The Spider Woman (1944)

2011 #96
1944 | Roy William Neill | 60 mins | DVD | U

It’s the second season finale of the brilliant Sherlock tonight, so what better time to post a review of another Holmes adaptation that’s based in part on the infamous The Final Problem

The Spider WomanThe seventh feature starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr John Watson is the first since Hound to drop Holmes’ name from the title and, at under an hour (59 minutes 33 seconds in PAL, to be precise), is the shortest yet.

It’s previously been asserted (in this blog’s comments) that The Spider Woman is “one of the best of the series”, and it’s certainly a strong effort. Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser (who also wrote the previous two films, and would go on to pen two more) skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales — while I spotted two or three, Wikipedia says the full list includes The Sign of Four, The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot and The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

As they’re combined here, the story sees Holmes fake his own death to help tackle the Irene Adler-esque titular woman, apparently his intellectual match, who’s somehow causing a spree of suicides. Several of these borrowed elements — the faked death and The Woman — lead to some delicious scenes, such as when Holmes reveals he’s alive to Dr Watson, offering one of those occasions where Bruce’s comedic rendition of the role actually works; or when an incognito Holmes meets the woman, who is actually aware of his true identity. Indeed the woman, played by Sherlock Holmes vs the Spider WomanGale Sondergaard, is so good that they crafted a sequel around her, albeit Holmes-less. I’ve not seen it and don’t own it, so I’ve no idea what that does for its quality.

The mystery itself is solid enough, but that’s not necessarily the point of these Holmes adventures. They’re not play-along puzzles like an Agatha Christie adaptation, where there’s a set of definite clues and a finite number of suspects, but rather exciting tales that whip you along their incredible path — adventures indeed. You can certainly see the (deliberate) tonal link between these ’40s films and the modern-set Sherlock, or indeed the pair of Robert Downey Jr. films.

At the halfway point of the Rathbone-Bruce films (it’s only taken me four years to get this far), the series is still producing exciting, good-quality re-arrangements of Conan Doyle’s works. And I’m assured there’s more to come. Fantastic.

4 out of 5

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