Posts Tagged ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’

The Sherlockian films starring Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson seemed to be on all the time when I was young, but they seem to have fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years – one can only hope that the fulsome praise lavished on them by Moffat and Gatiss, and the credit they’re given as an influence on Sherlock, will bring them to the attention of a younger audience.

One with more to interest this constituency than most is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, made in 1939 and directed by Alfred Werker. This was the second Basil Rathbone Holmes film, and the last to take place in anything approximating a period setting (the Second World War, which entered the public consciousness in the same week as this movie’s release, would prove to have an influence on Rathbone’s subsequent Holmesian career).

Anyway: it all kicks off in the London of 1894 with the nefarious Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) in the dock, accused of murder. Sherlock Holmes knows he’s guilty. The jury know he’s guilty. The judge knows he’s guilty. (Moriarty knows he’s guilty too, but sensibly keeps his mouth shut.) But there’s no proof, and being upstanding, cricket-loving British folk they are obliged to let him go. Holmes arrives on the scene with evidence just after the nick of time has passed, and the two arch-enemies share a pleasant cab ride.

Holmes confesses to Moriarty he’d like to extract his brain and donate it to science. Moriarty takes this rather well and in turn confesses to Holmes that he’s getting bored of life as a master criminal – he’s going to commit one more really big crime, so audacious and shocking that its success will destroy Holmes, and then retire to spend more time with his algebra.

And so the stage is set – however, and I’m by no means the first to point this out, at this point the structure of the film turns out to have a serious flaw in it. Moriarty’s plan, which is as fiendishly clever as his rep would lead one to expect, is to carry out a major but relatively dull crime (stealing the crown jewels – see what I mean about the Sherlock connections?), having first ensured that Holmes is looking the wrong way by throwing a really macabre and weird mystery into his lap that’s of no special significance.

It’s this story that takes up the bulk of the film, and it concerns Ida Lupino as a troubled young woman, her possibly-dodgy lawyer fiance, lucky chinchilla feet, Andean funeral chants and a bolas-wielding Inca gaucho hitman with a club foot. Although original to the play this movie is based on (written by William Gillette, the first Sherlock to wear a deerstalker), this plot is authentically Doylean in both its atmosphere and many of its details.

On the other hand, we’re always aware that it’s nothing more than a very intricate blind contrived by Moriarty and as a result it never completely engrosses. Holmes, obviously, also figures this out, but quite how – other than because the script requires it – is never made clear. The whole climax of the film has a slightly rushed and perfunctory air about it, which is shame given how lavishly solidly its opening section is.

But never mind, there is much to enjoy here – Basil Rathbone’s dynamic, rather genial Detective, Nigel Bruce’s pompous and slightly petulant but still rather endearing Watson, and George Zucco’s silkily sinister Moriarty. Moriarty is revealed to have a touch of the green fingers on this appearance, which somehow doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s hardly a major element.

One serious plot-hole doesn’t get mentioned – the bizarre death Moriarty arranges as a distraction for Holmes is, apparently, eerily similar to one which occurred ten years previously. Now, does this just mean Moriarty really plans ahead? Or does he just keep up with the True Crime section of his local bookshop, where he read about this crime and figured out how to replicate it? The other alternative is for him to borrow HG Wells’ time machine and pop back to do it himself – not quite as implausible as it sounds, given that the film’s most off-the-wall moment has a heavily disguised Basil Rathbone performing a high-energy song-and-dance version of ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’ (for no reason required by the plot), a song not written until 1907.

Different people want different things from their Holmes adaptations, whether that means painstaking accuracy to the canon, scintillating plotting and dialogue, or broad character comedy and visual pyrotechnics. The virtues of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes lie in its broadly faithful performances and characterisations, its convincing period setting, the atmosphere Werker creates, and its breezy pace. There have been much bigger and more colourful Sherlock Holmes movies, but few which have combined fun with fidelity with quite such success.

Read Full Post »