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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
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino was a central figure in the breaking of the all-male lock on the Hollywood director’s chair. While she was looking for a new project to make with her then-husband Collier Young, she met one of the men who had been kidnapped and forced to drive through Mexico by spree killer Billy Cook. That inspired her (and co-screenwriter/producer Young) to make the first film noir directed by a woman: 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.

The story is straightforward and crisply told. Wonderfully, there is none of the extended, needless expository “set-up” of the characters and story of which too many film makers are enamored. Rather, the movie opens with a solitary figure walking slowly along a highway, looking for a ride. His face is off-camera. A car stops to pick him up, and moments later we see the same car on a dark side road, with dead bodies next to it. The solitary figure, face still obscured, harvests wallets and jewelry from the corpses. And then we see two pals on a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker, who draws a gun and tells them to drive to Mexico. Somewhere along the way, he announces blandly that he is going to kill them too. From there, the movie is a three-handed nail biter, with William Talman as the hitchhiker and Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien as the luckless captives. Lupino keeps the brutal tale moving quickly and tells it an unromantic, unadorned style reminiscent of one of her mentors, Raoul Walsh.

Like most people, I only knew William Talman as the Prosecuting Attorney who got his head handed to him every week by Perry Mason. But there was more to the man than the role of Hamilton Berger let him show. As the gun-toting, sadistic Emmett Myers, he’s truly chilling. Yet like most bullies, he conveys an undercurrent of weakness and fear. It’s a pity Talman’s addiction to tobacco took him away from us at such an early age, leaving The Hitch-Hiker as the only big screen work for which he is even occasionally remembered.

O’Brien is credible as the more macho of the kidnappers, who chafes at Talman’s psychological terrorism and keeps looking for a way to confront him. But the more complex performance is by Frank Lovejoy, whom Lupino seems to have coached to play his part more like O’Brien’s wife than friend. He cooks, he tends injuries, he loves children, he counsels patience and he better endures Talman’s taunts that the captives are soft and unmanly. Yet when the need arises, Lovejoy is heroic. I wonder if Lupino saw herself this way. In any case, I doubt that a male director/scriptwriter would have crafted Lovejoy’s part in this complex and compelling fashion.

The film is also a master class in noir cinematographer, with Nicholas Musuraca behind the camera. The eerie shots of Talman’s menacing face floating in the dark in the back seat with the two terrified captives harshly lighted and staring at the camera are unforgettable. But Musuraca also puts paid to the idea that film noir camerawork has to be all about shadow. Noir is a mood and not just a lighting style. The lonely, glaring shots of the car rolling through the bleak desert utterly isolated under the burning Mexican sun are just as much iconic noir as are all the dark scenes. Musuraca is revered in film noir uber-buff circles, but not widely respected beyond that, perhaps because his oeuvre was so enormous that he inevitably worked on some zero-budget tripe. But with this film, the trend-setting noir Stranger on the Third Floor and his movies with Jacques Tourneur (also once unappreciated), he has the basis to accrue a stronger reputation over time.

The Hitch-Hiker is a minor classic of the noir genre and a feather in the cap for Lupino, Young and everyone else involved. After this gripping movie, you may find yourself hesitant to ever again slow down and pick up that guy with his thumb out on the side of the road.