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Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the first film in the Universal Sherlock
Holmes series (1942 -1946) to abandon the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a
prototypical 007 spy-hunter, battling Nazi agents and keeping Britain
safe from the Axis powers. The bizarre experiment which began,
apparently without a shred of irony, with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice
of Terror was brutally maimed when Sherlock Holmes in Washington
flopped. And so, the direction of the series changed (for the better)
with the fourth outing, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death...to the point that
it can almost be viewed as the starting point of a completely new
Here, the allusions to WWII are vague, at best. Gone are the overt references to the Nazis and the intrusive patriotic speeches...which merely impeded upon the proceedings in the previous films. Holmes is in his element here, solving a dense mystery by using deductive reasoning. The film is still modern, making use of such devices as automobiles, telephones, and electric lights. But this is all incidental. If we overlook the updating of the surface elements, the story itself is rather timeless. Telephones and automobiles were present in Conan Doyle's later Holmes stories, anyway...and the Gothic tone of this film (and several of those which followed) gives it an almost Victorian or Edwardian feel, despite being obviously set in the mid-20th Century. And most importantly, Holmes is back to the business he should never have abandoned.
Loosely based on The Musgrave Ritual, the film is entertaining and certainly of higher technical quality than its predecessors, despite the fact that the series was forever doomed to the ranks of the low budget B-picture. The camera work is evocative, with fluid motions and intriguing angles...which would become a staple of the Holmes series...and the direction is excellent, with Roy William Neill (who also began his role as Associate Producer with this film) really coming into his own as the driving force behind the franchise. Rathbone's Holmes (whose hair has, thankfully, undergone quite a transformation) is in better form here than in previous entries...detached and focused, he relies on reasoning, rather than chance, in order to solve the mystery that's presented to him. Nigel Bruce, as Watson, turns in his usual bumbling-yet-lovable performance. Dennis Hoey once again manages to out-bumble Watson as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard...a canonical character who made his first Universal appearance in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and would go on to appear in a total of six of the twelve films.
Overall, not the best film in the series, but a step in the right direction. Once the filmmakers got their proper footing, in regard to the series' new and improved direction, they produced much better work...peaking, many (myself included) would attest, in 1944 with The Scarlet Claw. Other subsequent Holmes titles, such as The Spider Woman and Terror By Night, also outshine, in my estimation, this fourth Universal venture. But this film marked the great change that heralded all the treasures to come...and as such, has amassed much favor among fans and critics alike. And rightly so.
This is a very entertaining Sherlock Holmes film with some of the best
- maybe THE best - camera-work I've seen in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel
The photography was better than the story, which was disappointing only in that it was too easy to spot the killer. Heck, even I found it no problem, so it must have been too easy.
The characters were interesting and all quite different. Some were mental patients who had suffered from World War II. Miburn Stone played the lone American and I didn't recognize the man who went on to play "Doc" in the long- running hit TV series "Gunsmoke." However, his voice sounded familiar.
SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH while stalking an egomaniacal murderer in
an ancient English manor house.
Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce return again as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This time they become involved in an Old Dark House murder mystery, investigating crimes at the decrepit stately home-turned-convalescent hospital where Watson is looking after four officer patients. The film is fun, including elements such as a hidden crypt, a bloodthirsty raven and an antique ritual of the beleaguered Musgrave family intertwined with an unusual chess game. There is perhaps a bit too much plot--the old clock tower that strikes 13 is never explained--but this never gets in the way of enjoying the picture.
To say that Rathbone & Bruce remain perfect in their roles is but to state the obvious; by this point in the series the old pros were working together like the gears in an antique clock. They are given fine support by elderly Halliwell Hobbes as the manor's eccentric butler and Minna Phillips in the role of the Musgrave's sinister housekeeper. Dennis Hoey is back as the dogged, but inept, Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Milburn Stone has a minor part as an American captain suspected of being the killer.
Other small roles handled well are essayed by Frederick Worlock, Gavin Muir & Hillary Brooke as the unfortunate Musgraves; Gerald Hamer, Vernon Downing & Olaf Hytten as the invalided officers; and Arthur Margetson as Watson's hospital assistant.
Movie mavens will recognize Norma Varden as the barmaid at The Rat and Raven; seaman Peter Lawford as one of her clientele; and dear Mary Gordon making her brief obligatory appearance as Mrs. Hudson, all uncredited.
Based very loosely on Conan Doyle's short story The Musgrave Ritual, the film follows SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943) and precedes SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944).
