Thursday, July 19, 2018

Universal's Holmes Revisited, Part II

Basil Rathbone and Edmund Breon in DRESSED TO KILL (1946).
After Universal has guided Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson through a few WWII espionage thrillers, a few horror-tinged thrillers, and then a gothic mystery or two, some subtle changes were manifest in the series' subsequent releases. Someone in an executive position (above that of producer-director Roy William Neill) must have suggested, in the way executives tend to suggest, "Don't you think the Holmes films could stand to be... oh, I don't know... less brooding and a little more gay?" (Gay in the old-fashioned sense.) The next two films in the series, THE WOMAN IN GREEN and PURSUIT TO ALGIERS, represent a willful breaking away from the familiar tobacco-dense rooms at 221B Baker Street into the larger worlds of society, fashion and adventure.

THE WOMAN IN GREEN was, notably, the last of the films to be scripted by their most characteristic and clever scribe, Bertram Millhauser. The plot is itself a minor variation on its immediate predecessor THE HOUSE OF FEAR, as a number of murder victims - this time, women - are found around London with one of their fingers severed - "with the consummate skill of a surgeon." There is a peculiar disconnection between this "signature" aspect of the case (introduced as its principal mystery, it turns out to be nothing more than a grisly fetish applied to the murders by one of their lesser engineers) and the case that follows, which is a variation on THE SPIDER WOMAN, as a glamorous woman (Hillary Brooke) uses a form of cannabis, hypnosis and her own charms to persuade an innocent man of social prominence (Paul Cavanagh) that he is the actual perpetrator. The mystery seems more complicated than it need be even with just this much in play, but the script goes on to attach as mastermind the supposedly dead Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell, formerly one of Moriarty's stooges in SECRET WEAPON, and a high-ranking member of British government in VOICE OF TERROR), who somehow cheated the hangman in Montevideo, though we hear him perish by different means in SECRET WEAPON. Disappointingly, most of these characters are introduced and incriminated in our eyes before Holmes even has a chance to deduce anything about them, and his final unravelling of the case is ultimately due to his having been in the right place at the right time and making a guess based on a hunch. Deduction plays not much of a role, and it seems to play a lessening role in the films from here on out. The script is somewhat familiar, even doubly so (which may account for Millhauser's departure), but the overall look of the film is new, with nightclub scenes and lots of Vera West dresses and gowns modeled by the alluring Brooke. Also, for the second time in the series (after THE SCARLET CLAW), the special photographic effects services of John P. Fulton were recruited to take the viewer within the seductive spells she weaves over Fenwick and, later, Holmes himself. Derivative it may be, but THE WOMAN IN GREEN is a B-picture made in unusually high style for its period, and Daniell is the most persuasive of the Moriarty actors. Owing to Dennis Hoey's unavailability (or perhaps it was decided to go for a more sober approach), the role of Inspector Lestrade was temporarily replaced by Matthew Boulton as the more serious Inspector Gregson - a character first introduced with Lestrade in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Holmes novel, A STUDY IN SCARLET. This film also contains a shot that I found hair-raising as a child, as Holmes uses his binoculars to identify a cab passenger trailing a visitor to his digs, and sees just a sliver of the evil stranger’s eye peering around the edge of the rear window. I would include that shot on a list of the 10 scariest things I saw on TV as a kid. Brrr!

If THE WOMAN IN GREEN represents a move toward a brighter shade of escapism, PURSUIT TO ALGIERS is even brighter, taking place almost entirely aboard the S.S. Friesland as Holmes and Watson escort an endangered King, incognito, back to the safety of his home country. There is a spot of fog and footsteps in the dark, but mostly this film gives us daylit promenades on deck, sentimental songs around the piano, shuffleboard games, and a festive final night party. There are some initial suspects and the usual load of red herrings among the Neill eccentrics, but as with the previous film, the real villains are openly so from the moment they are introduced (one of them is Martin Kosleck - the screen's favorite Joseph Goebbels, as a former circus knife-thrower turned to homicide), so Holmes needs no process of concentration to identify them - and we do not share his vantage during his various escapes from death; they are presented as action set pieces and then conveniently explained later. Even so, there is a lot here to enjoy, not least of all a moving Nigel Bruce interpretation of the traditional Scottish song "Loch Lomand." 

