*. Our visions of heaven and an afterlife fill a need. In the aftermath of the First World War seances and spirit-rapping became a popular way of communicating with the next world. In the next global conflagration there was a similar need to believe in an afterlife, however cloudy and generic. The play, Heaven Can Wait, had come out in 1938, but had never been produced. It had suggested the coming conflict though, and the movies latched on to the idea of an afterlife in a big way a few years later when so many young people were dying.
*. During wartime there was a need for this movie’s comforting message of a strictly non-demoninational, indeed non-religious, afterlife promising that “in the final reckoning everything will be accounted for” and “eventually all things work out, there’s design in everything.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? (Oddly enough, the Breen Office objected to any suggestion of predestination in the script, which led to some tweaking.)
*. That’s not the world we live in any more, but the sentimental whimsy of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has never gone out of style. There have been various remakes and spin-offs, including most famously the 1978 Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait (which, as noted above, was the original title of the play, and not to be confused with the 1943 film Heaven Can Wait, which was something completely different).
*. Then again, it’s hard to date a film so non-specific in its setting. There’s no mention of a war going on, and the wings the angels wear look more like airline logos than military decorations. Meanwhile, heaven itself is, as already noted, a not very religious place. Everyone’s welcome! Nobody’s going to judge you.
*. Even the presentation is generic. Farran Smith Nehme in the Criterion essay calls Alexander Hall’s direction “unobtrusive to the point of invisibility.” There’s just nothing here to upset, or offend, or get in the way of a good time.
*. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it’s a story where actions seem to have no consequences. Yes, Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) actually survives that opening plane crash! Did he bail out? Does Joe not know anything about business? That doesn’t matter, making money is all about having a good heart. Honest! And if Farnsworth Enterprises goes bust, who really cares? Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s wife and secretary are scheming adulterous murderers, but they almost get away with it (and I’ll bet at least one of them will beat the rap). And finally when Joe/Murdoch is shot in the ring during his championship fight no one notices! Apparently he is shot right in the chest too! But I guess there are no lingering health effects for Murdoch.
*. So even leaving aside the whacky body-hopping premise this would still be a very silly movie. And yet it’s so resolutely optimistic and inoffensive, and put forth so smoothly (thanks mainly to the deep cast of character actors), that it defies you not to be charmed. Who would want to resist? The secret of such a film is that it’s selling what we want to buy. The war was just another thing that didn’t really matter, and it’s Christmas in heaven.
*. This is nice. The Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes movies had been going downhill, but in this last entry they managed to pull it together and go out on a high note. It’s not one of their best efforts, but it’s a solid entertainment.
*. It’s also a darker film. There’s no Lestrade, and the comic parts for Watson are kept to a minimum. His bumbling comes in handy on a couple of occasions but in general there’s less broad humour and more nastiness. Like the bad guys who try to do away with Holmes by using the same gas that the Germans are said to have used to remove undesirables.
*. The original title was Prelude to Murder, which would have been good. Dressed to Kill is snazzy but apparently critics found it meaningless. On the commentary track, however, Richard Valley sees it as clearly referring to the well-dressed villainess Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison). That’s good enough for me. A lot of noir film titles at the time were this generic and non-descriptive.
*. The costumes are certainly exotic, if not always deadly. I love the prison uniforms with their pointing arrows, which were actually used to mark the king’s property (the design was known as the King’s Broad Arrow). They seem like something out of Dr. Seuss. Also Seuss-like is the hat Hilda Courtney is wearing when she goes to the toy store. It’s quite inspired. There’s definitely a surreal note to these get-ups.
*. Sticking with wardrobe for just a second, I really like the way that Hilda’s fur stole is used in Stinky’s death. As he sinks to the floor he slowly pulls it from her shoulders. That’s a nice touch.
*. Another moment I enjoyed was watching Watson use the old-style fire extinguisher. It operates by way of a kind of pump action. I’d never seen a fire extinguisher like that before.
*. The plot is quite clever, even if it’s probably a lot more clever than it needed to be. This is the trap criminal masterminds are always falling into. They make things too difficult. I mean, the plan for getting rid of Holmes struck me as particularly weak, and the ease with which he escaped made it seem even weaker.
