100 Films @ 10: Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Films

Yesterday I ranked the film series that have been a part of 100 Films down the years. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective and Nigel Bruce as his trusty sidekick Dr Watson may only have placed 6th on that list, but they have been a regular presence on my blog for most of its life as I slowly worked my way through all 14, from The Hound of the Baskervilles in Year 2 to Dressed to Kill as the record-breaking #200 in Year 9.

It seemed only fitting to include the series in my tenth birthday celebrations, therefore, so for today’s top ten I’ve gone back over all my reviews (and memories) and used them as a guide to rank my ten favourite instalments.

10
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

“The basic concept is a nice idea for a war-set spy-thriller, but not really for a Sherlock Holmes mystery. […] The consensus seems to be against me, but by the end I was quite enjoying Voice of Terror. It may be a Sherlock Holmes film in name only, but taken instead as a cheap spy thriller it makes for passable entertainment.” Full review.

9
The Hound of the Baskervilles

“One of the novel’s strong points is its occasional Gothic styling, and this is something the film version does very well. Dartmoor looks fantastic, like something Tim Burton would have created were he working in the ’30s. It’s clearly a set, but it’s dramatic and moody and completely effective.” Full review.

8
Terror by Night

“a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. […] That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.” Full review.

7
The Pearl of Death

“Holmes first rescues the priceless Borgia Pearl, but then quite spectacularly loses it. The notion of Holmes being doubted, of having to prove himself to reassert his reputation, is a good one — one recently borrowed by avowed Rathbone fans Moffat & Gatiss for their modern-day Sherlock, in fact.” Full review.

6
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

“The name’s Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, as Universal’s loose adaptations of Britain’s Greatest Detective deliver a low-key proto-Bond, 22 years before Goldfinger applied the same tricks to Britain’s Greatest Spy. […] As with Voice of Terror, I enjoyed a lot of Secret Weapon in spite of its distinct un-Holmes-ness — it’s another pacey, exciting World War Two spy thriller.” Full review.

5
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

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 […] packed with proper deduction, which is excellent.” Full review.

4
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“There’s rain-lashed, fog-drenched Victorian London streets! Brutal murders by foul foreigners! Dastardly plots against the crown! Galloping carriages! Romantic subplots! A smattering of comedy! A song-and-dance number! (No, really, there is.) And a final shoot out… in the Tower of London! You can’t escape the joyous feeling that this was designed as pure entertainment, literally including something for everyone.” Full review.

3
The Woman in Green

“Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.” Full review.

2
The Spider Woman

“Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales [including] 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. […] 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.” Full review.

1
The Scarlet Claw

“[Roy William Neill’s] direction is incredibly atmospheric, from a wonderful mist-covered opening scene, replete with an incessantly tolling bell, to regular instances of shadow-drenched photography afterwards; not to mention various pleasing camera angles and moves. The story — in which townsfolk believe a mythical beast has returned to murder its residents — presents a well-constructed mystery all round, though as it moves into the second half some of its twists become all too guessable. [Such] little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound of the Baskervilles, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.” Full review.

Tomorrow: as seen on TV.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code / Prelude to Murder

2015 #200
Roy William Neill | 69 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Dressed to KillIn the seven-and-a-bit years between 31st March 1939 and 7th June 1946, there were a total of 14 films released starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. By coincidence rather than design, I’ve spent nearly eight years viewing and reviewing them all for this blog — so yes, it’s taken me a little longer to watch them than it did to make them, which is ridiculous, but there you go.

This final film in the series sees Holmes in pursuit of a criminal gang who are on the trail of three music boxes, and are prepared to kill to acquire them. The boxes were all made by a prisoner and contain coded messages which, when combined and decoded, will reveal the location of stolen Bank of England printing plates — a literal licence to print money. Well, apart from the licence bit, because it would be illegal. But you get what I mean.

The Rathbone Holmes series was only sporadically adapted from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this entry takes loose inspiration from several tales. The use of secret codes is reminiscent of The Dancing Men (previously the basis for The Secret Weapon), while the plot device of having to track down multiple identical items that hide something comes from The Six Napoleons (previously the basis for The Pearl of Death). I don’t know if that suggests there are only a few Doyle tales actually worth adapting, or if the makers of the series were running out of fresh ideas by this point.

