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.

100 Films @ 10: Most Represented Directors

It’s 100 Films’ 10th birthday at the end of the month. To mark the occasion, I thought in the run-up to it I’d publish some lists based on the last ten years of my blog, because who doesn’t love a list?

How many lists have I got? Why, 100 of course!

…haha, no — that would be ridiculous. There are ten — one for each year of 100 Films. And each one has ten items on it. Ten times ten is… why, it’s 100! What a coincidence.

For the first list, I’ve put opinion aside for pure facts: these are the ten directors who’ve been most-reviewed on this blog. That excludes films only featured in my 100 Favourites series — this is just their work that has been covered as part of my ‘main’ blog.

It may be worth noting that, because it’s purely based on statistics, this isn’t a list of my ten favourite directors… though as they’re ones I keep watching movies by, I guess it’d be a fair starting point.

10
Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan has made nine feature films, and seven of them are reviewed here. Throw in an extra one for the IMAX version of The Dark Knight and his short documentary, Quay, and he edges ahead of runners-up John Carpenter, Ernst Lubitsch, George Miller, and Billy Wilder.

9
Tim Burton

The next four directors are technically tied, but I’ve found a way to differentiate them. First: the Burtonesque Tim Burton, whose eight entries can be split into six main-list films and two reviews of things I’d already seen (Batman and Batman Returns).

8
Ridley Scott

Next, the man we can probably thank for all the Director’s Cuts we get these days, the more classical of the two Scott brothers, Sir Ridley Scott. He also has eight, of course, which factors in six main-list films, one alternate cut that I nonetheless counted on my main list (Blade Runner: The Final Cut), and one non-main-list film (Alien: The Director’s Cut).

7
Zack Snyder

Our third eight-film filmmaker is everyone’s favourite “visionary” director of superhero movies (right?), Zack Snyder. All eight of his films were on the main list, though two of them were alternate versions (the extended cuts of Batman v Superman and Watchmen).

6
Clint Eastwood

Simple and straight-up, much like the man himself, Clint Eastwood has a pure eight films.

5
Steven Soderbergh

The top five heads into double figures, with ten films for one-time enfant terrible and now retiree Steven Soderbergh.

4
Martin Scorsese

Perpetual awards season snubee, Martin Scorsese also has ten feature films, but edges ahead thanks to his part in anthology film New York Stories.

=2
Roy William Neill / Steven Spielberg

Unlike other directors on this list, there’s no reasonable way to differentiate this pair. You may not know the name Roy William Neill, but he helmed eleven of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, and those four years of work have landed him near the top of this list. Conversely, Steven Spielberg is probably the most famous film director working today, if not ever, and his eleven films span 44 years, stretching from his first (1971’s Duel) to his most recent Oscar nominee (2015’s Bridge of Spies).

1
David Fincher

Topping the list is my go-to pick for favourite director, David Fincher. He’s helmed ten movies, but I’ve reviewed twelve — that’s eleven main-list features (including the Assembly Cut of Alien³) and one extra for the marginally-extended director’s cut of Zodiac.

Tomorrow: when directors re-cut.

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

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.

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