Then we come to TERROR BY NIGHT, which is probably the least of all the films in this series, on a technicality, but it's nevertheless perfectly in character with the other films; it's lively, well cast, intermittently droll, and compulsively watchable. Another escort tale, this one finds Holmes and Watson aboard a train as they are hired by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes) to protect her priceless gem pendant known as the Star of Rhodesia. Also aboard the train and determined to have it is none other that Col. Sebastian Moran, a former high-ranking henchman in Moriarty's mafia, traveling in disguise (though no one involved in the story has apparently ever laid eyes on him). The problem with TERROR BY NIGHT is that it shoehorns Holmes into a situation that any mystery protagonist could handle just as well, and Holmes' genius is less here about his intellect than his ability to get out of deadly traps physically. Also, virtually every scene or sequence is punctuated with cutaway shots from a much older film, which the IMDb identifies as the British production ROME EXPRESS (1932) - though some of the later stock rail footage appears to have come from a picture of German origin.  a welcome touch of the macabre, Skelton Knaggs has a small part in the last reel as an essential piece of the puzzle. He fits so effortlessly into this universe of characters, it's perplexing to me that he appeared in only one of these, and for such a short period of screen time. The femme fatale of this story is one Vivian Vedder, the subject of a simply awful portrayal by Renee Godfrey.

The series' swan song, DRESSED TO KILL, has always been one of my favorites and it's a nice return to form after the previous two. Like the previous few titles, it opens with an extended bit of backstory about what lies at heart of the crime to come - which, in this case, is three homely wooden musical boxes manufactured by a prisoner in Dartmoor Prison and sent to an auction house where they are awaited for some reason by a criminal recipient - before introducing Holmes and Watson. They get pulled into this case rather ingeniously, through an old school chum of Watson's, Julian Emery (Edmund Breon) who happens to get himself knocked-out and robbed of a lookalike box (he relates the story to them) before he is visited a second time and murdered in a grab for the real item. Emery is one of the most touching, likable characters to get knocked-off in the series, and we can feel Watson's hurt thirst for vengeance, restrained as it is. Once again, a stylish woman, Mrs. Hilda Courteney (Patricia Morison), is his chief adversary here, and Morison has opportunities to flaunt her talent for disguise, and to charm Holmes as he attempts to beard her in his den (and vice versa), again à la THE SPIDER WOMAN - and, in a twist on the Creeper's lovesickness toward Naomi in THE PEARL OF DEATH, Hilda is the object of her burly chauffeur's romantic obsession, though this feels like the remnant of a more detailed draft. (The chauffeur is played by frequent repertory players Harry Cording.) Though the script is reduced to having Holmes escape from a death trap like Clark Kent in an ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN episode, Holmes' gifts of photographic memory, musical memory, and his powers of deduction are well brought to bear, but in a somewhat charming resolution of the series, he openly admits at the end that the most decisive breakthroughs in the case were brought about by the eurekas of his old friend, Watson.

As I noted previously, my revisitation of these films has been my first complete viewing of the Universal titles as included in MPI's COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES COLLECTION Blu-ray set, which followed their DVD version into release after some years. The versions included in this set were much ballyhooed as being faithfully restored at the UCLA Archives (a job said to have been partly funded by Hugh M. Hefner), and it appears they do reconstruct the films as they originally appeared in theaters - replacing the Realart reissue and TV syndication main and end titles that followed them into television in the 1950s - but this often means that inferior quality materials had to be referenced. That said, while some sequences pop with a never-before-seen lustre (the meeting scene between Rathbone and Evelyn Ankers in VOICE OF TERROR is one of the most memorably stunning improvements), there are just as many instances of such footage cutting away to other footage that looks excessively dupey. The irregularities of quality are particularly noticeable in TERROR BY NIGHT; and PURSUIT TO ALGIERS, as presented here, was evidently unable to recover its original end titles. On the positive side, these presentations include all of the original opening material leading into the stories, which to this day strikes me as odd and unfamiliar because it was snipped out of my initial viewings on local television stations, to help move things along. It's a miracle in some cases, seeing what was removed, that those broadcasts ever made sense!

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