A nice entry in the Rathbone Holmes film series (6/14), but the one I
feel most weak in the plot department. Most of the film appears to be
padding of one kind or another, and almost every scene could be
analysed and shredded by an expert, leaving a 2-reeler. But as I like
this I would only want it an hour longer than it is already!
Ignoring the minor non-sequiteurs and non-explicables, the whole chessboard Ritual unravelling sequence was a colossal waste of time - all Holmes had to do was read the message to realise where to go. Think of how excellent his method of finding the message was in the first place Watson!
Some nicely atmospheric photography, beautiful nitrate-based light and shade contrasts also help, along with the 3 well-delineated if almost OTT hospital in-patients providing unstable character support. Listen to Dr Bob's voice - it's like being transported to the cellar scenes in Robert Newton's Obsession! Well worth while watching.
Sherlock Holmes films are always better when they have a horror edge to them - The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Scarlet Claw prove this best - and Sherlock Holmes Faces Death makes another nice entry in the list of Holmes films with a horror slant. The story this time round takes place in a foreboding old house where people are turning up dead. Holmes is brought in to investigate, along with his good friend Dr Watson and Scotland Yard's most inept inspector - the hilarious Lestrade - joins in the fun also. The acting from the central three is great, and they offset each other brilliantly. Rathbone gives another great performance as the brilliant detective of the title, while Nigel Bruce provides some of the more inept moments as Dr Watson; and Dennis Hoey always amuses as Inspector Lestrade. The mystery itself is a little messy at times, and can become a little slim on logic at times; but it all comes together at the end. The ending itself is great as usual for Universal's Holmes series, with the title character thwarting the villain with a combination of intelligence and skill. I would much prefer the movie if it cut off before the ending speech, however even Watson looked like he was about to fall asleep! The title is perhaps a little over-dramatic for what the film is, and the supporting cast can be a little drab at times; and although this isn't one of the absolute best Sherlock Holmes films, it's certainly a very worthy entry in the series and comes with high recommendations.
always enjoyed the atmosphere of this movie. spooky manor, wind and
thunder and lightning. pleasure to watch over and over. its in my top 3
of the whole series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. if any of
you enjoy this movie then the other 2 that make up my top 3 would be of
interest to you. they are House of Fear and Hound of the Baskervilles.
another one that has great atmosphere but doesn't have the stately
manor to speak of is the Scarlet Claw. the selections i have mentioned
are best viewed at evening with all the lights off. i even go as far as
lighting candles to give my own surroundings similar atmosphere.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although it seems a little long, at times, SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH
is one of the best of the modern Holmes stories starring Basil Rathbone
and Nigel Bruce. The plot for a change actually is twisty enough for
one to wonder who is the killer. The revelation is a bit more of a
surprise than many of the other stories.
The basis for this film is "THE MUSGRAVE RITUAL", which is similar in some details but has been expanded. The story, actually one of two that Holmes has to relate to Watson because it occurred before they met, is how Holmes is visiting the home of a school chum, Reginald Musgrave, and how the family butler, one Brunton, disappears after he is caught in the act of apparently looking over old family documents. Musgrave discharged Brunton, but then the butler vanished. It is believed he has fled because he has become entangled with a local girl, who has also disappeared.
The story was properly filmed (although with some slight changes) in the BBC "Mystery" series of Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett. I will not tell the clever ending, but it deals with the titled "Ritual" which the Musgrave family has been reciting since the middle of the 17th Century, which begins: "Who had it? He who is gone. Who shall have it? He who will come." If one thinks about the ritual wording one can help figure out the mystery of the story. Interestingly, the wording attracted a literary figure of higher importance than Conan Doyle in modern times - T. S. Elliot. Always having a fine ear for English speech and diction, Elliot was so impressed with the first four lines of the Ritual, he transposed them into a section of his verse drama about Thomas a'Beckett, MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL. Elliot was very fond of Conan Doyle's stories, and one of his poems in OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS (the source of the musical CATS) is "MACAVITY THE MYSTERY CAT" which is based on details about Professor Moriarty.
