Category: Golden Age Article

The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part Four

After four weeks, we get to the cream of this crop of these fantastic films. (For previous films, (see Part One , Part Two, and Part Three.

3) Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943):

The third of a mini-series within the films focusing on World War II sees Holmes and Watson off for Washington, seeking to recover microfilm vital to the war effort. The film is more a spy thriller than a traditional detective story, but Rathbone makes it work.

The film features another solid performance from Rathbone. In this one, Holmes is matched up against sophisticated and ruthless Nazi spies who will do anything to capture the microfilm. This is one of the best types of Holmes films, with the villains and Holmes racing against time towards a solution.

The tension is heightened by clever camera work surrounding the object of the quest, which is a matchbook containing the missing microfilm. The producers rarely let the matchbook out of our sight. We see it passed from hand to hand, even follow it on a tray at a party. It was a very clever and fun device.

2) Sherlock Holmes: The Voice of Terror (1942)

The Voice of Terror brought Holmes and Watson off the radio and back on to motion picture screens and relaunched the series at Universal, and set the series back into the modern times of World War II Great Britain, placing our heroes in the mix of one of the greatest fights in history. This movie has a ripped from the headlines feel as Holmes seeks out a man whose diabolical broadcast were designed to destroy the morale of the beleaguered British public by disclosing classified war information over the radio.

The cinematography was inexpensive but well-done. If you get the restored version from UCLA, the barroom scene where Holmes seeks help in weeding out the Voice of Terror is extremely well-shot. The solution to the case is unexpected and the film packs an emotional wallop. The spirit of World War II comes through in the film. The Voice of Terror is a film about sacrifice, courage, and the indomitable spirit that refused to blink in the face of Nazi Germany.

Of course, there are many people who question the decision to have movies where Sherlock Holmes fights in World War II. However, we must remember that at the time the movie was released, survival of Great Britain was an open question, and the movie has the sense of that. What this means is that the stakes of the film are high and the film had a sense of this larger story going on in the real world. It would be odd for Holmes not to be involved in these sort of cases.

World War II brought many changes to the lives of fictional detectives. Not only Sherlock Holmes, but other detectives such as Nero Wolfe and Charlie Chan lent their skills to the war effort. World War II was when people from all walks of life were having their lives shaken up. Holmes was no different..

And what would Arthur Conan Doyle think of his hero becoming a Nazi buster? The last line of the film provides a clue. Holmes tells Watson, “But there’s an East wind coming all the same. Such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less. And a greener, better, stronger land will be in the sunshine when the wind is clearer.” The quote was actually a line Doyle wrote for Holmes in “His Last Bow,” which was set during World War I. I have no doubt that this film is one Doyle would approve of.

1) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not just the very best of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, but the best Holmes film I’ve yet seen. The movie begins with Professor Moriarty (played superbly by George Zucco) being acquitted of a crime and Holmes pledging to bring him to the gallows. Moriarty responds by planning an ostentatious crime and plans to keep Holmes distracted by giving him a puzzle so fascinating that it’ll keep Holmes occupied while Moriarty pulls off the crime of the century.

While Hound of the Baskervilles introduced us to Rathbone as Holmes, he really begins to own the role in this performance. The dynamic between Holmes and Moriarty has never been better. The crimes are clever and well-executed. The film represents the ultimate in the Holmes-Moriarty battle of wits and the battle is not limited to wits only. The confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at the end of the movie is well-shot and well-scored, making for an exciting and well-paced end to the adventure.

The movie also has the some nice little touches including a fun musical interlude. In addition, unlike later Holmes films which were shot on a limited budget due to wartime restrictions, this film is a beautifully shot period piece.

Thus, while many great and good Holmes would follow, if I had to pick only one Sherlock Holmes film to take on a desert island, this would be the one.

The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part Three

Continuing on our list of Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies from best to worst (see Part One and Part Two):

6) The House of Fear (1945)

Each of these films is a little different from each other, and this one is a classic old house mystery. The plot centers around seven retired gentlemen who buy an old house and live together as the Good Comrades. Members of the group start dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving no identifiable bodies.

This one is a puzzler. The solution to the mystery was incredibly clever and took me totally by surprise. This one doesn’t have as much action or tension as some of the other films, but the mystery more than makes up for it.

5) Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

This was the second of three Sherlock Holmes counterespionage movies. It places Holmes squarely against the Nazis and Professor Moriarty who is serving as a Nazi agent. The plot centers around Swiss scientists who come to the UK to supply the British with a powerful new weapon the Nazis would love to get their hands on.

These films liked to borrow an element from a Doyle story as a homage. Here, the Dancing Men makes for a fascinating puzzle as both Holmes and Moriarty try to beat each other to the punch. There’s a good battle of wits that’s worthy of the two geniuses with a prize that’s definitely worthy of their efforts: a weapon that could change the course of the war. This one had a nice mix of comedy in the midst.

It should be noted the final few minutes of the movie had almost a campy feel, with Holmes playing off of Moriarty’s intellectual vanity. Still, it was a very fun movie.

4) The Scarlet Claw (1944):

This film incorporated a greater horror element as Holmes receives a letter asking for help–written by a woman just before she’d been murdered. When Holmes comes to town, everyone is a suspect, including the woman’s husband, with whom Holmes had been having a spirited debate over the existence of the supernatural when they both learned of her death.

This film is perhaps the most frightening and tense of the series, as many of the locals suspect supernatural involvement. Similar to the Hound of the Baskervilles, the locals believe  a supernatural beast of some sort made the odd marks on the body, while Holmes believes an implement was used.

The denouement of the mystery doesn’t disappoint. Just like with House of Fear,  I was surprised by who the murderer was. (Although, the astute viewer may catch a clue when Watson references a Father Brown story in the middle of the film.)

 

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The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part Two

The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part Two

We continue to revisit this series of posts from 2011. (See Part One)

10) Pursuit to Algiers (1945):

This post-war picture takes Holmes and Watson on a ship-board adventure as they are tasked with guarding the heir to the throne of a fictional nation. The film featured nice red herrings as well as Nigel Bruce singing. If the film had any weakness, it was its villains. The Three Stooges would have been a greater challenge.

9) Terror by Night (1946)

Immediately following “Pursuit to Algiers,” the producers decided to put Holmes and Watson on a train. Other than the first two scenes, the action is all on the train. It’s a taut thriller without a lot of fluff, but manages to get in a decent mystery, plenty of excitement, and a few nice twists at the end.

8 )The Spiderwoman (1944)

Holmes suspects a series of suicides by men in their pajamas is really a fiendish murder plot. This film features one of the best villains of the series in Gale Sondergaard who is the ultimate femme fatale and the mastermind of the plot. This film features deadly peril for both Holmes and Watson and a suspenseful ending. Also, you get to see what targets you’d find in a shooting gallery during World War II.

7) The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

This was the first appearance by Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson and follows the classic mystery novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a baffling whodunit as Holmes has to find out who is trying to use the myth of the Hound of the Baskervilles to do in the young lord of the manor. Hound of the Baskervilles is also noted for its haunting scenes of the Scottish Moors. They’re realistic and help to set the film’s mood. These scenes alone make Hound of the Baskervilles a must-see.

Will continue with Part 3 next week.

 

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The Rathbone-Bruce Countdown, Part One

Note: I’m taking a few weeks off from new columns, so I’m revisiting a series I did back in 2011 on the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes series which many newer listeners/readers haven’t read. 

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. It doesn’t get much better than that. From the late 1930s through the mid-1940s, they were Holmes and Watson.

Their fourteen films are a remarkable mix of detective stories, crime stories, spy thrillers, suspense, and a few touches of comedy. The films gave us the definitive Holmes for an entire generation of viewers. They were exciting, thrilling, and well-played. I should say that because a film is listed low on my list (with the exception of the #14 film), it’s not because it was a bad film. They’re almost all good, and some of these rankings were tough calls.

14)  The Woman in Green (1945)

The weakest of the series. The Woman in Green was a film that struggled with its plot and villains. The character who ought to be the primary villain lacked the personality of Holmes’ female antagonists in The Spiderwoman and Dressed to Kill. So, the writers brought Professor Moriarty back despite having killed him six movies prior. The problem is the plot they created was too small for Moriarty. In previous movies, he’d tried to steal the crown jewels and then been working for the Nazis. In this film, Moriarty’s plot amounts to is a fairly gruesome blackmail scheme. Hardly stuff for the Napoleon of Crime.