*. And so I bid adieu to a great detective and a great series of admittedly minor films. These were popular, generic movies shot quickly and on the cheap, but most of them succeed in passing the time with a minimum of mental friction.
*. Things are winding down. This is the penultimate Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce pairing as Holmes and Watson and clearly there wasn’t much left in the tank.
*. The previous film, Pursuit to Algiers, had Holmes and Watson on a ship trying to protect a young heir. Here they are on a train trying to protect a famous jewel. In both cases they are surrounded by suspicious characters, most of whom are red herrings. In both cases Holmes is out ahead of the villains’ plot, so that the film ends with a twist. Just when you think the bad guys have gotten away with it, it turns out that Holmes was waiting to spring a trap.
*. It’s a better film than Pursuit to Algiers. There’s no singing. Dennis Hoey is back as Inspector Lestrade. There’s a neat air pistol that fires poison darts. There’s actually a decent action sequence when someone tried to push Holmes off the train. These are all pluses.
*. The story, however, is weak. Spoiler alert: I’m still scratching my head as to how the master villain, Colonel Sebastian Moran, was able to pass himself off as an old friend of Watson’s. Just how old a friend was he? Was he a criminal genius when Watson knew him in the orient?
*. The villains are not an impressive bunch. Moran has an accomplice named Sands who just pops up at the end to make things work. Was the luggage guard in on the heist? How else did Sands get in and out of the coffin? And was Vivian Vedder really just a mule? She doesn’t seem too concerned about what was going on.
*. Sticking with Vivian, was Renee Godfrey trying to do a Scottish accent? I honestly couldn’t figure it out. It just sounds like she has a speech impediment.
*. Coming in at a tight 60 minutes I think this qualifies as a minor bit of fun. Aside from the country manor house there’s no better setting for these plots than a train. The story isn’t very interesting but it clicks along pleasantly with nowhere to go.
*. In the excellent DVD collection of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, Pursuit to Algiers doesn’t have a commentary track, but Holmes scholar David Stuart Davies does say a bit about it during his commentary on the previous film in the series, The Woman in Green. Specifically, he says that it is “certainly . . . the weakest of the whole twelve films.”
*. I can’t disagree. Pursuit to Algiers is a half-hearted effort with none of the interest of any of the previous instalments. The story is just a sketch combining a pair of plots on board a cruise ship. One has Holmes escorting the heir to some Ruritanian throne to his homeland and the other features an unwilling jewel smuggler.
*. Neither storyline is very interesting. The main one basically consists of a trio of hapless assassins who are consecutively foiled by Holmes. We are always a couple of steps ahead of them, and we know Holmes is too. By now the devices that Holmes uses are pretty stale, including the familiar one where he pretends to be dead, fooling everyone, including poor Watson.
*. Only just over 70 minutes and there are three musical numbers, including one by Nigel Bruce.
*. You have to be a huge fan of the series to want to bother with this one. Even so, I think it really is a disappointment. But if you keep your expectations low it may provide enough entertainment to fill a lazy hour.
*. I really like this series, but let’s be honest: The Woman in Green marks a significant downward turn.
*. A lot of it just seems slightly off. Let me give some examples.
*. First: As David Stuart Davies says on his DVD commentary, it’s a “rather dull title, bland and innocuous.” It’s also unexplained, since the only reference made to the colour of Hillary Brooke’s clothes is in her first scene where she’s said to be wearing purple. Also, why give her character the title? She’s very good, but she’s not the chief villain. She’s just one of Moriarty’s henchmen. The original title, Invitation to Murder, was better.
*. Second: We begin on an odd note. There have been a series of Jack the Ripper-style killings that seem a little grisly for a Holmes film. In fact, they had to tone the plot down because as originally written they were to be child murders. Then we note that Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade is missing, replaced by Inspector Gregson. And where is Watson? He puts in a very late appearance.
*. Davies says that they dropped Lestrade because they need a more sensible and sober policeman to introduce these violent crimes, and that Nigel Bruce’s Watson was kept back from these scenes for the same reason. I wonder if Hoey just wasn’t available. But then, I guess such a reading does make sense with regard to Watson. But I have trouble seeing anyone at the studio being this sensitive to such things in what was an assembly-line production.