The actual ritual is used in the film, although it is expanded into a type of chess game. The story is changed (modernized to fit the war effort). Watson is working at a rest home for soldiers suffering stress and battle fatigue. The home is the estate house of Geoffrey Musgrave, his brother Philip, and his sister Sally (Frederick Warlock, Gavin Muir, and Hillary Brooke). One day Watson's assistant Dr. Bob Sexton (Arthur Margetson) stumbles in wounded and says he was attacked from behind and stabbed in the neck. The perpetrator is assumed to be one of the serviceman. Watson tells Holmes about it, so Holmes comes down to take a look. Then a murder occurs, and Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey, as good as ever) pops up. The chief suspect is the American officer Captain Vickery (Milburn Stone - not given too much to do in this film, unfortunately), who has been romancing Brooke. I will leave it at that, except to say that the secret of the Ritual is expanded from a piece of jewelry to something of considerable more value. Despite some slightly long stretches, it is a good, twisty plot and well worth the watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Watson asks Holmes to help him investigate a series of murders in a
spooky old country manor-house in Northumberland, where he is working
as a consultant physician for military officers suffering from mental
Another in the enjoyable series of Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies, this one based on Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Musgrave Ritual. Its prime asset is a fantastic haunted house setting, with clocks that strike thirteen, ancient crypts, secret passageways and endless shadowy corners. The clever idea of having the house serving as a sanatorium for those with mental problems instantly makes everyone a potential suspect and allows the cast to imbue their characters with all sorts of amusing quirks. Well written and well-made, a fine mystery.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Starts oddly, with the people we are imagine are going to be the main
merely sketched in or unseen: two brothers, one prematurely elderly, the
smoothie, have a younger sister who wants to marry an American airman.
get to know the brothers or even meet the airman, weird things start to
including murder. The airman is arrested and hence absent for most of the
central characters are as usual the wonderful Holmes and Watson.
Weird trappings include a raven that croaks not 'Nevermore' but 'I'm a devil' - a lift from Charles Dickens, who owned and fictionalized such a bird.
The shell-shocked soldiers billeted at Musgrave Manor help in the mystery's solution and are an excellent bunch. Despite nervous stammers, strained smiles and
compulsive knitting, their intelligence is clearly intact. xxxxx
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sherlock Holmes, who was born January 6, 1854, came out of retirement
in 1942 at the request of Universal Pictures to pursue WWII arch
criminals threatening Britain and frightening aristocratic young women.
Now 88, Holmes uses a substance much like Botox, hair dye and a high
fiber diet to maintain that familiar appearance so many have commented
on, to his intense irritation, as resembling the actor Basil Rathbone.
He is, as always, aided by his companion, Dr. John Watson, now 90, and
resembling Nigel Bruce, who over the years preferred to inject himself
with monkey gland extracts from Switzerland to maintain an active but
confused middle age.
In Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, Holmes will confront one of the most dastardly of plots, with murder employed as a careless tool to achieve unspeakably selfish ends. It concerns the Musgrave Manor, a hulking, ancient mansion of hidden passages and dark crypts, where the time is always night and the weather is always howling winds and rain. Now the manor, of course, is used as a convalescent center for shell-shocked British officers. Watson volunteered to supervise their care. "What is this Musgrave Manor? A blinkin' prison?" says a sailor near closing time at The Rat and The Raven Pub. It's 1942 in wartime England. "That ain't the worst it's been called, not that I'm one for speedin' stories, heh, heh, but we knows what we knows," says the publican."Where is this Musgrave Manor?" "Down the road apiece. You'll see it when you pass the old iron gates. Only don't loiter. You won't be welcome, not by the Musgraves. They've been sittin' there, lords of the manor, since time was. If those old walls could speak they'd tell you things that'd raise the hairs on yer head."
And there is The Musgrave Ritual, the recitation of ancient lines that must be spoken by the next heir of the Musgraves. How does it go? "..."Where shall he go? Deep down below. Away from the thunder, let him dig under..." Before long Sally Musgrave is reciting the ritual amidst dark shadows and lightening. Outside, the echoing trees are pulled by a howling wind...a wind that slams open shutters and wreaks havoc amongst the drapes.
Sally Musgrave's elder brother has just been murdered. Her other brother has become head of the Musgraves. And Dr. Watson has called on Holmes to come to the manor and solve what appears to be an unsolvable and deadly mystery. Who is the hand behind it all? One of the twitchy officers? The doctor assisting Watson? The irritable housekeeper? The tipsy butler? We know this is far too complex for Inspector Lestrade. And then Holmes discovers that the ritual disguises a chess game only the bravest would want to play, with death and riches as rewards.
It takes Holmes only 68 minutes in movie time, in this MPI release nicely restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, to remind ourselves that nostalgia is everything it is cracked up to be and that Sherlock Holmes, even at 88 but looking good, will always be The Great Detective. And so the ingeniously complex Musgrave Ritual is deciphered, the most ruthless murderer in England is unmasked, and young Sally Musgrave is saved from a terrible fate. "Amazing, Holmes!" says John Watson. "Elementary, my dear Watson," says Sherlock Holmes.
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