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DETECTIVE-PALOOZA: SHERLOCK HOLMES

THE SIGN OF FOUR: SHERLOCK HOLMES’ GREATEST CASE (1932) ** ½

Arthur Wontner stars as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character Sherlock Holmes. I’m not so sure it’s his “greatest case”, but it’s a decent enough outing. A one-legged killer is on the loose looking for a fortune, leaving a string of dead bodies in his wake. His crimes leave the police are baffled, so Sherlock Holmes takes it upon himself to find the murderer.

The opening scenes of The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Case features some pretty impressive cinematic gymnastics for the time (fade-ins, dissolves, transition scenes, etc.). These stylish touches help lure the viewer into the film. Too bad the filmmakers pretty much abandon those techniques once the plot kicks in. And the middle sections of the film could’ve used some flourishes as this is the portion of the flick that gets bogged down.

It also doesn’t help that it takes forever to finally introduce our hero. Wontner at times acts a bit stiff in the lead, but he does a good job with his long-winded speeches. I particularly dug the scene where Holmes was able to deduce the killer had only one leg just by looking at his handwriting. He also gets a pretty funny scene where he dresses up like a drunk sailor to get the inside scoop on the plot.

Wontner played Holmes a total of five time, and of the ones I’ve seen, this one is his best.

AKA: The Sign of Four. AKA: Sherlock Holmes and the Sign of Four.

A STUDY IN SCARLET (1933) **

A man commits suicide on a train. Sherlock Holmes (Reginald Owen) investigates and almost immediately deduces the man was actually murdered. He does some snooping and learns that the dead man was a member of a secret society. Pretty soon, other members of the exclusive club begin to drop like flies and Holmes sets out to stop the killer.

Reginald Owen is a bit gruff in the lead role. He doesn’t give a bad performance per se, but he never really feels like Sherlock Holmes. Most of the time, he just kinda seems like a dick (and no, I don’t mean a detective). Plus, he never quite builds a rapport with Dr. Watson (Warburton Gamble). He’s definitely nowhere near the standard of Basil Rathbone or Arthur Wontner, that’s for sure. Anna May Wong is good as the femme fatale of the piece and you’ll wish her part was much bigger.

Overall, A Study in Scarlet is creakier than The Sign of Four and more than a tad boring. The initial set-up is alright, but the pacing is lethargic and the film never really has much momentum. Much of the flick is statically filmed, which adds to the dreariness of the film. However, there is one halfway decent POV shot that sorta works. But by the time Holmes finally deduces the murderer’s identity, I can’t really say you’ll actually care.

THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1935) **

Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Wontner) has had enough of the detecting game so he decides to retire. His arch nemesis Professor Moriarty (Lyn Harding) won’t stand for it, so he coaxes him out of retirement to solve one last mystery. Pretty soon, Holmes finds himself involved in solving the murder of a man who belonged to a Free Mason-like secret society.

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes is at its best when our hero is clashing with Moriarty. Wontner and Harding play off each other nicely and it’s fun to watch their verbal sparring. Unfortunately, these sequences are brief and are weighted mostly towards the beginning.

The same can be said about Holmes’ scenes with Dr. Watson (Ian Fleming, no not the guy who created James Bond). Some of their interactions are amusing. And I liked the way Holmes deduced how Watson had shaved in the morning. Again, while most of their scenes together are fun to watch, they are sadly, few and far between.

Amusing character bits aside, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes is mostly kinda lifeless. We get a particularly long and ill-timed flashback that occurs midway through the film that takes the wind out of the movie’s sails and kills its momentum. Plus, the ending is way too abrupt to be very satisfying.

MURDER AT THE BASKERVILLES (1941) **

Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, and Lyn Harding all returned for yet another ho-hum Sherlock Holmes outing. It’s not really an adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles, but rather a hodgepodge of Holmes’ other adventures. Sherlock Holmes goes to his friend’s house for the weekend when a prized race horse, named Silver Blaze, is stolen. Holmes pretty much blows off his friend and tries to solve the mystery. Naturally, someone gets murdered and Holmes has to find the killer.

Like The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, Murder at the Baskervilles really suffers whenever Holmes and Watson aren’t on screen matching wits with Professor Moriarty. And unfortunately, not a lot of time is devoted to that. It’s a shame too because Harding gives another solid performance as Moriarty. He has a few good moments, like when he shows off his new hideout or when he kidnaps Dr. Watson. There’s also an okay action sequence where Moriarty runs Holmes’ car off the road and a funny bit where Moriarty uses a machine gun hidden in a camera to assassinate someone.

These little touches are the exception and not the rule. For every slightly cool snippet, you have to sit through about fifteen minutes of dreadfully dull dialogue. Oh well, at least it’s better than that Robert Downey, Jr. shit.

