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.
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.
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.
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.
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.