In which we discover Nancy Drew has been around for a long time, Basil and Nigel become “bros”, and Holmes...faces death.
Catharine has told Nick something which makes him very happy…
Nick: You told me something about Nigel Bruce which really made me smile and I would like to have this in writing so it may be forever preserved on the Internet.
Cat: Of course you would...anything for the good of the Internet: I told Nick the other day that, after watching the subject of today’s post, I’ve found it in my heart to actually like Nigel Bruce as Watson. I don’t know how, but he wormed his way in there somehow.
Nick: You don’t know how good that makes me feel. I told Catharine that she would come to love Nigel Bruce and so she has!
Cat: And so I have. I think it took time for me to understand and accept that he wasn’t going to be much of a badass. Sad as that makes me, I now feel a need to protect the bumbling child that he is. (And, contrary to what you might be thinking, Nick didn’t play any part in this change of heart. He was very good about letting me come to my own conclusion!)
Nick: Yes. Let it be known that I did not convince Catharine to say that in any way. She is praising the one and only Nigel Bruce on her own accord. Well, Nigel I think fares pretty well in today’s feature so I say that we ought to dive right in…
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Major motion picture
Starring Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade), Arthur Margretson (Dr. Sexton), Hillary Brooke (Sally Musgrave)
68 minutes, black-and-white
Nick: So, to put it mildly, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death couldn’t be more dissimilar to the previous Sherlock Holmes in Washington. The latter, a slick, fast-moving very modern story has almost nothing in common with the atmospheric and creepy mystery which this film presents us. It’s clear that the “Nazi Trilogy” is over. And, though I do have a soft spot for some of those early movies, I think this middle section of Rathbone’s tenure as Holmes which begins here, are by far his best movies.
Cat: It was just awesome. I’m not going to try to even mildly cover up my enjoyment for this movie. It was just really, really awesome and brilliant and I just really really liked it.
Nick: I don’t think anyone will hold your enthusiasm against you. Well, onto actual discussion points: This movie’s tone. My goodness is it great! I love the creepy, old-dark-haunted-house vibe which you get from this movie. It’s so atmospheric. It really gets under your skin. Universal specialized in haunted house horror movies of this kind, but this one feels superior to be completely honest.
Cat: Agreed. In my opinion, it really added to the actual mystery going on as well. There was something about that house and that family that always kept you guessing… And I should just say now that I love mysteries like that. This one was really fun to both sit back and enjoy, but also try to “play along at home” with.
Nick: So true. There’s some vaguely Clue-esque about this movie what with the assorted personalities in the mansion (with a few secret passages) and an assortment of murder weapons. It’s really unlike anything out of the Holmes Canon (despite the fact that this movie is based on the story “The Musgrave Ritual”) and more like...I don’t know how to describe it. You likened it to Nancy Drew which I thought was spot on. (By the way, did you know that Nancy Drew first appeared in print in 1930! I didn’t know that.)
|Nancy Drew has been around FOREVER|
Cat: Neither did I, actually! (Shows what I know…) But yes, it felt very Nancy Drew-esque to me. And it didn’t even remind me of the general character of the Nancy Drew stories; it felt a lot like one of the computer games (which I love). I could list out scenes that could have been translated into puzzles you would’ve had to complete and probably get so frustrated that you cheat a little bit with by looking at a walkthrough. (I’m referring, of course, to the chess board scene, but we’ll get to that later.) I personally think that strong similarity to something that I’ve enjoyed for a while might have biased my opinion of the movie a tiny bit, but it truly worked to the film’s advantage here.
Nick: I have no knowledge of the Nancy Drew computer games (I am severely lacking in Nancy Drew knowledge despite a love for all things mystery) but I can certainly understand how that might have made you like this one quite a bit. Sometime I’ll have to share my experiences with the Sherlock Holmes computer games I’ve come across. Anyhow, the other really great thing about this movie is its tone. It is REALLY creepy. I love all the talk about ghosts.
