The Spider Woman (1943)

*. The Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes pairing made just before this one, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (released only three months earlier), had put the franchise back on an even keel. That is to say, it brought back a more canonical Holmes, with less of the contemporary business of fighting Nazi spies. We’re still in 1940s England here, but the war is, as it was in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, only background.
*. So fans could go to The Spider Woman expecting a good time. I think very few would be disappointed. There’s so much to enjoy. Here are some highlights.
*. Item one: The pyjama suicides! There’s a headline you don’t see every day.
*. Item two: A great big spider! And not only that, but one whose venom makes men in pyjamas jump out of high windows or shoot themselves.
*. Item three: A creepy kid. What’s with little Larry? Is he really mute? I know he’s just being used as a red herring by Adrea, but his taking his shoes and socks off while sitting on Watson’s lap still seems weird. And why is he fixated on flies? I wonder if he’s Adrea’s secret love child.

*. Item four: a candy wrapper that gives off a deadly gas when tossed in the fireplace!
*. Item five: “that creature in the suitcase.” Meaning a pygmy (not a real pygmy but a dwarf in blackface). We don’t actually see him do anything, but I guess he had a role to play in Adrea’s traveling freak show.
*. Item six: the indirect showdown between Holmes (in disguise as Rajni Singh, a character refreshingly not played as a racial stereotype) and Adrea Spedding (the “female Moriarty”). I’ll confess to having a real affection for scenes like this, where two intelligent characters who are both playing a game, face off against each other, with both being fully aware of the game the other is playing. Encounters like this are so rich in drama, and this one is played wonderfully.
*. Item seven: a dastardly plot to get rid of Holmes that shows “a certain amount of imagination,” and is (pace Holmes) inspired as well as ingenious. Holmes will be presented behind a target of Hitler in a shooting gallery, with a hole cut out over his heart so that an unknowing Watson will be his executioner!
*. All of this in just over an hour! And if you’re a real Holmes fan you can even try to spot where different parts of the story come from, as the script incorporates a number of elements borrowed from various sources.
*. If I don’t rate it as high as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death or some of the other films in the series it’s because it really does feel like a trifle. Gale Sondergaard makes a wonderful foil for Holmes, but even she seems to treat the whole thing as a lark. We know she’s going to have no trouble at all getting away from Lestrade, what with that mischievous smile she gives him. The game will soon be afoot again. And what a great game it is!

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