52 Before 62 — #25 Sherlock Holmes Double Feature

"Silver Blaze" (1937).jpg

Murder at the Baskervilles, a.k.a. The Silver Blaze (1937)

Directed by Thomas Bentley

Screenplay by Arthur Macrae and H. Fowler Mear, based upon the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”

Starring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Lyn Harding and John Turnbull

The Woman in Green - 1945 - Poster.pngThe Woman in Green (1945)

Directed by Roy William Neill

Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based in part on the Arthur Conan Doyle stories “The Final Problem” and “The Adventures of the Empty House”

Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, and Henry Daniell

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a lot of things in his career, but his most well-known, and enduring, creation is Sherlock Holmes.  Dozens upon dozens of films were made with him as a character.  Other novels were written with him as a character, including Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution.  They did plays.  They did TV.  Hell, a few years ago there was three Holmes, or Holmes-adjacent, shows on TV at the same time: House M.D., Sherlock, and Elementary.

By all accounts Sherlock Holmes is the most performed on-screen character in history.  The most famous film portrayer is probably Basil Rathbone.  In all, Rathbone suited up as Holmes in 14 films in the 1940s, 11 of which were directed by Roy William Neill.

But Rathbone’s Holmes only came into being after another series ended its runs in the UK, starring Arthur Wontner.  Wontner played Holmes in five films in the 1930s, for three different directors.  But even as he might’ve been the first to play Holmes again and again, even he was not the first, with an unknown actor taking on the role in what is believed to be the very first adaptation, a 1-minute short called Sherlock Holmes Baffled.  Still, until Rathbone came along a few years later, Wontner was the definitive Holmes, even if only for a moment.

Image result for arthur wontner sherlock holmes

(l-r) Wontner as Holmes, Ian Fleming as Watson

What’s it About?

 

Murder at the Baskervilles: Twenty years after the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a slightly infirm Sherlock Holmes is invited out to the country to recuperate by the Baskervilles.  Just after he arrives, a promising horse goes missing, and two men wind up dead.  When a young gambler who’s up to his eyeballs in debt becomes the primary suspect – he stands to make a bundle on the missing horse losing – Holmes steps in to investigate and inevitably clears the man’s name.  Obviously, Prof. Moriarty is behind it.

Image result for basil rathbone holmes woman in green

Rathbone as Holmes

The Woman in Green: After a series of unexplained, gruesome murders in London, in which young women are killed and a finger is cut from them as a souvenir, Sherlock Holmes investigates.  Holmes discovers that though Prof. Moriarty is supposedly dead, he’s actuallyu alive and orchestrating a strange murder/mutilation plot, using hypnotism and ‘cannabis japonica’ as a way to blackmail unsuspecting men.  Then, when circumstances permit, he’ll perhaps kill Dr. Watson.  Or, Holmes, if possible.  Only, Holmes subverts the plot and just as Moriarty is trying to escape, he falls off a building to his death.

 

How Were They?

On the whole, Murder at the Baskervilles is bland, indifferently directed, unimaginatively staged, and lacks momentum.  Worse, even at just 71 minutes it feels overlong, with shots too often lingering for no real purpose.

Beyond this, there is no real tension in the story, with Moriarty’s entire, nefarious plot laid out from the beginning, meaning there’s nothing for the audience to discover.  In it, a bookie pays Prof. Moriarty to get the horse out of the way in a big race by rendering it temporarily lame, because if the horse wins, the bookie will lose a bundle.  In doing so, Moriarty also finds a man who could be a suspect in the case so as to deflect attention from himself and his clients.  There is no disputing the audience sees this information from the get go, meaning all we do is wait around for Holmes to connect the dots.

Knowing the outcome, or the details of the plot, isn’t bad in itself, if you can create tension and cast some doubt on whether or not their will be success.  Many movies do that.[1]  This one could do that if it made Moriarty a real archenemy type, capable of outwitting Sherlock Holmes.  But it doesn’t.  Instead, it plays him as a mediocre villain sitting behind a desk in an abandoned building orchestrating a strange plot to render a horse lame by sending out some bozo to nick one of the horse’s tendons with a knife in a way that nobody will notice.  Even when the film gives us an action scene it is anti-thrilling, managing to make a shooting and a car crash on the English moor look dull.  Not even the threat of Watson being thrown down an unused elevator shaft arouses anything.  The most gruesome, or tension inducing moment, is the one where Holmes deduces that the perpetrator of the horse’s would-be injury was practicing his technique on the sheep in the area because they suddenly start turning up lame.  Which is a gruesome thought.  But that’s all it is – a gruesome thought – because the film never actually shows us a thing.  It’s the mind of the audience that does all the work.

