Thursday, October 29, 2020

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the sixth of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson (and the fourth to be made by Universal). It was released in 1943 and is based (loosely) on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.

The Rathbone/Bruce series began with 20th Century-Fox in 1939. For complicated reasons only two movies were made. In the early 40s Universal acquired the rights and very wisely decided to stick with the winning combination of Rathbone and Bruce. They also made the very unfortunate decision to try to update Sherlock Holmes by pitting him against the Nazis in a contemporary setting. After three such efforts sanity finally prevailed and the next film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, was a classic Holmesian adventure. While it still had a contemporary setting the story could just as easily have taken place in the 1890s as the 1940s. The war is relegated very much to the background and plays no part in the story. In fact this film (and the remainder of the Universal Sherlock Holmes cycle) really takes place in a self-contained fog-shrouded universe in which Holmes has always had rooms at 221b Baker Street and always will have.

This film also represents a very sharp, and very welcome, turn towards a gothic feel. This is of course something that Universal could do very very well. They even re-use sets built for Dracula.

Dr Watson is staying at Musgrave Manor, a gloomy 16th century pile in Northumberland. The house is being used as a temporary hospital for convalescent officers, with Dr Watson in charge of their care. Alarmed by the attempted murder of his assistant, Dr Bob Sexton, Watson asks his old friend Sherlock Holmes for help. Given that Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) has been assigned to the case it’s just as well that Holmes will be on hand. Lestrade, as usual, is bungling the case hopelessly. He arrests an American officer, based on some very flimsy circumstantial evidence.

The murders begin immediately after the arrival of Holmes. Holmes suspects they have some connexion with the enigmatic Musgrave Ritual, performed for over 400 years on the occasion of the death of the current head of the family.

No-one in the family knows the meaning of the Musgrave Ritual. Sally Musgrave (Hillary Brooke) has to recite the ritual without having the slightest idea what it means. In fact the members of the famiy assume it has no meaning. Holmes does not accept this.

The murders and the ritual give Holmes puzzles to solve. He gets to do some real detective work and Bertram Millhauser provides a script that puts those puzzles at centre stage.

The chess scene and the reading of the Ritual are impressive set-pieces.

The previous film in the series, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, had been a flop. The decision to change direction and make Sherlock Holmes Faces Death a classic whodunit proved to be an excellent one. It was a major success with the public, and critics generally liked it as well. Perhaps wartime audiences didn’t want endless movies about Nazi spies. It seems that they actually wanted pure entertainment to take their minds off the war. And they wanted the real Sherlock Holmes, using his genius to solve baffling crimes.

Reverting to a traditional detective story format also makes the central characters, and the performances of the two leads, work much more effectively. Hunting Nazi spies made Sherlock Holmes seem like a fish out of water but here he is in his element.

Roy William Neill directed all but one of the Rathbone-Bruce films and he really was the perfect choice. He was essentially a B-feature director but he had an excellent visual sense and that, combined with Charles Van Enger’s marvellous black-and-white cinematography, gives the Holmes film their distinctive slightly gothic feel.

Bertram Millhauser’s screenplay utilises various elements of the original short story but most importantly it feels like a Sherlock Holmes story.

This movie is not perfect. While the climatic showdown between Holmes and the murderer is excellent it’s the film’s only real suspense scene. In particular it was a mistake not to make the audience feel that Sally Musgrave was in real danger.

Whether Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (in the 1980s-1990s Granda TV series) was the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes is an unanswerable question. Both gave very different interpretations of the rĂ´le but in both cases there was ample support in Conan Doyle’s stories for those interpretations. They simply emphasised different facets of the  personality of a complex character whose enduring popularity is based largely on the fact that he was so complex. Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson is more controversial but on the hole the decision to make him a semi-comic character was probably justified. The films were dark enough that some comic relief was actually welcome. And in this film Watson is amusing without being a fool.

Optimum Releasing’s Region 2 DVD offers a superb transfer and some nice extras an including an audio commentary by noted Sherlockian David Stuart Davies.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a vast improvement on the three earlier Universal films. With this production Universal had found the correct formula. It’s by no means the best entry in the cycle but it’s still highly recommended.


  1. I've got that Optimum DVD release - the box set with all the Rathbone movies - highly recommended! I recently bought a projector which screens at 90 inches on the wall, and this series is one of the ones I'm working through. Tempted to just jump ahead to this one.

    I grew up with the Jeremy Brett series, so my mind's pretty much made up on that one (although no-one can top the Dr Watson in the Soviet series of the early 80s). But there are scenes - not whole movies, but scenes - where Rathbone at least matches him as the character from the books.

    1. although no-one can top the Dr Watson in the Soviet series of the early 80s

      I haven't seen that one. Can you get it on DVD?

  2. You can on Amazon's UK site - although it's imported (it doesn't have a BBFC rating, although it would be PG). Just search on Amazon for 'Russian Sherlock Holmes' - it's 6 dvds in the set, in Russian with subtitles. If you're OK with subtitles, I'd recommend it.

    It's an interesting series - it's clearly not the UK, but they do try. Holmes is the conventional public view of Holmes, with a bit more of a twinkle in his eye, there's some fairly broad humour, although not too much, Moriarty is like something out of German silent cinema, and there's a few ham actors in supporting roles.

    But the guy playing Watson is pitch perfect, especially in the earlier episodes. He looks like he's just walked out of the books - he even looks like a (real) British Army officer.

    1. You can on Amazon's UK site - although it's imported (it doesn't have a BBFC rating, although it would be PG). Just search on Amazon for 'Russian Sherlock Holmes' - it's 6 dvds in the set, in Russian with subtitles. If you're OK with subtitles, I'd recommend it.

      Ah yes, I've found it. And I can order it through amazon's Australian site. I'm very very tempted.

    2. Go for it - I think you'll like it. Even the things that don't work, I think you'll find amusing rather than irritating ... apart from the theme tune, which IIRC is repeated ad nauseum! (And if you do get it, check out the pictures in Holmes's study ... )

  3. The ones with Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Watson are the ones I mean. Although I should point out that the subtitles aren't always great, especially when they're spelling names!

  4. Having finally got around to watching the film lol, it's definitely a return to the more conventional Holmes- what we think of as a Rathbone movie. The idea is better than the final film, but it certainly looks right.

    I actually like the spy movie ones - I always treat them as spy movies rather than Holmes movies, and they do have great villains.

    I've never really liked Bruce's Watson - although he's not always a complete fool. But watching these films on a projector - like my own personal cinema screen - I realise why a clown Watson is right for these movies. They'd be very dry with a sensible Watson - I could imagine an audience getting pretty restless.