There are also elements of A Scandal in Bohemia, the story most famous for featuring Irene Adler, aka The Woman, but screenwriters Frank Gruber and Leonard Lee have an unusual method of including it: Dressed for the occasionthe story is explicitly referenced in the film, Watson having just had it published; then the film’s villainess turns up, played by Patricia Morison, functioning effectively as an Adler stand-in — and using some tricks she learnt from reading Watson’s story! The series hasn’t featured Adler before, so why not just name this character Irene Adler, have her devise those tricks from her own imagination, and be done with? Who knows.

Dressed to Kill is an ending to the Rathbone/Bruce films only in the sense that it’s the last one, this not being an era of “series finales” or what have you. It isn’t among the top tier of Holmes adventures starring the pair, but it’s still an entertaining mystery. In some respects that’s a good summation of the series, and why they’ve endured in popularity for over 75 years: even when not at their very best, they remain enjoyable.

3 out of 5

The Climactic Monthly Update for December 2015

Happy New Year’s Day, dear readers!

The quest for 100 films has little regard for it being the first day of a new year, however — it’s still the start of a new month, which means it’s time to reflect on the last. And as it’s the last month of 2015, to reveal just what my final tally actually was…


#183 Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
#184 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
#185 Terminator Genisys (2015)
#186 A Most Wanted Man (2014)
#187 Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)
#188 Begin Again (2013)
#189 Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
#190 Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt
#191 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
#192 About Time (2013)
#193 Happy Feet Two (2011)
#194 Morning Glory (2010)
#195 Dreamgirls (2006)
#196 Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)
#197 AfterDeath (2015)
#198 Heaven Can Wait (1943)
#199 Slow West (2015)
#200 Dressed to Kill (1946)


  • #200 is the final Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film. It’s taken me almost eight years to get through that series — longer than they took to make — so it seemed an appropriate choice for such a momentous number.
  • With four WDYMYHS films left, I managed to watch… one. That was Le Mépris. On the one hand, not watching 25% of my list is a bit of a failure. On the other, watching 75% of it means I’ve watched nine films this year that I should’ve seen but hadn’t got round to, and almost certainly wouldn’t’ve got round to without WDYMYHS. So it shall continue next year, though I’ve not decided on the selection process yet.
  • Remember back in my October update, when I mentioned re-watching the Veronica Mars movie to get 2014 finished? Bloody well didn’t bloody happen, did it! I’ll do it in January.
  • Apropos of not very much, the version of Rawhide sung by the elephant seals in Happy Feet 2 is awesome.


The headline news here is, of course, that this year I reached #200.

That’s my highest final tally ever, by 64 films — 47% higher than the next best year! You could add together my two poorest years (2009 and 2012) and you’d still be nine films short of 2015’s solo total. Anyway, more whole-year stats in my next post — for now, let’s just look at December.

This month I watched 18 new films. Most importantly, that exceeds this year’s ten-per-month goal, making 2015 the first time I’ve done it for a whole calendar year. (It’s also the 19th consecutive month.) It’s only the second-highest December ever, just behind 2008’s 19, but it does pass the December average (10.86; now 11.75) and beats December 2014’s total of 15, the 11th month this year to beat its previous equivalent (only November let the side down). In terms of 2015, it beats the monthly average of 16.67, and is actually the third highest month of the year, settling in behind the record-breaking feats of September and October.

I always end these analyses with a look ahead to the rest of the year… which is now over. So what for 2016? Having reached 200 films in a year, will I be seeking to equal it next year? Perhaps even to better it? I can confirm that…

No. No I won’t.

There are so very, very many films that I want to see — and they keep making more of the darn things! So many that even watching 200 new films isn’t enough to make a serious dent in the “to see” list. But there are also TV series I want to watch, books I want to read, audio dramas I want to listen to — not to mention movies I want to re-watch — and the film fixation engendered by a goal as vast as 200 new films in a year is counterproductive to doing anything but watching new films. So of course 100 Films will continue, and maintaining my ten-per-month streak would be nice, but if this time next year I’ve watched 200 new films and not watched many TV series, or read books, or listened to audio dramas, then I won’t be dancing a victory dance. Quite the opposite. Whatever the opposite of “dancing a victory dance” is.