13)  The Pearl of Death (1944)

Holmes, while trying to illustrate the ineffectiveness of relying on an electronic burglar alarm to protect a valuable pearl, disconnects the alarm, allowing a thief to steal the pearl. From there, the story follows the premise of the Doyle story, “The Six Napoleons.” However, it adds in a gruesome monster of a killer and makes for a suspenseful chapter in the series.

12) Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Not as exciting as the title might indicate, with a few rough spots. However, Holmes’ investigation into a series of murders at a convalescent home has a fantastic final confrontation requiring a lot of guts from our hero to pull it off.

11) Dressed to Kill (1946)

This is a film that gets trashed by some fans for everything from the title to similarities in plot to Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. The plot centers around three music boxes that were made in prison and purchased at an auction house and the criminals desperate to recover them.  However, I love the use of music in this plot. Also, this film features Watson’s goofiest moments as he’s tricked with a puerile ruse into revealing the location of a music box, but Watson also gives Holmes the final clue that helps him solve the case.

To be Continued Next week….

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The Top Ten Things I Like About Dragnet, Part Three

Continued from Part One and Part Two
3) The Realism

While, some exceptions to the show’s realism (such as the constant changing of departments or Joe Friday giving speeches) contribute to making the show enjoyable, it’s the show’s overall realistic presentation that makes it stand out.

Any program is going to have to compromise on realism. With the exception of the five two-part radio episodes, and two movies, every episode Dragnet resolves itself nicely in half an hour. There are bound to be compromises to make for good, fictionalized drama. As Clive James observed, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.”

Where Dragnet excelled is turning things that would be dull into things stuff that was interesting. They made an anti-riot task force set up in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination where nothing happened fairly interesting.

The behind-the-scenes details of how a crime investigation worked were usually neglected on other programs for exciting chases and crooks talking in bad accents in the style of Guys and Dolls. Here we got details on how the police solved their cases in a way no other program had done.

It also created suspense as to the ending. It didn’t always end with them making a dramatic arrest of the suspect. Dragnet wasn’t afraid to portray spending half a day on a stake out only to find out other policemen made the arrest across town. It feels a little anti-climatic, but you buy into that because that sort of thing happens to real detectives.

Dragnet is not perfectly realistic and perfectly true to life. If it were, no one would want to watch it other than people training to be policemen. However, it’s makes the details of police work entertaining and features enough realism in its structure to create a unique feel that allows a listener or viewer to feel like it’s real.

2) The Willingness to Tackle Tough Issues

Dragnet often brought awareness and attention to important issues that most shows wouldn’t tackle. It’s well known for its anti-drug episodes but it doesn’t get enough credit for how it shined a light on child abuse and neglect.

These shows could be the most heartbreaking episodes ever, but that’s what they were designed for. When many modern day dramas  take on a tough issue, it’s exploitative. It was never that way with Dragnet. There’s a sense the show was trying to raise awareness. The earnestness about the show’s approach indicates they’re talking about this issue because it’s important. Jack Webb became highly involved in the LAPD community and the concerns of policemen and what they were seeing on the street became his concerns on the series.

While this can make for some sad and even uncomfortable viewing, I can’t help but respect the show’s honesty and sensitivity in dealing with tough issues.

1) It’s Understanding of the Power of Impact

In a world free of the restraint of prior generations’ mores, producers of film and television hit us with a constant barrage of sex and violence. The result is, what would have been shocking to older generations is rendered meaningless by the sheer volume of it that we encounter.

Dragnet not only stayed within the lines required of its culture, it was more economical with its use of violence. It went back to the show’s realism. Real police officers didn’t deal with shootouts every week, so why should Joe Friday?

Most weeks, Joe Friday’s gun remains concealed in his shoulder holster. However, when there is peril, danger, and gun play in Dragnet, it’s memorable and well done. An episode like, “The Big Break,” which involves smoke bombs, machine guns, and daring criminal escapes is really exciting. There’s Friday’s actions in the big scene of Dragnet 1966 that leaves him a total mess, or there’s also “The Grenade,” where he wrestles a disturbed young man with a live grenade. And limited violence makes Friday’s sadness believable at the end of, “The Big Thief,” when he’s had to shoot and kill a young robber.

Beyond violence, there were many emotions not regularly displayed on the show, but when they were, you knew a situation had really impacted the characters.

A show that uses violence and emotional theatrics all the time quickly makes those moments meaningless to the audience. By being disciplined, Dragnet made these moments truly matter to its audience which is a key to a powerful drama.