*. Third: Moriarty’s plot is, as Davies notes, “unnecessarily fussy and complicated.” Such a criminal mastermind should have been able to come up with a far easier blackmail scheme than this hypnosis-and-mutilation business, which involves too much blood and too many extras. Even his plot to kill Holmes at the end, whatever pleasure he takes in it, is so contrived as to be silly. Almost as silly, I have to add, as how it is undone.
*. Fourth: the story, like Moriarty’s plot, is full of odds and ends that don’t fit together or that seem otherwise out of character. Holmes, for example, must have seen through the subterfuge of Moriarty’s prank call to get Watson out of the building, so why wasn’t he better prepared? He tells Moriarty later that he assumed that Watson was being put in danger, so what was his plan?
*. Another example is the scene where Watson is hypnotized. This is just “comic padding” (Davies) and again seems out of character for Holmes, who later has to disavow it. And as originally scripted it was supposed to be even worse, with Watson taking off his pants.
*. I like Henry Daniell well enough, but he doesn’t really have the panache I associate with Moriarty. He always looks so dour and glum.
*. Bruce liked playing Watson, and apparently wanted to keep the series going after Rathbone got sick of it, but I get the feeling he’s tired here, which is almost as bad as being bored. And the jokes are labored too.
*. I’m always impressed by actors who can hold their eyes open for long stretches without blinking. This may be because I’m a blinker myself. In any event, hats off to Coulter Irwin (credited as Tom Bryson) who plays the hypnotized Williams. I couldn’t stare open-eyed for half as long as he does in his big scene.
*. In the end I can’t agree with the opinion that this had the potential to be one of the best of the Holmes films. The original script, which only has a couple of borrowings from canonical stories, is a mess and I just got the feeling that the string had been played out. But the series still had three films to go.
*. By this point the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series was humming along nicely. They were, however, losing altitude. After a string of successes — Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of Death — The House of Fear is a bit of a let down.
*. It’s “based on” the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips.” At least that’s what it says in the credits. But it has absolutely nothing to do with that story aside from the business of orange seeds being sent to the victims just before they die. They don’t even keep the number of seeds the same since we start off with seven pips. And I couldn’t figure out why they were bothering sending such a warning in the first place.
*. I suppose few people today even know that a pip is a seed. It may have been a more widely used word in 1945, but The House of Fear was still a catchier title.
*. The actual plot is hard to follow. Something about an insurance scam. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through without a major payoff. But for sheer gruesomeness it’s pretty startling. The ghoulish way the killers cover their tracks must have raised a few eyebrows in 1945. Or maybe audiences back then weren’t shocked by the thought of people being blown to pieces, to the point where the only way of identifying them was by way of upper class dog tags like cufflinks and rings. There’s no direct mention of the war in this film, but it’s there all the same.
*. Speaking of gruesomeness, there’s a cut in this film that caught my attention. Right after discussion of the mutilated body found on the beach — one that has had its head, arms, and legs removed — and the observation that these limbs had been removed cleanly, as though by a surgeon, we cut immediately to a close-up shot of the suspicious Dr. Merrivale slicing the leg off a turkey.
*. That’s a cut (no pun intended, I’m talking about the edit) that has become a cliché, especially in horror films. You’ll see a gleaming knife held aloft, a woman screaming . . . and then there’s an immediate cut to another knife slicing into a birthday cake or a hunk of roast beef. It’s a clever little joke and seeing it done here made me wonder who did it first.
*. The House of Fear is a light bit of fun, but it doesn’t have a strong villain and the plot is confusing. There is a lot of familiar banter between the leads. The problem-solving involves following footprints in the sand and the discovery of a secret passageway. You can’t go wrong with the classics. Bruce’s Watson is played a little thicker than usual for comic effect. Lestrade shows up and (as usual) doesn’t help much, but he’s really part of the furniture now. You might as well just sit back and get comfortable here.
