Categories
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Beginning with a Mutoscope adaptation made in 1900, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most oft-portrayed roles in world cinema. Among the most handsome of the countless movie productions featuring the world’s greatest consulting detective were made by 20th Century Fox in 1939. The first of these was the excellent Hound of the Baskervilles and the second is the even better The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The plot of the film owes little to any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories, and indeed is one that had been used many times before and still gets a workout in movies today: A brilliant champion of justice matches wits with an equally gifted master criminal who has announced that he will soon commit “the crime of century”. But when the hero is Sherlock Holmes played by Basil Rathbone in his signature role and the villain is Professor Moriarty played with comparable verve by George Zucco, everything old is first-rate entertainment again.

As Zucco and Rathbone circle each other in their battle of wits, two supporting players bring added energy to the proceedings. Many Holmes fans do not care for Nigel Bruce’s comic take on Dr. Watson, as it goes against his portrayal in the canon. But I am with those who find it endearing, in part because it adds some sweetness to the films that sets off Rathbone’s appropriately rationalistic and at times even cold Sherlock. As the woman around whom much of the mystery centers, a then unknown Ida Lupino also strengthens the film by giving the audience vulnerability leavened with strength and intelligence (Lupino would go on to become a pivotal figure in women’s advance in Hollywood, as I describe here).

Fox rolled out the budget for its Holmes films, which shows in the excellent production values throughout. These are enhanced by the legendary Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which has effective film noir/horror overtones. Last but not least, this is the one and only film in which I can honestly compliment Alfred Werker’s direction (I recommended He Walked by Night previously, but recall that despite the credit going to Werker, that film was mostly directed by a true master, Anthony Mann). If every journeyman director has one great film in him, this well-paced, exciting and suspenseful treat is Alfred Werker’s.

p.s. Even though both of Fox’s 1939 Sherlock Holmes films were excellent, they were not critically well-received at the time and also led to some grousing from Doyle’s descendants, who controlled the rights to his stories. After promising to make this a long-running series, Fox abandoned the enterprise after the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, a new series of lower-budget Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies set in the modern era was launched at Universal immediately thereafter. That turned out to be one of Hollywood’s very best film series. If you want to explore those films, I recommend my favorite of them, The Scarlet Claw.

Categories
Documentaries and Books Drama Mystery/Noir

He Walked By Night

Crime investigation procedurals became popular after World War II and continue to be a staple of television and movies today. A fine example of the form with pronounced noir elements is 1948’s He Walked by Night.

Normally, police detectives have substantial advantages over perpetrators. The typical violent offender is unintelligent, impulsive, minimally-skilled and ignorant of police procedures. But every once in awhile a criminal comes along who is smart, planful, technically proficient and knowledgeable about the investigative methods of law enforcement. One of such extraordinarily dangerous people was Erwin M. Walker, who repeatedly evaded Los Angeles law enforcement while engaging in an extended violent crime spree in 1946. He Walked by Night is a Dragnet-style dramatization of the Walker case, and indeed the origins of that famous radio and TV show are right here to see.

Richard Basehart gives an icily compelling portrayal of Walker, who is here re-named Roy Morgan. Basehart is particularly skilled at embodying Morgan’s disturbing level of emotional restraint, even when he is inflicting violence on others. The only visible break in the killer’s sociopathic detachment comes in a riveting scene in which he does meatball surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his ribcage. On the other side, Roy Roberts, as Police Captain Breen, is credible as usual in one of his many no-nonsense authority figure roles. Some of the portrayals of police procedure (e.g., the assembling of a composite sketch) will be dramatically slow for modern audiences who have seen it all before. But of course that wasn’t true of audiences in 1948, so be forgiving.

The docudrama’s look is one of the many jewels in legendary cinematographer John Alton’s crown. In an interview, he said the crew and director all asked him where the lights were when they started filming the justly famous chase through the sewers. He told them that a single flashlight was enough, which gives you an idea of how very dark he preferred his shots. If you watch very carefully you will see that the king of darkness did have a trick up his sleeve: There are wires visibly trailing the actors in some of the sewer chase shots, indicating that he rigged the flashlights with much more powerful than usual light bulbs.

In addition to Alton’s bravura work behind the camera, this film also benefits from effective use of silence. In several highly arresting sequences (no pun intended), the sound goes dead as the police close in on the killer. The suspense is amped up enormously by these eerie scenes, as hunter and prey creep noiselessly through the dark until a violent confrontation shatters the silence.

The one mystery this film does not solve is who directed what. Alfred Werker got the director’s credit on screen, but it was later revealed that much of the film was actually directed by Anthony Mann (whose work I have touted here and here). Some scenes scream “Mann” in their style but others could have been directed by either him or Werker. Whoever did what, this taut, exciting film hangs together in tone and style with no directorial seams showing.

He Walked by Night is sadly little remembered today, but it did launch some much better known radio and television shows. Jack Webb, who plays a police investigator here, befriended L.A. police technical advisor Marty Wynn on the set and soon launched Dragnet to dramatize the real-life cases of the L.A.P.D. (FYI: This story is well-told in John Buntin’s terrific book L.A. Noir). Richard Basehart never became a big movie star, but was able to parlay his modest cinema success into a long-running career on television, most notably as Admiral Nelson on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This thrilling, visually stunning docudrama is in the public domain, so you watch it for free right here.

p.s. The fabulous sewer chase sequence in one of the greatest films in British history, 1948’s The Third Man bears more than a little resemblance to the similar sequence in He Walked by Night. No one seems to know for sure, but given that He Walked by Night’s production studio, Eagle-Lion films, had extensive British ties it is entirely possible that Carol Reed et al saw this movie and decided to mount something along the same lines.