Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I finally did watch was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, made at 20th Century-Fox in 1939 and a follow-up to The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Basil Rathbone playing Holmes for the second time and getting the top billing he deserved: Ida Lupino as the damsel in distress, Ann Brandon, was second, Nigel Bruce as Watson was third and Alan Marshal as Ann’s solicitor (in the British sense, meaning a business attorney) and boyfriend, was fourth. Most of the behind-the-camera talent changed for this one — the director was Alfred Werker (no great shakes but with more of a sense of atmosphere than Sidney Lanfield), the script was by Edwin Blum and Richard Drake (it was ostensibly based on the play Sherlock Holmes, written by American actor William Gillette — the first person to play Holmes in any medium — from an original draft by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but the plot of the movie has almost nothing to do with the Gillette play) and Leon Shamroy replaced J. Peverell Marley as the cinematographer (Shamroy was most famous for his elaborately decorative color film, but he proves here he could be just as much a master of atmosphere in black-and-white) — though Richard Day and Hans Peters remained the art directors and they were absolutely first-rate in creating a convincing visual evocation of Victorian London (where the setting of this film remains instead of taking any run-outs to the countryside like The Hound of the Baskervilles).

If pressed, I’d list this as my all-time favorite Holmes film (though if the tasteless first half-hour of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes were excised, the remaining hour and a half would give it serious competition) despite a script of almost demented complexity and levels of confusion. Indeed, at the very beginning of the movie Professor Moriarty (George Zucco, one of the two best actors ever to play the role — Lionel Atwill, in a subsequent Rathbone Holmes film called Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, was the other) manages to win acquittal in a murder trial (Holmes arrives at the courtroom with new evidence definitively proving Moriarty’s guilt but he’s too late — the jury’s verdict has already been recorded and Moriarty has been released) and announces that he will get his revenge against Holmes by planning such a dramatic and far-reaching crime that Holmes will be embarrassed into retirement by his failure to prevent it. Before chewing out his butler, Dawes (Frank Dawson), for having failed to water his precious plants and thereby letting at least one of them die (“You have murdered a flower — and for merely murdering a man I was locked in a filthy cell for months and nearly hanged,” Moriarty says, neatly summing up his twisted priorities), he tells his lieutenant Bassick (Arthur Hohl) that he’s going to give Holmes “two toys” in a particular order: the first is a letter to Sir Ronald Ramsgate (Henry Stephenson) threatening to steal the Star of Delhi, on its way from India to take its place in the Tower of London with the other crown jewels; and the second is an enigmatic drawing, mailed to Ann Brandon’s brother Lloyd (Peter Willes), showing a man with an albatross around his neck (an image from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) with a date on it that’s ten years to the day after Ann’s and Lloyd’s father died mysteriously.

The idea is that Moriarty has dropped the fantastically complicated (because he’s framed it to be so) Brandon case in Holmes’ lap after threatening to steal the Star of Delhi so Holmes will lose interest in protecting the crown jewels and Moriarty will be able to sneak into the Tower in the hubbub over his attempt to steal the Star of Delhi (for which he disguises himself as a policeman) and help himself to the crown jewels at his leisure. The plot is full of ridiculous holes — like how and why, if the entire Brandon plot line is just Moriarty’s feint to distract Holmes from his real crime, Brandon père got that mysterious drawing, identical to the current one, ten years earlier (were we supposed to believe Moriarty was planning that far ahead?) — but it doesn’t matter that this movie makes very little sense because it’s all so superbly atmospheric: Blum and Drake plant all sorts of haunting gimmicks in their script (notably a lovesick South American who plays a mournful melody on a low flute and murders Ann’s brother Lloyd with a bolo; he also wears a cleverly designed orthopedic shoe to make it look like he has a club foot, even though he doesn’t; there’s also an engaging red herring when Moriarty is seeing going into Jerrold Hunter’s office — merely a blind, as it turns out, but it makes both Watson and us wonder if the two are in league) and Werker and Shamroy take full advantage of them.

Werker has the 20th Century-Fox fog machines going even faster and harder than they did in the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles, and quite a few scenes — especially towards the end of the film — start out in total darkness before some flash of light (usually Holmes lighting a cigarette — Rathbone smokes quite a few cigarettes in this film as well as the canonical Holmes pipe) starts illuminating what’s going on. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes stands out among Holmes films because of the absolute rightness of Rathbone’s casting in the role (he looks like the Holmes of Sidney Paget’s illustrations to the original publication of Conan Doyle’s stories in The Strand, and no actor before or since has looked so good in the full-figure profile shots of Holmes in deerstalker, long coat and curved pipe in his mouth; his authoritative manner and ringing voice are also utterly right for the part, he’s at home as both cerebral thinker and action hero, and as I’ve written here before — paraphrasing the opening of the Conan Doyle Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia” — to me, Basil Rathbone will always be the Sherlock Holmes), the plot’s potential for haunting Gothic imagery and thrills, Ida Lupino’s performance (she plays the part quite incisively and offers considerably more than the usual decorative damsel-in-distress) and an overall flavor that may depart considerably from the letter of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but remains true to his spirit.