*. Now this is really something strange. Dead of Night is usually seen as being the first “anthology horror” film, consisting of a bunch of short stories embedded in a frame narrative. Hammer and Amicus would go on to make a lot of these, and in the U.S. there were the Corman-Poe movies in the ’60s and then Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, with more recently the V/H/S franchise. But I believe Dead of Night was the first, unless you want to go all the way back to Waxworks (1924).
*. What makes Dead of Night strange, however, is the fact that in addition to being the first horror anthology, it is also widely considered to be the best (Kwaidan being perhaps the only other contender). It’s not very often that that happens. You’d think that after inventing the genre somebody else would come along and eventually do it better. But that hasn’t happened.
*. I wonder why. I think in part it’s because nobody wanted to. What I mean by that is that this was a real outlier for Ealing, and even they didn’t do anything by way of a follow up. And when its other imitators arrived on the scene they were more interested in doing something cheaper and more sensational, basically adapting old comic books and pulp fiction rather than more literary sources. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just saying that I think Ealing were actually trying to make something really good (albeit on a very low budget), while later anthology-horror movies were content to aim lower.
*. As for what makes Dead of Night a better movie than Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow, I think you have to begin with the quality of the frame story. Let’s face it, usually these are only throwaways — perhaps nothing more than an introduction by the Creep or the Crypt-Keeper. The film Asylum actually had a good idea for a frame, but it’s an exception to the general rule.
*. The frame here is wonderful. It’s not just a frame but a story with its own building narrative, so that you actually like getting back to it and seeing how the psychiatrist is gradually becoming unsettled and how the architect’s uncanny “dream” is playing out. The climax, with the architect stumbling through all of the film’s collapsing threads only for the film to implode and reset, is brilliantly handled, leaving us with a sense of mundane dread as things start up again.
*. I can’t think of any other movie that has adopted the same perfect circularity. Of course Groundhog Day is about a man reliving the same day over and over, but that’s different. For one thing, his day can change, and he has total recall. Here we really feel like we’re in an Escher-like nightmare from which there’s no escape.
*. The individual stories probably seem a little tame by modern standards. To some degree they’re not even horror stories but more weird tales of the kind later popularized on The Twilight Zone (which is where some of them naturally wound up). I think they’re all well done though, and they build nicely from the initial hearse-driver story (which is really just a quickie with a punchline) to what is generally regarded as the best of the lot, with Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy.
*. If the final story gets the most love, the penultimate tale about the golfing buddies easily gets the most hate. Basically Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their Charters and Caldicott roles (introduced in The Lady Vanishes), for which they’d become famous. I actually didn’t mind it at all. It’s silly, but I think the film needed a change of pace after the intense haunted-mirror story, before taking us into the home stretch.
*. Martin Scorsese (placing it on his list of the scariest films of all time): “Like The Uninvited, it’s very playful . . . and then it gets under your skin.” It certainly does. Rather more than The Uninvited does.
*. It gets under your skin and it stays there. I don’t think anyone who has seen this film (and today it isn’t that easy to find) has forgotten it. It has that sort of effect, burrowing down into the mind like a screw, getting deeper with every revolution.
*. The Pearl of Death is one of a group of films in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series that are usually regarded as the best, including such highlights as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, and The Scarlet Claw.
*. The series starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, backed up by a stable cast that rotated in and out of the supporting parts. Of this particular sub-group of films all were directed by Roy William Neill and were shot one after the other on a tight schedule. Indeed, Neill was very busy at the time, also shooting Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in quick succession in the same two-year period. That was the assembly line for B pictures at Universal.
*. Despite being made on an assembly line, the Holmes films were turned out with not just professionalism but art, and they each have their unique and endearing features to go along with their recurring elements.
*. I suppose the best known thing about this film today is the debut of Rondo Hatton’s “Creeper” character. Hatton, who died just a couple of years after The Pearl of Death came out and whose other Creeper films were released posthumously, has gone on to become a bit of a tragic cult figure for fans of the Hollywood fringe. He even appeared in the Medved brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards book as a nominee for The P. T. Barnum Award for the Worst Cinematic Exploitation of a Physical Deformity (he didn’t win).
