few enjoyable vignettes - both Rathbone and Sondergaard attempting to beard each other in their respective dens, a rooftop chase, and various escapes from certain death (including Holmes being tied up behind a shooting gallery target of Adolph Hitler!) - but they don't add up to a particularly cohesive story. But at an hour and change, this easily qualifies as diverting entertainment. 


In this round of re-viewings, I skipped THE SCARLET CLAW because I had watched it recently, independently of the others, when I first acquired this Blu-ray set ; it’s probably the best film of the series and it’s the one I reach for when I’m after a quick distillation of what’s best about these films. (“Quick, Watson! THE SCARLET CLAW!”) Perhaps tellingly, it is also the only film in the entire series scripted by its producer and director, Roy William Neill.

Immediately following CLAW, and rounding out what we might call the "Holmes Meets the Monsters" trilogy, is THE PEARL OF DEATH. Here, the detective's chief adversary is the Fantômas-like master of criminal disguise, Giles Conover (played by the very capable Miles Mander). His Lady Beltham, so to speak, is the equally versatile Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers, also memorable in THE VOICE OF TERROR), who must be kept in line by Conover’s sadistic reminders of the unrequited affection felt for her by the back-breaking Oxton Creeper, played by the towering Rondo Hatton. Hatton's acromegalic face is kept off-camera until the right psychological moment, his early scenes focusing instead on his silhouette or on his hands, which are shown encased in a pair of tight-fitting surgical gloves that make them look eerily other than human. In this one, Holmes’ own inclination to flaunt his powers of deduction gives Conover the break needed to steal the priceless Borgia Pearl, which ups the ante a bit for our hero, who accepts responsibility for recovering it. This is a very fine addition to the series.


Next is THE HOUSE OF FEAR, in which a grim-looking mansion by the sea plays host to the members of an exclusive club called the Good Comrades, whose deaths begin to be announced, one by one, in mail deliveries of a diminishing number of orange pips. The house set is the same used in SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH, and nearly all the players are returning repertory faces. The fact that Holmes is recruited to solve the case by an insurance agent tips the story’s hand prematurely, as does everyone’s almost willful neglect of questioning whether or not the putative murder victims (all found suspiciously dismembered) are in fact dead. Regardless, the film is tight, well made, and the gothic, sometimes stormy, atmosphere adds to its pleasures.

More to come!

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.



No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.