AKA: Silver Blaze.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943) ** ½

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce return in their fourth adventure (and second for Universal Studios) as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This entry updates the characters into the (then) modern day era. Because the espionage plot relies so heavily on wartime propaganda, it kinda lacks the charm of most of Rathbone’s Holmes films.

In this one, Sherlock Holmes has to sneak a scientist out of the country. Fearing capture, the scientist breaks up his latest invention into four parts and uses an elaborate code to hide their whereabouts. When Moriarty (Lionel Atwill) kidnaps the scientist, it’s up to Holmes to decipher the code and get the weapon back before Moriarty gets his hands on it.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is saddled with a so-so plot, but it’s anchored by the definitive team of Rathbone and Bruce. Rathbone is especially fun to watch while in disguise. (He dresses up as an old man and a scarred sailor in this one.) And Atwill makes for a great Moriarty. The scene where he ties Holmes to a hospital bed and tries to drain him of his blood drop by drop is particularly memorable.

While the film has a number of good points, overall the pacing is a tad on the slow side. Sure, the flick is fun when Holmes is matching wits with Moriarty and cracking codes, but the overly jingoistic message of the film never quite meshes with the established Holmes conventions. Plus, for whatever reason, Rathbone was in the grips of the worst bad hair day on record in this film. I don’t know who his stylist was on this flick, but I hope Universal handed them their walking papers once the film wrapped.

AKA: The Secret Weapon.

THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945) ** ½

A rash of murders are plaguing London. The bodies of women are being found with their right forefinger severed. Stumped, Scotland Yard turns to Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for help. Sherlock quickly ascertains that there is a larger plot at hand (involving hypnotism and blackmail) and deduces his arch nemesis Moriarty (Henry Daniell) is behind the murders.

Director Roy William (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) Neill brings a little style to this outing. He uses Dutch angles in some scenes, so the flick doesn’t feel as static as some entries. The subject matter is a bit darker than usual, but that doesn’t necessarily make The Woman in Green better than say, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. And while the film gets off to a strong start, it stumbles a bit once it enters the home (Holmes?) stretch.

Henry Daniell is quite good as Moriarty. I liked his interpretation of the character just as much, if not more than Lionel Atwill. I just wish the screenwriter had given him more to do.

Thankfully, the interaction between Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce is as sharp as ever. Whenever the flick slows, their chemistry keeps you watching. The highlight comes during a funny scene where Dr. Watson gets hypnotized and Holmes allows him to make an ass of himself.

TERROR BY NIGHT (1946) ***

Terror by Night finds everyone’s favorite detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his trusty assistant Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) being hired to protect a valuable diamond aboard a train. When a murder is committed, Holmes and Watson scour the train looking for the killer. Naturally, the diamond winds up being stolen too and they have to get it back.

Terror by Night is a breezy and enjoyable, albeit slight Sherlock Holmes adventure. The claustrophobic setting is actually beneficial to the film and director Roy William Neill (who directed nearly all of the Rathbone-Bruce adventures) is able to get a lot of mileage out of the cramped quarters of the train. Neill keeps things tightly paced and since the film clocks in at just under an hour, the plot just zips right along.

The flick also features some pretty good banter between Holmes and Watson. Their performances make up for the decided lack of intricate plotting. There’s a funny scene where Watson mistakenly thinks he’s captured the jewel thieves, but it turns out they only stole a teapot from their hotel room. Rathbone does another fine job as Holmes. There’s a solid scene where Holmes grips onto the side of the speeding train for dear life, which is about as good as any action scene as you’ll find in the series.

DRESSED TO KILL (1946) ***

Dressed to Kill was the final film in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes cycle for Universal Studios. And fittingly, it’s one of their best. But despite the title, Sherlock Holmes unfortunately doesn’t do battle with a transvestite Michael Caine in this one, which is a bit of a bummer.

A dude named Stinky has one of his music boxes stolen. He gets his friend Dr. Watson to bring Sherlock Holmes over to investigate. When Stinky is killed, Sherlock uncovers a plot involving a gang of thieves that use a sultry femme fatale as bait. As it turns out, the thieves are trying to recover the music boxes because they have counterfeiting plates hidden inside them.

Dressed to Kill offers up a good balance of everything that makes the Rathbone films fun. There’s a solid mystery, fast pacing, and great performances by Rathbone and Bruce. Plus, the cryptogram Holmes has to solve is pretty inventive. I guess it goes without saying that all of the scenes involving the crooks aren’t nearly as entertaining as the stuff with Holmes and Watson, but overall, the film ends the series on a (ahem) high note.

And if Dressed to Kill teaches us anything, it’s that when a hot chick drops by your house unexpectedly, you never… EVER under any circumstances tell her your nickname is “Stinky”.

AKA: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code. AKA: Prelude to Murder.

Tags: d, m, s, sequel, t, thriller, w
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