Friday, August 12, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (1943)

While the rest of the film’s cast of characters are solving the infinitely complex and centuries-old family riddle on the great black and white stone floor of Musgrave Manor’s main hall, Inspector Lestrade (played by Dennis Hoey) has managed to get himself lost in the intricate secret passages that are hidden within the sprawling estate.  Hammering desperately on the walls, Lestrade finally attracts the attentions of the crowd, including Sherlock Holmes.  “Get me out,” he shouts.  “I’m lost!  I’m all turned around!”  For his part, Holmes seems entirely indifferent to the police inspector’s plight, responding: “You have been for years!”  And then, turning to the Musgrave’s maid: “Get him out of there, will you, Mrs. Howells?  And give him a saucer of milk.”
As David Stuart Davies points out in Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen, there is no logical reason for Inspector Lestrade to be on hand for the crimes committed at Musgrave Manor, seeing as the location is rather isolated and in Northumberland.  Surely there is a local police inspector who would have better served in this investigative role?  However, he provides (along with Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson) some comic relief in what is a really rather gruesome picture.  However, Lestrade’s presence serves another purpose, and his appearance in the 1943 film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, marks another way in which the picture returns to the elements with which Sherlockians are most comfortable, the settings in which they most love to see the Great Detective.  Inspector Lestrade may be bumbling and incompetent to the point of hyperbole, but at least he is present, just like Sherlock Holmes’s indoor target practice and Mrs. Hudson’s frustration over the state of her plaster.
“…Sherlock Holmes Faces Death brings Holmes back to the world of creepy old houses, wild windy nights and mysterious unsolved murders.  The mood is Victorian Gothic but the presence of the Second World War is still in evidence…” (50).  Although the plot of the film is only very tenuously linked to the original canon story, “The Musgrave Ritual,” the sprawling Musgrave estate remains, as well as the ancient ceremony that is linked to the layout of the property.  In this film, the puzzle is linked to the layout of the house specifically, rather than the landscape as in the original story; but the ancient crypt remains, with the addition of the black and white stone floor acting as a chessboard and ultimately providing the key to the puzzle’s solution.  As Sherlock Holmes tells Watson, “You were right, Watson, about Musgrave Manor.  Houses, like people, have definite personalities.  And this place is positively ghoulish!”
Interestingly, Musgrave Manor is the film’s link to the present, as well as the past—the shadow of war hangs heavily in the atmosphere, but is not a primary plot point as in some of Basil Rathbone’s previous Sherlock Holmes pictures.  The manor has been converted into a home for convalescent officers, where Watson had been working at the beginning of the picture.  Of particular note, Musgrave Manor has become home to a trio of soldiers that even Sherlock Holmes terms “extraordinary.”  First, there is Captain MacIntosh, who was wounded in a German trench, and now knits compulsively.  There is also Major Langford, a veteran of the Pacific theatre with an escape complex, who now manifests a curious, repetitive speech pattern.  Finally, Lieutenant Clavering is youthful, unexplainably apologetic, and skittish around unidentifiable packages due to his work with explosives.  The three officers act as a type of Greek chorus throughout the film, watching ominously over some of the picture’s more gruesome moments—such as the discovery of Philip Musgrave’s corpse in the trunk of a car.  They also remark surreptitiously on the action—comments that seem to go largely unnoticed by the rest of the ensemble, but nonetheless provide a sense of place and time whenever necessary, sometimes echoing the sentiments of the audience as Sherlock Holmes works through his methods.
And the Great Detective is back in what seems to be his natural element.  There are no spies, NAZIs, nor matters of international intrigue in this picture.  While Holmes’s wardrobe and styling are unmistakably modern, his attitude and his mannerisms are clearly—well, if not Victorian, as such—very uniquely Sherlock Holmes.  From the moment he leaps into action at Watson’s arrival at Baker Street with the case, to the manner in which he keeps everyone in the dark as to his methods at the film’s climax—Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes stares down his challengers in a way that conveys his intellectual superiority without a word, and he uses that power to its fullest advantage in this movie.  In addition, Holmes is sniping (sometimes nastily, sometimes affectionately) at Nigel Bruce’s famously bumbling Dr. Watson; he brushes off Mrs. Hudson’s concerns over property damage by couching it in terms of the solution to his case; and when Sally Musgrave (played by Hillary Brooke) throws herself into Holmes’s arms while in a state of distress, the Detective’s first reaction is to turn to Dr. Watson for a sedative, all the while looking profoundly uncomfortable.
As Davies says, “[Director Roy William Neill] returned Holmes and Watson to the kind of complex problem and rich atmosphere that make Doyle’s tales so satisfying” (50).  The manner in which Holmes tackles the problem is comfortably familiar—Holmes’s habitual brilliance shining ever so brightly as he solves the riddle that had baffled generations of Musgraves.  The Musgrave Ritual is perhaps one of the most famous treasure hunt puzzles in all of literature (parts of it were appropriated by T.S. Eliot in “Murder in the Cathedral”), and even though the puzzle is changed for the purposes of the film, the spirit of it remains.  And Sherlock Holmes is able to solve it with little more than his own wit, his pipe, and a chessboard (both small and large) on which to act out his deductions.

According to the New York Times, “…what is admirable about the film is the wonderful sense of atmosphere, of mystery, of sepulchral gloom that oozes like fog throughout the melodrama.  No government spy work for Sherlock this time; despite his being contemporized by the studio right up to the minute, this adventure was, paradoxically, a return to all the shadowy Victorian trappings of the richly old-fashioned mystery” (51).  And perhaps that is what is so lovely and appealing about Sherlock Holmes Faces Death—it appears to have found just the right balance between Rathbone’s earlier “period” Sherlock Holmes films (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and the later war films (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon).  There is a space in which audiences (and readers) know Sherlock Holmes, where they recognize him most easily, where they prefer to find him.  And this film goes a long way towards recreating that place.


  1. Great review! It's really one of my favorites out of all the Rathbone films. The chessboard idea is very cool, and I think the manor-house setting, as in The House of Fear, definitely adds a lot to the atmosphere. Hopefully the upcoming BBC modernization of HOUN will use a similar approach, in order to keep the "gothic" tone of the story!

  2. I love Rathbone's Holmes, and this is definitely one of the best out of the series. Poor Watson, I think he's thought Holmes dead several times in the series--'The Woman in Green' (probably my favorite), 'The Spider Woman', and 'Pursuit to Algiers' (another of my favorites)...

    My mom loves these movies, but I didn't catch up until I read Laurie King's Mary Russell series...and then I had a great time discovering just who Holmes really is! =)

  3. @Marian: Thank you! I think "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" might be my favorite Rathbone film too, and I forgot how much I enjoyed it until I sat down to watch it again. I think there is a lot to be said for atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes films (no matter the century they are set in), which is why Rathbone's war films as Sherlock Holmes don't quite cut it for me. Thank you for commenting!

    @ladyrazorsharp: I agree, poor Watson! Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson is eternally bumbling, but he is very earnest and very sincere and he cares very much for his friend, which is crucial in any Watson, I think. I'm glad you're enjoying Mary Russell's memoirs...they're really rather remarkable, aren't they? Thank you for your comment!