Occasionally, I think that Nigel Bruce gets a bad rap. Once in a great while, his performance as Dr. John Watson touches a soft place in my heart. I find myself susceptible to moments like his rendition of “Loch Lomond” in Pursuit to Algiers (and from the same film, his recounting of a recent adventure with Sherlock Holmes using a celery stalk as the Detective and a hunk of cheese as himself); or his utterly crestfallen expression in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when the Detective snappishly refers to his companion as “an incorrigible bungler” (though he is soothed by a gentle pat on the shoulder). For all his foolishness and sometimes blatant stupidity, there is warmth and openness in Bruce’s interpretation, with a certain guilelessness that goes a long way towards explaining how he has managed Holmes’s peculiarities for so long – perhaps it is simply because he sees no malice in the Detective’s actions, no animosity, and cannot bring himself to harbor any resentment or bitterness towards his friend.
But in the 1945 film, The House of Fear, such moments of softness and affectation are notably absent. Despite one rather astute and crucial observation, and one poignant moment between the two friends at the conclusion of the film (Holmes does seem rather touchingly grateful for his friend’s survival), Bruce’s Watson is at his vaudevillian worst. It’s hard to find any redemptive qualities in a scene in which Watson – unearthing a grave while Holmes stands about smoking a pipe – finds himself embroiled in an Abbott and Costello-style argument with an owl. Holmes’s comment of “Having a nice little chat, Watson?” is the only one of his many needle-like barbs throughout the film that is utterly deserved. According to Alan Barnes:
“Despite furnishing Holmes with the one last vital piece of evidence, Nigel Bruce’s Watson does not fare well, being a source of irritation to the detective (Holmes loudly informs the entire household that Watson snores ‘like a pig’) and the butt of a semi-jokey five minute sequence in which, guarding downstairs on his own, he flaps hither and thither while attempting to track down the source of a number of strange noises. (He shoots a suit of armour and a cat before asserting, ‘They’ve got me completely surrounded!’)” (94).
To be fair, Rathbone’s Holmes does not come across at his very best in this film either. As Barnes points out, the Detective makes a rather pointed, public and personal joke at the Doctor’s expense: “You snored like a pig!” Later, Watson is attacked in the sitting room while Holmes investigates upstairs. Watson screams rather ardently for his friend, to which Holmes responds by descending the stairs at a pace that could best be described as a “saunter,” or perhaps a leisurely stroll. There is no urgency in his manner, while Watson, for all appearances, has just escaped a brutal death. Holmes’s most animated moment comes only when his own life is in danger – as well as the Doctor’s – at the hands of a falling boulder.
However, Basil Rathbone might have been as much to blame as the film’s screenwriters for the Detective’s apathetic characterization in this film. According to David Stuart Davies: “It was becoming noticeable that Rathbone was beginning to tire of the role of Sherlock Holmes. After nine features and numerous radio broadcasts, the character was so familiar to him that he felt there was nothing fresh he could bring to the part. The reviewer in the New York Times called his performance in this movie ‘as pedestrian as a cop on patrol’” (59). There is a tiredness to Rathbone’s performance in this picture, as if he is trying to summon energy and enthusiasm for the role that he simply does not have. In response, Bruce’s Watson and Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade (inexplicably present in Scotland in his role as a police inspector, despite being rather clearly out of his jurisdiction) appear to move ever further into the role of caricature, seemingly becoming mere parodies of their roles. Lestrade, for example, loudly and brazenly takes credit for the capture of Professor Moriarty.
To its credit, The House of Fear has much going for it in the way of atmosphere – an eerie, gothic manor seated on top of a high cliff in Scotland, a morose and sinister housekeeper who acts as the harbinger of ill-tidings and death, and a strange men’s club shrouded in secrecy and strange ritual. Even the manners in which the “Good Comrades” are murdered demonstrate a distinct variety and creativity. They are gruesome and evocative, summoning an array of horrifying images with the simple phrase: “No man goes whole to his grave.” The House of Fear’s link to the Canon story “The Five Orange Pips” is tenuous at best – the only reference to the source material being the orange pips each Good Comrade receives prior to his death. But the film does manage to invoke the violence of the original story, the grim and sometimes coldhearted nature of humanity.
There are elements of The House of Fear that are reminiscent of the earlier Rathbone/Bruce picture, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). As Davies says, “…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). Unfortunately, The House of Fear demonstrates little to none of the strength of its earlier counterpart. Perhaps, this is demonstrative of how much of a Sherlock Holmes film’s success is derived from the strength and vitality of the actor in the title role, and how much the film suffers if he finds himself indifferent.
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• Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen. (September 2011).
• Stuart Davies, David. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (January 2006).