Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

From the earliest scenes in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death it’s apparent that the series has taken a turn for the better. Though the last couple of films (Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes in Washington) had figured out how to transport Holmes successfully into a spy setting, they were still spy movies and not the clever whodunits that I love Holmes for. Faces Death opens promisingly with a spooky, old, secret-filled mansion in Northumberland where the three squabbling siblings who own the place have converted it into a hospital for convalescing WWII officers.

The siblings’ bickering is mostly focused on the single sister, Sally Musgrave and her relationship with one of the patients, an American pilot. Controlling, older brother Geoffrey is vehemently opposed to the relationship and refuses to allow a marriage. Younger brother Phillip doesn’t seem to mind; he’s got other things on his mind, like how to get out from under Geoffrey’s bullying himself. I expected Geoffrey to get bumped off quickly, but the plot's not that simple. Instead, one of the hospital’s physicians, Dr. Sexton is attacked, suggesting a larger scheme than simple sibling rivalry.

Unfortunately for whoever’s behind the plot, Watson is also volunteering at the hospital and knows someone who may be able to figure out what’s going on. By the time Holmes arrives though, Geoffrey has been murdered and Inspector Lestrade called in. Complicating the case are a couple of scheming servants and the mental instability of some of the patients. There are also odd details like the village church’s clock striking thirteen the night before a Musgrave dies and a strange poem that’s ritually read at the funeral of Musgrave heirs. It’s all very weird and wonderful.

The poem and a couple of characters are borrowed from a Doyle short story, “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” in which a bizarre, ritualistic poem is revealed to be something else. That’s also the case in Faces Death, though the poem’s true purpose has changed slightly. In spite of the alterations though (and the twentieth-century setting), Faces Death feels like a real Holmes mystery, something the Rathbone series hasn’t done since Hound of the Baskervilles.

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