Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

One of my brothers is an even bigger Holmes fan than I am, so when I brought up the Rathbone movies to him recently, I was surprised to hear that he hasn’t seen them yet. The greater surprise though came when I recommended them.

His reservation was the same as my initial one: that Holmes is best experienced in the Victorian setting. I was easily able to put him at rest about Fox’s period-piece Hound of the Baskervilles, of course, but I also defended the Universal series based on the success of Steven Moffat’s recent, contemporary take. And that’s what’s shocking to me. If you’d told me after I watched The Voice of Terror that I’d end up recommending the WWII-set films, I’d have sneered scornfully at you around my pipe. But The Secret Weapon and now Sherlock Holmes in Washington have changed my mind.

Maybe the series has empirically improved over the last couple of films or maybe I’m just getting used to Spy Holmes. In Washington, he’s called in to find a missing courier who was delivering an important document to the US capital. Naturally the Germans are behind it. Henry Daniell (the evil magazine editor in The Philadelphia Story) plays the head of the team of villains who snatches the courier, but he’s not the mastermind behind the operation. That’s George Zucco, who plays his second Holmes nemesis here. He was also an excellent Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s kind of cool that Daniell would get his own chance to play Moriarty in The Woman in Green, which we’ll get to later.

In addition to some great villains, there’s an intriguing mystery for Holmes to solve. The courier passed off his document to an unsuspecting fellow passenger on the train ride from New York to Washington, but no one knows which passenger it was. Like in The Secret Weapon, there’s a race between Holmes and the Germans to find the recipient and the document first. And when that’s done, there’s a showdown in the villains’ hideout, an atmospheric antique shop complete with hidden rooms.

The only thing that bugged me about the movie was Holmes’ naked admiration of the wonders of the United States. As a pair of G-Men usher Homes and Watson around DC, Holmes expresses awe at the monuments and buildings. He even makes a passionate, little speech at the end of the movie, something that’s become a habit for him in these films. I understand the patriotism of the wartime filmmakers and audience; it just seems out of character for Holmes. Though perhaps not as out of character for Rathbone’s version as I might hope. After all, this is the Holmes who expressed appreciation for Poe’s detective novels in Voice of Terror, an approval that Doyle’s Holmes explicitly did not have. In general, Rathbone’s Holmes is far more agreeable than the literary one.

And it’s interesting to me that though I didn’t care for Holmes’ enthusiastic admiration of the US, it felt right and pleasant with Watson. I loved watching Nigel Bruce enjoy a malt and chuckle over Flash Gordon in the paper. It’s extremely likely that this says more about me as a child of the post-Vietnam era than it does about this WWII movie, but I find Watson’s simple enjoyment of America’s pleasures more believable and endearing than Holmes’ eager patriotism. But does that mean that I’m not putting the work into it that I should as a viewer? Or just that the film is dated?


Christopher Mills said...

The difference between Voice Of Terror and the subsequent ones is the presence of Roy William Niell as producer and director.

Neill understood the character - and what was needed to make the character work on film (especially with the "B" budgets Universal stuck him with. Starting with the next film, the series mostly eschews the spy stuff and gets Holmes back primarily to detective work.

I am a huge fan of the Universal series, and its because of those WWII-era films that I was open-minded about the BBC's Sherlock.

Michael May said...

That makes perfect sense. I didn't even think to check the names of the guys in the charge to see if there was a difference. I'm all excited to see the next movie now!

Christopher Mills said...

While there are a few "clunkers" near the end of the run (IMO, Dressed To Kill and The Woman In Green are rather weak entries, although Woman contains a standout scene between Rathbone's Holmes & Henry Daniell as Moriarty), the overall quality of the Universal Holmes films under Roy William Neill's guidance is, generally speaking, damned good, especially considering that they were produced under the auspices of the studio's low-budget "B" Unit.

Faces Death, The Scarlet Claw, The House Of Fear and Terror By Night, in particular, are terrific B-mysteries, dripping with atmosphere and loaded with great acting by Universal's contract players.

I think you're going to really enjoy the rest of the series.


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