Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

2010 #79
Roy William Neill | 65 mins | DVD | U

After a shockingly long absence, I’m finally getting on with watching the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmeses. (I started this series over two-and-a-half years ago now — I think I’m watching them slower than they made them!)

Sherlock Holmes Faces DeathHe’s put down the hound of the Baskervilles; silenced the voice of terror; uncovered the secret weapon; had, um, some other adventures; and, uh, been to Washington… but now, Sherlock Holmes faces death!

Not a man in a black robe with a scythe, just, y’know, the threat. Of dying. Except there’s no threat, really. I suppose Sherlock Holmes Does Some Investigating With No Real Threat To Himself doesn’t sound quite as dramatic.

Nor, it would seem, does The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, the popular Conan Doyle story on which this film is loosely based. It’s not a tale I’m familiar with so can’t accurately comment on the faithfulness of screenwriter Bertram Millhauser’s adaptation, but it concerns the Musgrave family and their ancient ritual, so as the Rathbone/Bruce films go it’s practically word-for-word. It isn’t actually, of course, because the ritual at least has been changed significantly. Whatever the qualities of the original, the chess-based screen variant works marvellously.

Faces Death leaves behind the proto-Bond WW2 spying of the last three films (“it can almost be viewed as the starting point of a completely new Holmes series” asserts one review I’ve read) to involve Holmes in a genuine detective mystery (though still set during the war, it’s less front-and-centre). The story is packed with proper deduction, which is excellent, and to top it off Watson isn’t as bumbling as he could be, not that Bruce’s characterisation improves. Most of the humour comes, more appropriately, from a typically useless Lestrade, as well as frequently-drunk butler Brunton.

Relocated in the war years, the Musgrave manor is currently a home for convalescent soldiers, providing no end of potential suspects. Some may guess the culprit from the off, others will land upon them at other places throughout proceedings, but it seems to me there’s still enough going on to keep us guessing.

The film ends with another of Holmes’ speeches, this time less patriotic and more about the duties of man to his fellow men. It’s quite naively optimistic about mankind’s ability to care for others, though any analysis of humanity’s propensity or not for charity, and how that may have changed in the last 70 years, seems somewhat misplaced in discussion of a ’40s detective adventure.

The sixth film in the Rathbone/Bruce series is one of the best so far. And Rathbone finally has a sensible hairstyle to boot!

4 out of 5

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