Cat: Ghost stories are always fun, no matter the situation. Add Sherlock Holmes into the mix and they get significantly cooler. The creepiness and general feeling of unease that lingers around the movie is really fun and it starts to make you wonder whether or not there is a ghost causing trouble…
|Ghosts and blood-sniffing ravens...|
Nick: I love the talk about the different ghosts haunting the different parts of the house (and how Brunton the butler is so well up on what parts of the house each one haunts). The other thing which always sticks in my mind when watching this movie is the clock which strikes 13 times foretelling death. So creepy and ominous...and a really big plothole. It’s never explained why the clock does that. Maybe the ghosts are real…
Cat: Or they just have some really bizarre clocks that they should probably get looked at. (I’m more in favor of the ghost theory though. It’s more fun.) Though that does beg the question (in my mind, at least): how exactly does one make a clock strike thirteen times, in general? Is it hard to do or to engineer a clock that does that regularly (as opposed to just for the purpose of foretelling death)? I’m asking the real questions here, obviously.
Nick: You never cease to ask questions which I cannot adequately answer Catharine. As to the ghosts being real...that really has no place in the ultra-rational world of Sherlock Holmes which is a problem which a lot of Sherlock Holmes fans have with this movie. I am more willing to overlook it than some because I feel like there’s enough merit here.
Cat: Asking out-there questions is one of my special skills. I can see why that would bug people, but I also can overlook it. It didn’t feel like it was really focused on once things became more rational and the mystery was unraveled, which I think helped a lot. And, to be honest, I can live with a bit of the unknown in my Sherlock Holmes media. I do understand why some people would detest it, but I think it’s kind of fun when there are some things left unresolved or open-ended. After all, that’s how it is in the real world sometimes, and though some would argue the fact, Sherlock Holmes is not God and just because he is ultra-logical does not necessarily mean the world around him is.
Nick: Well put...and good work for tying Sherlock Holmes Faces Death into the cold, harsh reality of the real world. Well, I say that we move onto the people of this drama because the characters are great. And, I suggest that we begin with Nigel Bruce because he’s actually rather competent this time around (or at least more so than usual.)
Cat: You know, I wonder if that helped confirm my appreciation of him at all? Because he is actually very competent in this! Well. He’s still no great genius, but you get to see him in his element in the beginning of the film where he’s taking care of people, and I thought it was really sweet because he was really good at it. And I think this was a great movie that showcased the insanely incredible on-screen chemistry between him and Basil Rathbone.Words can’t describe how much I loved the brief scene where they reunited in Baker Street!
Nick: They are especially good in this movie. Rathbone’s Holmes is (for the lack of a better word) sort of grumpy in this movie so Bruce’s softer, more comforting Watson really suits the bill here. And I agree that it’s great to see Watson in his element as a doctor here. I once heard an interview with a Sherlock Holmes author and expert and he said one of the reasons he loathed Nigel Bruce’s Watson is that it made no sense to him why Holmes would let “an idiot” write down the accounts of his adventures. And, Bruce’s Watson is hardly the brightest bulb in the pack, but he’s surely no idiot in this movie. His medical knowledge comes in handy more than once. (Oh, and about that reuniting scene in Baker Street; any time we get to see Holmes shoot holes in the walls is a lot of fun.)
|Friends! Chums! Comrades! Pals! (And other synonyms!)|
Cat: It was just adorable! They were such PALS! I couldn’t keep the smile off my face the entire scene, honestly. And though I do see that point, Holmes and Watson have always had a nice balance where he finds something endearing in his idiodicy. I think that’s one of the many things that makes them work, really. Either way, I loved it. I totally ate it up. They’re the original bros.
Nick: They really are...Interesting bit of information here. The actress who plays Sally Musgrave (Hillary Brooke) had already appeared in one of the Sherlock Holmes films with Rathbone and Bruce. She had the part of their driver in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. She would be back to play the titular Woman in Green (1945). (Also, that scene where she’s almost struck by lightning - it’s so weird but pretty creepy.)
Cat: Really? I didn’t even pick up on that!
Nick: But, I think the real scene-stealer of this movie is Halliwell Hobbs as Brunton, the drunken butler. He is fantastic in this movie. Hobbs more-or-less made a career out of playing butlers but his performance here is great.
Cat: Agreed. He was absolutely hilarious. I do love fun butler characters like him, and he never failed to amuse with every second he was on screen.
