Roy William Neill | 65 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | PG
Basil 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.
The 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.