It's faithful to an Arthur Conan Doyle story! No, really. You might be feeling faint. Make sure you're sitting down. Admittedly they've added a few extra murders to keep things moving, but that goes without saying. What we have here of all things is a Rathbone film recognisably based upon The Musgrave Ritual, although since the original title wasn't stupid it must have been the first thing to go.
In case you've forgotten, The Musgrave Ritual is the one in which Holmes uses a 17th-century poem to track down long-lost treasure. The Ritual is the name of the poem itself. This seems to be one of Doyle's more popular stories, having also been adapted both for Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing, even if the latter episode has since been lost. What I particularly appreciated was that enough of Doyle's story has survived in this 1943 version to let me to watch it back to back with the Brett episode and make comparisons.
Firstly, they keep the original's butler, Alfred Brunton. He's no longer the plot's main mover, but he's still sufficiently prominent that I can't go into further detail for fear of spoilers. They even leave his story role mostly unchanged, despite his being too old and past it to be a serious murder suspect. James Hazeldine was fun in 1986, but I'm just as enthusiastic here about Halliwell Hobbes. You might remember that actor from Dracula's Daughter
, the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
and most interestingly an unrelated 1933 Sherlock Holmes film called A Study in Scarlet. Here I particularly enjoyed his drunk scene, which gave him something different to play as well as being important for the plot structure.
Meanwhile the original story's lovestruck Rachel Howells has gained a few decades and become Brunton's wife, which would have pleased her. They reminded me of the servants in The Copper Beeches, actually. That's another unfriendly harridan and a drunken husband.
As for the Musgraves themselves, they've been retooled. Instead of dusty Sir Reginald Musgrave, we have Sally, Geoffrey and Philip. All three are played by series regulars, respectively Hillary Brooke (3 films), Frederick Worlock (6 films) and Gavin Muir (4 films). I liked Brooke's villainous turn in The Woman in Green
, but unfortunately here she's sufficiently bad to have made me wonder if this was deliberate and meant as a clue. Her boyfriend gets accused of her brother's murder and she's supposedly grief-stricken. Ahem. It clearly doesn't help that she's playing it cut-glass and upper crust, trapped by her own accent.
Even Musgrave Manor itself is almost a character. Yes, the house. It's far more atmospheric than its equivalent in the Brett version, to the extent that Sherlock calls it ghoulish. It looks terrific, especially the shadow-filled cloisters. There are tales of ghosts, which the film never follows up on but instead just throws out as matter-of-factly as someone warning you that the taps don't work. There's a ghost in the west wing. That's what Brunton says, anyway. In fact the film builds up so much gothic atmosphere that some of it avoids all explanation, e.g. the clock which strikes 13 when a Musgrave dies. That was cool. I liked that. It's a nifty idea that will eventually have you sitting there counting. However don't be foolish enough to expect how that might have happened. How does it work? Who knows? Who gives a monkey's?
All you need to know is that the Musgraves are hard, pitiless men and their house is scary. That's what a bloke in the pub says. Oh, and the manor is better populated with servants than that in the Brett version, as it should be according to Doyle's original story. Greater authenticity from the Universal film! There's something you don't see every day.
For once even the obligatory World War Two link is interesting. The house has been turned into a centre for convalescent soldiers and Watson is there in a volunteer medical capacity. This is a great film for those who like a competent Watson. He has patients, all suffering from war-related stress disorders. They're eccentric... well, crackers. Unbalanced. We meet three of them and again they're all played by returning actors in this series: Gerald Hamer, Olaf Hytten and the memorable Vernon Downing. Unsurprisingly for a man with work to do, Watson's less buffoonish this time, although he does get a bit of comedy business near the end. He also has no children, but in The Woman in Green
will claim to have a daughter called Amelia. Well, that's later on. Maybe he made a discovery in between?
All this continuity is interesting (to me), but what about the film? Answer: it's good. Unusually for this series it's also structured like a traditional detective story, in which everyone's gathered in a single place and our hero has to spot the criminal while not tripping over the ever-growing pile of corpses. The result is a killer who's less memorable than usual, since the Rathbone films didn't usually go a bundle on whodunnits. Normally a villain is a villain. If you even glance at him, you'll know. That's always more fun. However I was surprised to see that the film plays completely fair. The clues are out in the open, to the extent that they're replayed in flashbacks to demonstrate what we missed when Rathbone's running through them all at the end. I admire that. You don't always get that even in a proper detective series, whereas these Universal films had been tending to pull their plots from their arse.
Oh, and Dennis Hoey returns as Lestrade. Why? The story's set in Northumberland. A private consulting detective can go where he likes, but why should a London-based policeman be sent way up north to investigate a murder? It's not even as if he's good at his job. He accuses people at random and makes even Watson look like a genius. Maybe the producers of this series were worried about making their audiences feel thick?
"Netherfield"... that's a literary reference, isn't it? Oh. Not necessarily. There are real Netherfields scattered around Britain, although I don't know if regular series writer Bertram Millauser would have known that. He'd seem to have been kidnapped by aliens and/or desperately short of time given how much he retained this time of Doyle's original story, although he does tamper with the wording of the Ritual itself. Different rhyme, different rules. It's about chess rather than measuring the heights of trees. However this is an improvement, both in being better to look at and in not having huge plot holes. Doyle himself spotted the one about trees' shadows being longer in winter than in summer (or is it the other way around?), but I don't remember seeing anyone pointing out that if you leave trees alone for a couple of centuries, they're likely to grow taller.
How's this for authenticity? We first see Holmes as he's shooting a V into the wall at 221B Baker Street, although this being 1943 it's not VR (Victoria Regina). Another reference to the original stories! It's a good opening scene for Rathbone, stamping his authority on the film immediately. Furthermore if you're paying attention, you'll realise he gets another cool bit later. "Clavering, get your sound detector." He's not supposed to know about that! He's worked it out! The convalescent patients are spying on the rest of the house with surveillance equipment, in case you were wondering. That's good, but it still seems to me that these films are less Sherlock-centric than are my more faithful adaptations. Oh, and he never stops saying, "Elementary, my dear Watson." Yes, I realise it's these films' catchphrase. Yes, we all know Holmes never said it in the original stories. I hadn't mentioned it yet in these reviews, but that's because it hadn't previously managed to annoy me.
All this fidelity is a novelty for this series, but the result is one of their better films. I'd go so far as to say that it's good and again doesn't do anything stupid, which is a nice surprise. The whodunnit stuff works well, keeping you guessing about the villain's identity. At the climax, it's even suspicious just to see people taking a step forwards! Genuinely good and a high point for the series.