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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.

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Action/Adventure British Drama

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Leslie Howard was a multi-talented actor/director/producer as well as a true patriot who was taken from us too soon in 1943 when he was murdered along with 16 other defenseless people by the German Luftwaffe. Can a film star be so appealing that the audience will root for a die-hard one-percenter who is battling the cruelty of ignorant poor people in an adaptation of book by a Pro-Imperialist, Pro-Aristocrat author? Well, sink me if Leslie Howard can’t, as you will see in this week’s film recommendation: The 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The film is set during The Reign of Terror, during which déclassé French mobs cheer as the guillotine ceaselessly beheads tumbril-full after tumbril-full of upper class men, women and children. Enter our brave and dashing British hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Leslie Howard), to rescue his fellow nibs and show the Froggies a thing or two along the way, hey wot? In private life this crusader hides behind a foppish, effete image as Sir Percy Blakeney, leading his wife (Merle Oberon) to worry that her husband is incapable of manly action. Meanwhile, a tough, clever French agent named Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) blackmails Lady Blakeney over a past transgression in the hopes that she will ferret out the true identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Although the movie contains some exciting action scenes in the early going, it’s really more of a three-handed melodrama (Indeed, the film would have benefited from just a bit more swash in its buckle). Percy doubts his wife’s political loyalty, she despairs of his evident lack of virility and seriousness, and Chauvelin tries to exploit the situation to bring about the death of his hated enemy. What might otherwise have been an overly serious or plodding story is enlivened throughout by Howard’s nearly over-the-top performance as Sir Percy, which he wisely plays for every possible laugh. Sink me, he’s a delight, as is Nigel Bruce in a supporting role as a buffoonish Prince of Wales (Later he would play a similarly comic Dr. Watson in another of my film recommendations).

scarletpimpernel

Raymond Massey, with his dark looks and intense acting, makes a memorable villain as Chauvelin. And 1930s movie icon Merle Oberon is at the peak of her allure. Shortly after this film was made the Hays Code came in to cover up her décolletage with burlap, thereby saving America’s wayward youth from unclean thoughts and perilous temptation. Sadly, Oberon was then in a serious car accident that permanently scarred her lovely face. She did though go on in 1939 to anchor an all-time classic, Wuthering Heights (She also, funnily enough, married The Scarlet Pimpernel’s producer, Alexander Korda, that same year). As a sign of the times and the business in which she worked, this mixed-race actress spent her entire life trying to deny her Indian heritage by invoking the risible claim that she was Tasmanian!

As for the politics of this film, well, only once does an aristocrat (Count de Tornay) in the movie acknowledge that The Terror never would have happened if the rich hadn’t been so out of touch. The author of the novel (a curio to be sure), Baroness Orczy, criticized French aristos for forgetting the code of noblesse oblige and abusing the poor. But neither she nor this film objects to aristocracy in principle, only aristocracy done badly. Should this bother you? Not unless you take this movie way too seriously. This is a Saturday afternoon matinee, not a political science lecture, and it succeeds on those light-hearted terms, particularly because of the standout work of the wonderful Leslie Howard. Best of all, it’s in the public domain (take that, you indolent landed gentry!) so even if you haven’t two farthings to rub together you can see this film for free right here.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

The Scarlet Claw

Of the many film series of the 1930s and 1940s, Sherlock Holmes stood out both for its watchability and its unusual provenance. It was launched at 20th Century Fox in 1939 as a high-end period production. But after two very strong films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (my recommendation here), Fox unaccountably dropped the series. Enter Universal Studios, who retained the lead actors and moved the series to modern times (Partly for WWII morale building and partly as a cost-cutting measure). Universal made a dozen modestly budgeted Holmes films in rapid succession over the next four years. Financial constraints and breakneck speed of production were no barrier to quality in this case. None of the films are bad and several are outstanding, including 1944’s The Scarlet Claw.

The plot: Holmes and Watson are in Canada, participating in a conference about the occult. Holmes’ open skepticism about the supernatural irritates the organizer, Lord Penrose (Paul Cavanagh). Penrose gets a message that his wife has been murdered, and the meeting is abruptly adjourned. Holmes presently receives a telegram sent by Penrose’s wife just before her death, saying that she feels she is in grave danger and wants Holmes to help her. Despite Lord Penrose’s hostility to him, Holmes sets off for the fog shrouded town of La Mort Rouge, where the locals believe a monster is ripping the throats out of livestock and also people. The monster is targeting particular individuals for some mysterious reason…can Holmes discover the motive behind the grisly crimes and save the next intended victim?

The heart of the Universal series are the triumvirate of Producer-Director (and in the case of The Scarlet Claw, co-screenwriter) Roy William Neill and stars Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. With his mien, delivery and intelligence, Rathbone was born to play the king of detectives and he defined the role for a generation through appearances on radio, television, film and stage. Neill and Bruce decided to make Watson much more comic than he was Doyle’s stories, which irritated some Baker Street Irregulars. If you can let that go and just take the performance for what it is, you will appreciate that Bruce is indeed agreeably funny in the role and also contributes some moments of emotional warmth which balance out his calculating machine of a friend.

The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel | Nitrate Diva

The Scarlet Claw is a high point of the series in part because it feels like an old-fashioned Victorian Holmes story even though it is set in the present day. Unlike in prior entries, Holmes is not battling Nazis but a killer who is (as in many of the films) a pastiche from the original stories. The moody, dark surroundings in rural Canada could easily pass for the Baskerville estate in Dartmoor. Also on display are some first rate make-up and special effects work, which is essential to the story for reasons I will not reveal. The film is also the career highlight of little-known British character actor Gerald Hamer, who makes the most of the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility as a performer. Cavanagh, a handsome, solid B-movie actor who appeared in several films in the series and also in another of my recommendations, (The Kennel Murder Case) is fully at ease in the role of Lord Penrose. The script is strong and Neill by this point in the series had mastered every aspect of how to create fine Holmesian cinema. The result is a skillfully made, suspenseful mystery.

More generally, as a body of work, the Universal Sherlock Holmes films depart too significantly from the original stories for some people’s tastes, but in performances and atmosphere they stand shoulder to shoulder with the tremendous Soviet Livanov-Solomin and British Granada television versions as high-quality, sustained efforts to adapt Conan Doyle’s beloved stories to the screen. Also, the prints of these films have been beautifully restored by the angels at the UCLA film preservation archive. Scarlet Claw is my favorite, but you could pick up almost any of the Universal series and have a fine evening watching the world’s greatest detective work his magic.