In conclusion, my personal goal for next year is… well, 100 films — that’s why it’s the name of the blog. But I’ll be aiming to maintain my ten-per-month run, making the target 120+ Films in a Year. Plus lots of TV and books and audio drama and films I’ve seen before and special features and goodness knows what else. There still won’t be nearly enough time, anyway.


Thanks to the advent calendar, 44 films were reviewed this month(!) Here’s a full alphabetical account:



The 7th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there aren’t a great many stand-out options here. Although I hugely enjoyed the new Star Wars, and some other 2015 blockbusters I caught up on weren’t as bad as expected, the winner is easily best-of-year contender Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there are still a few three-star-level contenders here. In the end, I decided to pick the film I felt I was most likely to never bother to watch again, and while there are a few I’m not likely to ever revisit, the least likely was AfterDeath.

Best Use of Time Travel
Was it to visit a wondrous future city of joyous technological advancement? Or to spend more precious time with your dying father? Or to send a cyborg to protect your mother from your robot enemy before your best mate arrives to stop that enemy murdering her before you’re born then trying to disable said robot enemy before it’s ‘born’? Or to get Emilia Clarke naked? How about using it to make Rachel McAdams fall in love with you in About Time. That and the dad thing.

Best Theme Tune
Oh sure, there’s John Williams on Star Wars… but of course there was. And I’ve already said how much I liked Rawhide in Happy Feet 2, but it’s not functioning as theme tune there. So the winner is composer Joe Kraemer finally giving Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme a suitable big-screen rendition not once but twice in Rogue Nation.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
When you think about it, this should come as no surprise. In a month that featured 47 new posts (it sounds a little insane when you put it like that), the most-read is one that was a hive of activity for 25 days: the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015.


…will be 31 days into 2016. Before all that, though, I’ll thoroughly look back and dissect 2015 — the largest year of 100 Films ever!

(Dog-loving regular readers will be pleased to know that (further to September’s update) Millie is still with us, and coping admirably with there already being a new Irish Wolfhound puppy in the family.)

Terror by Night (1946)

2015 #140
Roy William Neill | 57 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

After the previous Basil Rathbones-starring Sherlock Holmes adventure set its tale almost entirely aboard a boat, this time we find ourselves in the confines of a train. It’s a sleeper travelling from London to Edinburgh, with Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) aboard because they’ve been hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia diamond after an attempt was made to steal it in London. In short order, their employer is murdered and the diamond is missing. The crime can only have been committed by one of the handful of other passengers in the same carriage, but which?

For what is the shortest film in the series, screenwriter Frank Gruber and regular director/producer Roy William Neill have constructed a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. The supporting cast are fairly colourful, and there’s a spot of genuine mystery to be had in which of them is the culprit. Okay, one or two red herrings are glaringly obvious, but I don’t think the teapot-loving couple were ever meant to be serious contenders anyway. Elements of the canon are incorporated willy-nilly, not least some memorable parts from The Sign of Four, which adds flavour.

Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form as ever, with the latter getting a kind of sidekick of his own in the equally-portly form of Alan Mowbray as an old chum, Major Duncan-Bleek. He keeps Watson occupied so Holmes and Lestrade (series regular Dennis Hoey, in his last appearance) can go about their business, anyway. Sadly, the next most noteworthy cast member is Renee Godfrey, who is remarkably bad as the suspicious Vivian Vedder. Perhaps it’s just because she’s clearly struggling with an atrocious variable accent, the quality of which makes it rather distracting whenever she opens her mouth. Having used Moriarty plenty, the series finally accepts that he’s dead and moves on to his right-hand man, Col. Sebastian Moran. Considering the identity of the conniving colonel is a mystery for most of the movie, however, his involvement is perhaps no great shakes.

Terror by Night is good fun for the most part, with a decent array of suspects and clues to keep us guessing in its moderately atmospheric setting. For what it’s worth, I’d put it a step above most of the other films in the series that I’ve rated 3, but a step below those I’ve rated 4. That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.

3 out of 5

Terror by Night is on TCM UK tonight at 7:50pm.

Liebster Award

Michele at Timeless Hollywood has kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award (or, as spellcheck insists on rendering it, “Leicester Award”).

