*. This is the sixth of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (the first two were produced by 20th Century Fox, so this was the fourth by Universal, in case you’re confused by the commentary). If you’d been following along you’d be forgiven for thinking that the series was going downhill. And if you had such lowered expectations, you’d be in for a pleasant surprise, as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is one of the best.
*. The source, again adapted very freely, is the story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” (earlier adapted by a French company as Le Trésor des Musgraves). This is a good sign, as it heralds a return to the canon. Holmes is no longer fighting Nazi spies, as he’d been in the immediately previous films. As David Stuart Davies on the commentary track notes, Sherlock Holmes in Washington was “the least successful and the least liked of all the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies” so the right decision was made to get back to basics.
*. What the basics meant was an old-fashioned murder mystery set in a country manor full of eccentric suspects. It also meant that Holmes would be shown analysing the evidence and coming to conclusions using his famed powers of deduction. This is a real detective movie, and all the stronger for it.
*. The country manor is a rest home for allied officers, but aside from that the war isn’t mentioned. Instead, in Davies’ nice turn of phrase, the film “slips into a cozy time warp.” “Cozy” being the name given to a whole genre of domestic mystery novels that this film fits in with pretty well.
*. That time warp effect is also the effect of this being a Universal production. The Universal horrors all seemed to be set in a vague fantasy land, and here we’re in the same generic back lot that looks less like Northumberland than it does Romania. Not that it matters, since the same set was Wales in The Wolf Man. And even the Musgrave crypt is the same crypt set from Dracula. Reuse and recycle.
*. I’ve had occasion before to remark on the really poor job of subtitling done for the DVD release of these films (see my notes on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon). I don’t know why they’re so bad, since UCLA did a fine job of restoration and the DVD Complete Collection set is very nice. But in this entry they’re the worst yet. In the first place they’re very poorly synchronized, and in the second they are widly, sometimes amusingly, inaccurate. Brunton, for example, describes Geoffrey and his sister going at it “hammer and tongues.” “Mrs. Miniver” becomes “Mrs. Minivar.” In Sally’s recitation of the ritual the line “What foeman advanced? The bishop’s page, brashly” is rendered as “[inaudible] in advanced the bishop’s page brashly.” “Anno domini” becomes “domino” (with no “anno”). Finally, I believe when Sexton calls the Musgraves “lamb poor” (what it reads in the subtitles) what he really says is “land poor.” At least that makes more sense, as I’ve never heard the expression “lamb poor.”
*. Yes, I watch movies with the subtitles on. I’m getting old and can’t catch everything that’s being said. Though I think I could have made better guesses than those that were made by someone here.
*. The supporting cast, mainly made up of a stable of actors who appeared (in different roles) in a lot of these movies, is excellent. I have to single out Halliwell Hobbes as the butler Brunton however. Hobbes often played butlers and, like Rathbone and Bruce, he had the role down pat. Everybody here just seems so much more comfortable than they did in the earlier movies. That’s part of the coziness too.
*. The presentation is terrific. There’s an art in moving from page to screen, and this movie is a great example of how it’s done. The outline of Conan Doyle’s story is made into movie material by making it more visual and even auditory. There are so many examples of this: the chessboard floor and game of chess (not in the story), the thirteen chimes, the use of the false flashback, the way the raven discovers the body in the boot of the car, and the foregrounding of physical clues like the glove, the shoe, the rake, and the knitting needle. Sure most of these are red herrings, but the movie forces you to watch.
*. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Davies that the movie runs out of steam at the end. I think most people have figured things out by the final reel and it does seem like they’re just trying to stretch it out. I’d also agree with Davies that the murderer turns out to be “one of the most colourless villains ever to pit himself against Sherlock Holmes”. He is a bit disappointing.
*. Then there’s the closing homily, with Holmes telling us that “the old days of grab and greed are on their way out.” You know, in 1943 I think a lot of people honestly thought that way. And they probably did for a while after. Today it all seems so hokey. That’s our loss.
*. So a bit of a weak ending, but overall it’s one of the better films of this series. It’s not often a franchise manages to turn itself around like this. There were still a lot more movies ahead, but at least now they were on the right track.