Friday, November 13, 2015

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

Pursuit to Algiers, released in 1945, was the twelfth of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (and the tenth to be made by Universal). Leonard Lee’s original screenplay was partly inspired by one of the Conan Doyle stories, The Adventure of the Red Circle.

Dr Watson has persuaded Holmes that he what he really needs is a holiday in Scotland, but of course we know that every time a fictional detective plans a holiday an important case will come up to disrupt any such recreational activities. In this case it’s a very important case (and it’s very cleverly set up with a serious of ingenious clues leading Holmes and Watson to the rendezvous where they learn the details of the case).

The King of the fictional country of Rovinia has been assassinated and it is vital that the heir to the throne, currently being educated in England, should reach his country in safety before the conspirators who murdered his father can take over the government. Holmes accepts the task of escorting the prince (or rather the new king) to Rovinia.

The only aircraft available for this task is a three-seater which means that Dr Watson will be unable to accompany his old friend. This however gives Holmes an idea - Watson can travel to Rovinia by sea and serve as a kind of decoy.

In fact both Holmes and Watson end up spending most of the movie on board the ship headed for Algiers, where the new king will find safety. The difficulty will be to keep him alive until then, quite a challenge as there will be attempts on his life using poison, knives and even explosives. Obviously there are assassins on board the ship and Holmes will have to discover their identity, and of course he may end up becoming a victim as well.  

The Universal Sherlock Holmes movies brought the great detective into contemporary times, with many of the films dealing with specifically 1940s concerns. This particular film though feels like it could easily have been set in the 1920s, or even the 1890s for that matter. Plots involving monarchs of mythical middle European countries were a staple of late Victorian and Edwardian thrillers such as Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (and were still popular in the 20s in books like Dornford Yates’ Blood Royal). And the opening scenes of the movie have the atmosphere of the London of the original Conan Doyle stories. By the time this movie was released the war was over and Universal obviously decided it would be wise to get right away from wartime themes. Pursuit to Algiers has an old-fashioned feel for a 1945 movie but I find that to be quite refreshing. 

Unfortunately Leonard Lee’s screenplay isn’t terribly inspired. The identities of the bad guys are revealed much too early on and they’re too obvious. There’s a token attempt to set up a few red herrings but they’re unconvincing. There’s also an entirely irrelevant sub-plot concerning stolen jewels.

This movie is also weakened by the generally uninteresting villains. The one bright spot is Martin Kosleck’s performance as the sinister knife-throwing Mirko. Mirko’s attempt to murder Holmes provides one of the movie’s few highlights - a brief scene that is rather neatly executed.

Marjorie Riordan provides some glamour as an American singer to whom Watson takes a shine but her part in the movie is really just rather clumsy padding.

Luckily Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are as watchable as ever. Bruce actually gets several strong scenes, the best being the one in which he hears of the supposed death of Holmes. He also gets to sing in this movie! And he gets to tell the passengers about one of the famous unrecorded cases of Sherlock Holmes, the adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra.

Director Roy William Neill does his best to keep things interesting with plenty of night scenes, lots of fog and a few reasonably impressive visual moments.

Pursuit to Algiers is definitely one of the lesser movies in this series. It’s hard to go wrong with mysteries and thrillers set on board trains or ships but in this case the shipboard setting is not enough to compensate for a weak script. It’s not a terrible movie and it does provide reasonable entertainment, and Rathbone and Bruce are very good as always (Bruce is particularly good), but it’s not quite up to the standard of the better Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies. Worth a look for serious fans of the series.

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