For those not in the know, a Liebster Award is bestowed from blogger to blogger as a kind of peer appreciation. There are actually a bunch of variations — this person took it upon themselves to write some official rules. Not entirely sure what makes them qualified to do such a thing, but they did it anyway, and now that post sits right at the top of the Google search results, so I guess it worked for them.

Anyway, The Rules:

  1. Answer my nominator’s 11 questions;
  2. Nominate 11 additional bloggers;
  3. Ask 11 questions to my nominees;
  4. Share 11 additional facts about myself.

I’m not sure why it has so much to do with the number 11. Having seen various other bloggers complete the award, #2 seems to be particularly flexible in this regard. I suspect I shall be too.

But first! 11 questions must be answered, in my usual longwinded style:

1) What onscreen couple has the best chemistry?
A relatively recent discovery for me, but I’m going to go with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.

2) If one lost film could be found, what would it be?
Would it be a cheat to pick some Doctor Who episodes? It would, wouldn’t it? Especially as Who is in a better state than silent cinema, where up 75-90% of films are estimated to be lost. Of course, there’s Hitchcock’s second feature, The Mountain Eagle, and the first British Sherlock Holmes film, an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet (which always seems to be given short shrift when it’s filmed, Catch My Soulso I wouldn’t hold much hope of that being any better), but the film that most intrigued me when looking into this was from the ’70s: #10 on this list, Patrick McGoohan’s first (and only) film as director, Catch My Soul. Turns out it’s since been found, though the chances of anyone else seeing it look shaky. Still, it does exist, so I go back to the first two.

3) If you could choose one silent comedian between Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who is your favorite and why?
I confess, I haven’t seen enough of any for this to be a fair contest. From what I have seen, however, The Great Dictator was my favourite work, so I’ll go for Chaplin. (Also for compatriotism.)

4) Who is your favorite swashbuckler?
Does someone who usually (always?) played the villain in such movies count? Basil Rathbone, arguably best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, was a skilled fencer in real life, shown to great effect in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, The Court Jester (even if that mostly isn’t him), and a few other films that I really must see.

5) What is your favorite biography or autobiography?
The Writer's Tale - The Final ChapterIt’s not an autobiography per se, but Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook kind of is, as it chronicles Davies’ experience running Doctor Who (and its spin-offs) in 2008 to 2010. You may think “I’m not a Doctor Who fan, this has no relevance to me,” but you’d be wrong. Anyone who’s had a desire to write in a professional capacity, especially for the screen, must read this book — it’s the experience of writing for TV and running a TV show, just with Doctor Who as a case study. And it’s immensely readable, making its surprising length (particularly in the extended The Final Chapter paperback version — length-wise, it’s literally a whole extra book bundled in) fly by.

6) Have you ever participated in a blogathon and if so what did you enjoy most about it?
I’ve participated in a few now (three, to be precise). Each time, I found the knowledge that I was likely exposing my writing to a much wider readership than normal led me to up my game in terms of the research and thought I put into my posts (and consequently their length, too). Which is not to say I don’t just do that anyway (sometimes), but there was a kind of pressure to do well. Good pressure.

7) If you could buy any memorabilia, what would it be?
Let’s be properly extravagant and say a James Bond Aston Martin DB5. I’m not even a ‘car person’, but c’mon, the DB5!

The car's Martin. Aston Martin.

8) In your opinion, who is the biggest pioneer in the film industry (past or present)?
I mean, where do you begin? But here’s a slightly more obscure one: Garrett Brown. Who? The inventor of the Steadicam, that’s who. It looks like the Steadicam might be about to be replaced by the even greater flexibility afford by drones, but still, it was (is) awesome while it lasted.

9) What decade had the best films?
I’m quite fond of all eras of film, so I decided to be empirical about this: I looked at my list of favourite movies and totted up the decades. Turns out the 2000s have it, just pipping the 1990s. Probably says more about when I grew up than anything else, mind.

10) Is there any actor/actress you feel hasn’t gotten the recognition they deserve?
Maybe it’s just because I’m more immersed in modern film, but no one ever seems to talk about Ray Milland. I discovered him for myself through films like Ministry of Fear, The Thief and The Lost Weekend, and I really ought to seek out more of his work because he’s great in all of those.

