Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (Graham King Productions, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a recent download from archive.org, a 1938 British film called Sexton Blake and the Hidden Terror. Released as The Hidden Terror for U.S. television because presumably no one in this country would identify with the character Sexton Blake — who proved to be a stone ripoff of Sherlock Holmes, complete with Baker Street address (I joked that Fleet Street was the home of the London press and Baker Street must have been the home of London’s private detective industry), silly-ass assistant Tinker (Tony Sympson), chancy relations with Scotland Yard in general and Inspector Bramley (Norman Pierce) in particular, and Moriarty-like adversary Michael Larron (Tod Slaughter), a.k.a. “The Snake,” who runs a secret criminal organization of worldwide reach and scope. This bare recycling of Holmes was the product of author Pierre Quiroule, whose story “The Mystery of Caversham Square” (I don’t think such an address actually exists, though it certainly sounds British) provided the basis for A. R. Rawlinson’s script.

The film starts in China, where Paul Duvall (Bradley Watts) arranges to meet Granite Grant (David Farrar, the hunky male lead from Black Narcissus but here, alas, his part ends after the first three minutes!) in a hotel room, but two Chinese thugs waylay Grant and beat and stab him within an inch of his life — though he survives, he’s going to be laid up in a Chinese hospital for the next six months and that means he can’t take the steamer to Britain to warn Sexton Blake (Gordon Harker, usually a comedian but surprisingly good in a Holmes-knockoff role) about the activities of “The Snake,” an international criminal mastermind, and the upcoming meeting of “The Snake” and his principal associates scheduled to take place in London. Duvall tells Grant he’ll go to London and contact Blake, but the gang traces him to Blake’s live-work space and kills him with a poisoned dart through the open window of Blake’s apartment (yet another reason for all private investigators to keep their damned windows closed!). Blake doesn’t get to see Duvall alive, though Tinker does, and Blake eventually recovers a blank piece of paper and a pen with clear ink, from which he deduces that Duvall was carrying a message written in invisible ink ­— which, when Blake deciphers it, gives him latitude and longitude coordinates for Caversham Square in London. Only there’s a slip-up because Larron a.k.a. The Snake disguises himself as a minster, gets into Blake’s room and puts Tinker out of commission with a drugged cigar (I’m not making this up, you know!), not removing the paper (lest Blake get suspicious when he returns) but altering one letter in the clue to lead Blake on a wild-goose chase.

Blake eventually turns up at Caversham Square and picks up the password to be let into the Snake’s quarters for the board meeting of the “Black Quorum,” the name of his association, but he’s caught and thrown into a couple of traps from which he has to extricate himself. The plot also encompasses stamp collecting, which was to Sexton Blake what beekeeping was to Sherlock Holmes; Blake meets Larron, in his regular identity, at a stamp auction along with Max Fleming (Charles Oliver) and several other internationally renowned stamp collectors — and we’re evidently supposed to believe that the world’s leading stamp collectors collectively constitute the Black Quorum. The Quorum members wear black robes and hoods during their meetings, though one wonders why since in the middle of their session Larron has them doff the hoods so they can see his TV security system (the stuff of science fiction in 1938 and the stuff of everyday reality now), so he’s not trying to remain incognito from his associates the way his super-villain predecessors and prototypes, Moriarty and Mabuse, were.

Sexton Blake and the Hidden Terror is derivative as all get-out but it’s close enough to the sources it was ripping off that it’s still a fun, entertaining movie, and there’s a nice ambiguous role for Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt), who’s dating both Blake and Fleming and who tells Fleming she wants to crash the villains’ hideout for “thrills.” To absolutely no one’s surprise (no one in the audience, that is), at the end of the film she’s revealed as a secret agent for the French police. The film was competently produced and directed by Graham King, and he and his cast seem to have been aware of the story’s triviality and managed to avoid taking it too seriously while also keeping it from becoming total camp. The print we were watching was also in much better shape technically than most of what we’ve seen from archive.org, and there’s one really quirky bit of casting: Julie’s maid is played by Karen Marie Flagstad, sister of the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad and a singer and pianist in her own right.