*. What I find remarkable is how unremarkable Hatton’s acromegaly seems today. The movie keeps him hidden in shadow or shot from behind until the final reveal, at which point one assumes contemporary audiences recoiled in horror. But in our own time his features don’t even shock. In part this is because we’re used to much more grotesque fare produced by latex masks and the like, but also because we’re familiar with this kind of facial structure from lovable actors like Andre the Giant. All the build-up (Holmes describes the Creeper as “a monster with the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla”) falls flat.
*. Nevertheless Hatton does play an important role, not so much in the plot as in balancing out the evil triumvirate. At the center is the weedy mastermind Giles Conover (Miles Mander), and on either side of him are his glamorous hench-lady (Evelyn Ankers, looking like she’s really enjoying herself in several parts that are played in disguise) and his muscle (Hatton). Both Mander and Ankers were series players.
*. Another nice addition here is that we get to see a lot more of Dennis Hoey’s comic Inspector Lestrade. He’s as much fun as Bruce’s Watson, though of a different flavour.
*. The plot stays relatively close to a source story, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” There are no very memorable set pieces, but the game of cat-and-mouse between Holmes and Conover is a lot of fun and the whole thing is put on with the usual polish and charm. That the series didn’t have anywhere much to go after this is a judgment we could make in hindsight, but at the time it must have seemed like the franchise was in good hands and on a creative roll.
*. Sherlock Holmes in Canada! And that was actually what they were going to call it — Sherlock Holmes in Canada — up until the day they started filming, when cooler heads prevailed. Imagine trying to fill theatres with a title like that, even if Canada is “the linchpin of the English-speaking world.”
*. I’m not sure why they wanted to set it in Canada, and specifically Quebec. As David Stuart Davies notes on his DVD commentary, the location is really just another example of Universal’s Neverland, a generic European village surrounded by foggy moors. And there aren’t even any French-Canadians except, presumably, for the Journets. So why bother?
*. Well, whatever the thinking was, here we are. Davies calls this “perhaps the most popular of the Universal series of Holmes movies” and picks it as his own “desert island” disc. I’d certainly consider it one of the most successful, up with The Hound of the Baskervilles (you get credit for being first), Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (the film immediately preceding this one) and The Pearl of Death (which was up next).
*. Davies also says that the reviews were not that positive. Mainly, he supposes, because franchise fatigue had set in. There may be a lesson there in our own age of franchise overstretch. It’s always possible that the next in a long run of diminishing sequels might be something good, but our expectations tend to lower as time goes by.
*. There was no direct link to any one Holmes story, but the proceedings are very similar to The Hound of the Baskervilles, most obviously with the “monster” haunting the moors being a figure covered in phosphorescent paint.
*. Despite such blatant borrowing, however, the elaborate story itself constitutes what is probably the best pure mystery of the series. There are clues, misdirections and red herrings, and I’ll confess I had the killer wrong several times before the final reveal. I shouldn’t feel bad though, as Ramson is the equal to Holmes in the art of concealment and dramatic flair.
*. The villain is in fact so clever here, and so consistently a step ahead of Holmes, that some critics found Holmes to be off his game. I don’t think that’s fair. He’s not a superhero, after all, and he’s at least on the right track most of the time.
*. The murder weapon is in fact a garden weeder. Really! That seemed rather weak to me, but it did remind me of the claw in Blood and Black Lace. I don’t think Bava was thinking of this film (if he had even seen it), but anything is possible.
*. I’ve remarked before on how hilariously bad the subtitling is for the restored version of these films issued as part of the DVD Complete Collection. In this one, however, they really take the cake. “Superstitious peasants,” for example, become “superstitious pheasants” and “monsieur” becomes “masseur.” This is crazy, especially as we’re talking about subtitles that somebody actually wrote, not just closed-captioning.
*. The murder of poor Marie (already a victim of domestic abuse) really does seem gratuitous and out of place. I wonder why they felt the need for that.
*. If I don’t rank this as my favourite Holmes film from this series I think it’s because there’s too much that’s too familiar. It’s almost like they’re checking boxes on a list of formula elements that, however individually well done, don’t always cohere.
*. But, if it’s novelty you’re after this wouldn’t be the first place I’d look. What The Scarlet Claw does it does very well though, and if it’s not quite as memorable as some of the other entries in the series it still stands as one of the best.
*. 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!