11) What actor/actress should receive an Oscar that hasn’t?
Michael “The Queen / Frost/Nixon / The Damned United / etc” Sheen.

The many faces of Michael Sheen

Next! 11 5 bloggers shall be nominated. (I’m not stingy, I’d do more, but a bunch of blogs I thought of just had one.) Anyway, in alphabetical order:

(You’ll notice a fair degree of crossover with blogs I highlighted in my June update. Not a coincidence.)

Next! The 11 questions they must answer:

1) Have you ever walked out of a cinema part way through a film?
2) Favourite current TV series?
3) Favourite silent film?
4) Favourite David Fincher film?
5) Favourite film soundtrack?
6) Who’s the best James Bond?
7) Which is the longest-running film series that you’ve seen every movie in?
8) Which film have you watched the most?
9) Which film do you love that everybody else hates?
10) Is there a line from a film that you use a lot in everyday life?
11) How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if woodchuck would chuck wood?

A woodchuck, yesterday

And finally! 11 random facts about my good self:

1) I am currently mostly listening to Muse’s Drones and Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

2) I have two dogs, Rory and Poppy, both rescues.

3) Part of the reason for adopting Poppy was to help with the transition when Rory… you know… because he’d been on his last legs for years. 18 months later, he’s still going, bless ‘im.

4) I kind of work on the principle that my personal life has little to do with my film-related blogging (which, in many ways, is an invalid stance, but that’s a whole other debate), so this is proving tricky…

5) I get kind of ‘attached’ to sayings — not deliberately, but I think I use certain phrases a lot, even if just for a while. Maybe we all do? I’m sure there are plenty of examples in my reviewing (there are certainly words I revert to often); in real life, “there’s a first time for everything” is regularly applicable and “better safe than sorry” is virtually my motto. Whether I listen to it or not is another matter.

List of lists of lists

6) I make lots of lists, about all sorts — mainly films, DVDs and Blu-rays, especially ones to be watched. Each time I watch a film for this blog, it has to be added to, removed from, or rated on up to 21 separate lists and websites.

7) To make sure I don’t miss any, I have a list of those lists.

8) I am inordinately chuffed with the top menu on this blog, which I rebuilt t’other week to include most of my categories and streamline the review lists. Check out Film Noir (under Categories > Genres) in particular. Sub-submenus!

9) I love pizza. I don’t know if this is attributable to a childhood love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or just because it’s awesome. Anyway, I’ve been trying to eat more healthily and haven’t had a pizza for five months. Five months. You’re driving me back towards pizza, Liebster Facts.

Pizza is totally more addictive

10) Most people my age and nationality call it Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because that’s how they rebranded it over here (I really don’t know what the British / the BBFC had against ninjas and their weaponry). It’s always been Ninja to me because, at the time I was into Turtles, I spent nearly two years living in Saudi Arabia. (Who knew that fact was going somewhere broadly interesting, right?) (Obviously, they used the correct title in Saudi.)

11) I have no idea what a woodchuck is.*

So there you go. Thanks again to Michele of Timeless Hollywood, and I look forward to reading my nominees’ answers.

* I wrote that before I looked up the picture above, so this fact is now a lie.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

2015 #74
Roy William Neill | 62 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pursuit to AlgiersAfter a fun opening where Holmes and Watson have to solve the world’s most obvious riddle (naturally, Watson is completely oblivious to there even being a riddle), the original dynamic duo are tasked with escorting the heir to the throne of somewhere-or-other back to his homeland, thwarting assassination attempts as they go.

In his production notes on the Optimum DVD release, Sherlockian Richard Valley describes the 12th film in the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes series as “the runt of the litter” — which it is — though he also declares that it “has its own peculiar charm… If it’s not in the same league as Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Scarlet Claw, neither is it a waste of time.” Of that I am less convinced.

Ostensibly, Sherlock Holmes stories are detective mysteries. In execution, they’re as often as not about the adventures of our heroes as much as they’re about the ins-and-outs of a case. The mystery is the glue that holds it all together, though. For about the first half, Pursuit to Algiers puts its pawns in place (getting Holmes, Watson and their charge on the boat to Algiers) and sets up its mystery: who is the assassin? About halfway through, Holmes and Watson stand around and very handily list all of the suspects… which just so happen to include pretty much every supporting character. So far, so good. However, it’s only a few minutes later that we actually find out the identity of the guilty party. If the mystery is the glue, then for me this is where the film comes unstuck.