Nick: Okay...well,we’re kind of ignoring the elephant in the room: The Musgrave Ritual itself and the subsequent game of human chess which I believe is one of this film’s greatest bits. It’s really ingenious and I just love the way that that scene plays out as Holmes has each of the characters assume the role of a chess piece to act out the Ritual. It’s very clever.
Cat: Indeed it is. This was the one scene that I could see translating perfectly to a ND computer game, by the way. It was really nifty, really. Though it does make you wonder, are all floors with black and white tiles secretly chessboards? (I think so.) But what if the family had decided to redecorate the whole house and change the flooring at some point in history? What if the ritual became meaningless? I think that was a really risky way to ensure this important message got passed down through the generations, to be entirely honest. But it did make it possible for the audience (namely, us) to enjoy Sherlock Holmes orchestrating a human game of chess. That was cool.
Nick: Well, the ritual of this movie is quite different than the Canonical ritual (no references to chess in the original) so when we get around to a closer adaptation of the story you’ll see how what you just brought up is addressed. And, moving on from the chess match we get the very exciting finale in the crypt beneath the house. As the newcomer who had never seen this movie before, I want to know your reaction to that climax!
|Sherlock Holmes (quite literally) Faces Death|
Cat: I am not exaggerating when I say that I was literally on the edge of my seat! When Watson got distracted from his post (as expected), where I would normally roll my eyes, I actually got concerned for his safety! (That’s when I really, really knew that I had warmed up to him.) I thought the whole thing was just a fine example of Holmes’s genius at work though. As usual, I didn’t see who the culprit was coming (though I did find it odd when Dr. Sexton used a very specific chess reference during the human chess game after proclaiming to know nothing about chess) - HOWEVER, I did have a minor heart attack when he showed his true colors and attempted to shoot the Sherlock Holmes! Of course I knew he wasn’t going to actually be dead or seriously injured, but STILL! Seeing Basil Rathbone fall to the ground like that physically pained me!! Tell me I’m not alone in this, Nick!
Nick: I had the exact same reaction when I saw this movie for the first time forever ago. I knew that Holmes wasn’t dead but my heart was still in my throat seeing him appear to be shot. That whole confrontation between Dr. Sexton and Holmes in the crypt was really well done and it even included a flashback or two (I love movies which include flashbacks - especially when they come in the the revealing of clues to a mystery). Overall, it was just a really exciting ending.
Cat: It really was. I also really loved how you could tell that Holmes had some kind of a plan in motion when he was talking to Sexton too, with the way that he sounded like he was pleading for his life but you knew he wasn’t. It was awesome to see that all play out. Though seeing Basil Rathbone almost get shot will forever scar me, because wow was that hard to watch. But it was really just an awesome conclusion to an awesome movie, in my opinion.
It’s time for Final Thoughts:
Nick: Since she has sort of already alluded to her overall thoughts in the above paragraph, I say Cat should give Final Thoughts first.
Cat: Oh boy, what haven’t I said about this movie so far? It was just a really, really fun movie, and I loved it. It was different from the other Sherlock Holmes movies we’ve watched so far. It might be a bit early to say this, but it’s definitely going to be one of my favorites, I’m almost sure of that. I loved the tone of the movie and the character interactions and that climax was really what did it for me, honestly. It. Was. Awesome. Nick, your thoughts?
Nick: I am a big fan of this movie. I love the tone; the creepiness factor is great and it really helps set this movie apart from the others in the series (even the subsequent creepy Holmes films have a very different vibe). Rathbone and Bruce are great together (as always) and every aspect of this movie just fits seamlessly together. I may always have a soft spot for some of the early Rathbone/Bruce films but this is the movie where the series really started getting especially good. How many deerstalkers would you give this one?
Cat: This one is a definite 4.5 deerstalkers from me. It just rocked, honestly. What about you, Nick?
Nick: I’m going to give it 4 out of 5. This one’s really good. And I’m certainly glad that you liked this one so much because that means that the next few films in the series will be right up your alley!
Cat: Yay! I’m so excited! I know you’re excited to get to Peter Cushing, Nick, but I can’t stress how content I am to stay in Basil-Rathbone-and-Nigel-Bruce Land.
Nick: In a word: Fantastic!
Next Time: A female Moriarty...well, sort of...we haven’t gotten to Elementary quite yet.