The Woman in Green is a much more plot driven film.  Where Murder dithers about before coming to its plot, The Woman in Green jumps right in without any how-do-you-do.  I suspect this is because this film comes late in the run of Rathbone-as-Holmes films and so they could just get to it without any need for backstory.  But, if that were the case, Murder at the Baskervilles should also have hit the ground running, given it came late in the Wontner series of films.  Whatever the reason, The Woman in Green takes off with a start, and it was welcome.

Beyond that, The Woman in Green has more style, a more gruesome plot – the murderer keeps a finger off all his victims – and is slightly more risqué than Murder at the Baskervilles could ever be.  After all, more than once you see the women in their slips, and there is more-than-a-little hint of sex in the air – “I wonder what she’s doing?” Holmes asks at one point, seeing a woman inviting a man up to her flat for a nightcap, in a profoundly stupid question for a great detective to ask, only for Holmes to be scolded by his companion, “Don’t be naïve.”

Even so, while The Woman in Green is the superior film, it’s not without flaws of its own.  Too much of the film involves people sitting around talking, the camera is too often locked down and doesn’t move, and the pace does slack, even at 70 minutes long.

Accoutrement

Sherlock Holmes is famous for his accoutrement: his violin, his pipe, his deerstalker hat.[2]  Despite this, just two of the three appear in these two films.  The violin makes its appearance in The Woman in Green, and the deerstalker hat appears in Murder at the Baskervilles.  In neither film is Holmes’ pipe really a thing.

Holmes v. Holmes

While Basil Rathbone might be seen by some as the definitive onscreen Holmes, in The Woman in Green he’s somewhat lackluster.  Yes, Rathbone has the voice for a know-it-all detective, but he also plays too long-in-the-tooth, and too bored by the role that deep in the series, to ever really come across as anything but dull.

Similarly, Arthur Wontner lacks any real dramatic oomph in his take on Holmes in Murder at the Baskervilles.  This might be because of his age – he was 62 when the film came out in England – or could be that this was his fifth out of five cracks at the role and he was over it.  Yes, he’s a bit on the droll side, but he also seems hardly all that dangerous or imposing, and is honestly a bit dull.  Worse, his Holmes doesn’t seem to be detecting and existing in the moment, so much as showing up and reading the clues already given to him from the script.

 

Moriarty v. Moriarty

Every great hero needs a great villain.  No, strike that.  Every great hero needs an even better villain.  A Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker, as it were.  And because a great hero needs a great villain, it’s no surprise the villain often overshadows the hero, see e.g. Darth Vader, The Joker, etc.  Because Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be some legendarily great detective, then he requires a worthy adversary in Prof. Moriarty, who is described here as the Napoleon of Crime.  And in these two movies, that’s what Moriarty aspires to be.  And he succeeds.

At least in part.

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Lyn Harding as Moriarty

You’ll remember early reading that in Murder at the Baskervilles Moriarty seems more an unimpressive civil servant type, orchestrating the underworld from a non-descript desk in an abandoned building, than a raging villain.  His plot to lame the horse could not be more convoluted, yet also stupid.  In some ways his setting makes it seem as if the filmmakers could not be bothered to really expend more time on establishing him as anything other than banal.[3]

Image result for henry daniell moriarty

Henry Daniell

On the other hand, The Woman in Green takes much more care with its Moriarty, beginning with casting.  Where Lyn Harding plays the mostly-undynamic Moriarty in Murder at the Baskervilles, unable to give even a shred of verve, Henry Daniell as Moriarty in The Woman in Green is genius.  After all, every waking day of Daniell’s life was a resting-loathsome-face day, and he’s so damn good at sneering into a scene that you often forget he’s capable of playing other, more sympathetic roles.  See e.g., his turn as Dr. Toddy Macfarlane in The Body Snatcher.  Casting Daniell is shorthand for what the role should be, and Daniell is up to it, playing the vile Moriarty with the proper relish it deserves, even if he’s a bit low-key for my tastes.

Trivia

Though called Murder at the Baskervilles in the US, it was originally filmed as The Silver Blaze in the UK.  In fact, the certificate onscreen at the start of the film lists it as being The Silver Blaze.  Apparently, the film was given a new title for its 1941 US release in order to take advantage of the success of the Basil Rathbone film, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Note on Availability

Both films are available as of this writing for free on Youtube.  Be aware, though, the transfers there are not the greatest.

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[1] Just recently I rewatched First Man, and saw the new documentary Apollo 11, both of which deal with the first moon landing, which we all know was a success.  Yet, both films were able to show us the tension of it and make us think that, no, maybe they didn’t make it and the mission needed to be aborted at the last second.

[2] Also his morphine, and/or cocaine addiction.

[3] Or, maybe that’s their point.  The great criminals are not all that great, but are as banal and dull as the rest of us.

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