So, Holmes has found out the identity of the assassins. Does he come up with an ingenious scheme to unmask them? Does he battle them and throw them overboard? Does he do anything at all about it? No. Instead, the rest of the film descends (further) into farce as Holmes lets the villains carry on with two or three assassination attempts, Time for a cracker joke?each of which he thwarts last-minute in sometimes amusing fashion. That’s not fundamentally a poor premise for an adventure comedy, I don’t think, but it doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes. I mean, if you’re trying to prevent someone from being assassinated, why would you let the assassins carry on?! A last-minute twist reveals a sort of motivation, but it’s not a particularly convincing one in my book.

Even leaving the plot implausibility aside, I didn’t feel there was much else to recommend here. There’s altogether too much of Bruce buffooning around; there’s a half-arsed subplot about a jewel theft, seemingly tacked on so you could argue that there is a mystery in the film’s second half; and just generally, I didn’t think it hung together all that well.

Still, in a series where you’re churning out two or three a year, you’re allowed a couple of duds. Pursuit to Algiers is not completely without merit, but it’s certainly my least favourite Rathbone Holmes so far.

2 out of 5

Pursuit to Algiers is on TCM UK today at 3pm and tomorrow at 1:45pm.

The Woman in Green (1945)

2014 #111
Roy William Neill | 65 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Woman in GreenBasil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes starred in films which, although they typically involve murder, are best described as “adventures”. The series’ 11th film, The Woman in Green, is one of the few — perhaps the only one — that could genuinely be described as dark and grim.

In a case with overtones of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer is murdering young woman and severing their forefinger as a trophy. The police are baffled — and even the Great Detective can’t offer much help. A lead emerges when the daughter of a widower catches him burying a forefinger. However, it soon becomes apparent that Moriarty (Henry Daniell) is involved, running a cruel moneymaking scheme.

Using elements from multiple Conan Doyle stories, including The Adventure of the Empty House, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser weaves a tale where it seems Moriarty may have finally outwitted our hero, leading to a remarkably effective climax with a hypnotised Holmes at the villains’ mercy. Moriarty’s plan is genuinely despicable, with the initial murders being entirely incidental to his end goal. It gives the film a subtly different tone to the rest of the series. Holmes still exhibits ingenious methods of detection, and there’s a comedy bit for Nigel Bruce’s Watson too, but behind it sits an odious undercurrent of contemptible crime. Indeed, put Moriarty’s plan in a drama today and I think people would still consider it particularly abhorrent. It’s occasionally startling for a ’40s production.

Hypnotised HolmesThe evil is carried off with aplomb by Daniell. Reportedly a cold actor to work with, he chills on the screen too. This is a man you can believe would carry out such a scheme without a single twang to his conscience. His comeuppance, even with its surprising finality, is welcomed. The titular woman, played by Hillary Brooke, is one of Moriarty’s cohorts, posing as the ‘girlfriend’ of the aforementioned widower in order to set him up. The film is of course in black & white, so we can’t see what colour she’s wearing, and no one ever refers to it — even when they’re hunting for her based on looks alone. I guess someone thought it was an evocative title nonetheless.

Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.

4 out of 5

The House of Fear (1945)

2014 #11
Roy William Neill | 66 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The House of FearAdapted very loosely from the early Conan Doyle story The Five Orange Pips, this outing for Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson sees them summoned to Scotland to investigate the suspicious deaths of the members of a club, where each killing is preceded by an ominous postal warning.

Previous commenters on this fine establishment have flagged up The House of Fear as among the best of the Rathbone films, including one declaring it his “outright favourite”. I have to say, I didn’t like it that much. That said, something has given me the impression it’s considerably better than the short story that inspired it; though there’d be disagreement from Doyle, who ranked it among his 12 favourite Holmes adventures, and Mark Campbell of The Pocket Essential Sherlock Holmes, where the story rates 5-out-of-5. Either way, the film version presents an intriguing mystery, with some good moments — including, if you like Watson’s comedy bits, a mercifully not-drawn-out skit with an owl.

However, it felt to me like it wasn’t really going anywhere until Holmes suddenly figured it all out at the end. Certainly he draws on clues encountered along the way, but even then most of those come late on. Detecting by candlelightWhile the club having seven members does mean there’s a fair few suspects, it also means it takes a long time to get through them all being bumped off! It doesn’t sink so low as to be deemed repetitive, but does border it.

Not among my personal favourites of the Rathbone Holmeses, then, but not without its merits.

3 out of 5

What makes a film a film?

What makes a film a film? I don’t mean “as opposed to a book”, or “as opposed to a pile of rubbish”; but rather, “as opposed to a TV special”, or different to a direct-to-DVD movie — indeed, is there a difference?

This is the sort of thing that’s bothered me for a while, mainly thanks to the Radio Times. The Radio Times’ film section frequently features reviews for things they label as “US TVM” — translation: an American TV Movie. Not everything falls into this category. The 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (the clue’s in the title) was just listed as a TV special, as was the recent one-off episode of 24, Redemption. Why are these different to other feature-length made-for-TV one-off dramas? The former was a British co-production, perhaps, but the latter wasn’t. The latter is part of an on-going series, made between seasons, however. But then, one-off editions of other (older) series have been reviewed as “US TVM”s, so why are they different? It’s not even a hard rule in that instance, as some old series have their feature-length episodes screened as a matter of course among other repeats.

On a different tack, what about Paul Greengrass’ excellent Bloody Sunday, simultaneously screened on Channel 4 and released in cinemas? Or more recently, Ballet Shoes — just part of last year’s Christmas schedule in the UK, but it received a limited late-summer theatrical release in the US. So is that a film, or ‘just’ a TV special? Is a cinema release the key? Well, no — at least as far as the Radio Times are concerned — because Ballet Shoes wouldn’t now feature in their film review section were it repeated, while those other “US TVM”s will continue their circulation. [2015 note: A few years after I wrote this, Ballet Shoes was indeed repeated, and not listed as a film. Whenever Bloody Sunday is on, the Radio Times list it as a film.]

Is length the issue? Clearly not — look at the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmeses, some of which struggle to make the hour mark, a running time that Midsomer Murders or Poirot tops with every new episode.

And all this without even considering direct-to-DVD movies!

Perhaps it’s not a scientific rule-driven process, but just a “feel”? But that’s rubbish too — I’d wager 24: Redemption is at least twice as cinematic as most of the ’80s “US TVM”s awarded a proper film section review. Maybe it’s production method, then? But Redemption was produced as an individual piece, outside of the series’ production — much as a ‘proper’ 24 movie would’ve been, though surely with a smaller budget. So too was the Doctor Who TV movie, and obviously all one-off UK productions are made in a similar vein. And many of them, like Ballet Shoes, are surely just a theatrical release away from being a ‘film’ rather than a one-off TV drama, aren’t they? Perhaps it’s stylistic conventions — production company logos at the start, for example. But that seems a tad arbitrary to me, and plenty of independent films dispense with such.

Or perhaps, in this modern world, IMDb is the decider — whether it has that little “(TV)” after the title or not (it does for Ballet Shoes and 24, but not for Bloody Sunday). But then, why are the people at IMDb — and, we should remember, most of their content is user-generated anyway — any more qualified to decide than you or I?

It’s all down to the individual then, is it? Perhaps. If I declare 24: Redemption a film and review it as a numbered entry in 2008, would anyone care? But would it mean that, ‘morally’, I should go back and review Ballet Shoes as part of 2007? Or last month’s Einstein and Eddington as part of 2008? Or afford any of the countless other feature-length TV specials I’ve seen in the past two years the same treatment?

I don’t have any answers here, just more questions. I’m not going to go back and review Ballet Shoes though. Nor am I going to add Einstein and Eddington, or this Christmas’ The 39 Steps when it comes around. I may well count 24: Redemption, though [I did]. I don’t have Sky, so as far as I’m concerned it may as well be direct-to-DVD, especially in its extended DVD-exclusive form.

And direct-to-DVD movies definitely still count… don’t they?