Mary GordonHenry DaniellBasil RathboneRoy William Neill
Sherlock Holmes in Washington
Medium: film
Year: 1943
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Bertram Millhauser, Lynn Riggs
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, World War II, detective, gangster
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Marjorie Lord, Henry Daniell, George Zucco, John Archer, Gavin Muir, Edmund MacDonald, Don Terry, Bradley Page, Holmes Herbert, Thurston Hall, Mary Gordon
Format: 71 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 24 November 2008
Less stupid than I'd expected, but also less entertaining. It's a TV episode, not a movie. Let's face it, that's exactly what this series was... lots of cheap episodes turned out on a production line basis. The fact that they were shown in cinemas because people didn't have televisions in 1943 is a mere accident of history.
However this time the plot is lightweight even by those standards. It would be thin even for a 45-minute TV episode today. That doesn't actually make it bad, of course. It is what it is. It's filler. It's agreeable, lightweight and goes down pleasantly. It may not contain the slightest trace of originality, but at least it has the good sense not to be stodgy about it. It also makes no mistakes, which is a pleasant surprise after the speechifying in The Voice of Terror and the shameless idiocy in The Secret Weapon.
I may as well mention the plot. The British goverment is transporting confidential documents to Washington, but of course Nazi agents have other plans. Sure enough, the courier goes missing. Sherlock Holmes soon discovers that the courier was smart enough to have put the documents on microfilm, whereupon the film turns into a Hunt The MacGuffin. There's lots of irony with people not realising what's under their noses, which is eventually quite funny.
Um, that's it.
Obviously we go to America. You can see why they did it, but... I mean, really. The biggest problem with a wartime Sherlock Holmes story was that he lives in London. You don't meet many Nazis in London. France or Switzerland, yes. Washington? Admittedly I quite like it as a setting, since it's refreshing given the cinematic predominance of New York. The film lets us be tourists for a bit, taking in the capital's most famous attractions as everyone takes every opportunity to be proud of their country. This might sound potentially annoying, but in fact it's sweet. I enjoyed all that. However it still seems wrong-headed to have taken Holmes out of England, only to remove him even further from the main action.
Universal considered more Holmes films in America after this, but decided against it. The Scarlet Claw is set in Canada, though.
My favourite thing about this film is its villains. We have two Moriarties! Admittedly they're playing other roles this time, but still the leader of the gang is George Zucco (Adventures) and his sidekick is Henry Daniell (The Woman in Green). At the 75 minute mark, they're even onscreen together with Rathbone's Holmes. Awesome. They're both playing their usual personas, which means that Daniell is icy and Zucco is fun. They're also refreshingly practical. When they don't like someone, they don't bother with deathtraps. They just get out their guns to shoot them there and then.
Even their gang is more menacing than I'd expected. The courier doesn't vanish offscreen, for instance. On the contrary, we see him grabbed and pulled backwards through a doorway, which is the last time he's seen alive. I think the American setting helped, dragging the film and its gangsters somewhat into the real world as far as the producers were concerned. Kidnapping, murder... the film's obviously too lightweight for the gang ever to be scary, but they're pretty good for what they are.
Of the other actors, we have Holmes Herbert in one of his several appearances in these films. Gavin Muir plays the ill-fated courier after going uncredited last time as a BBC radio announcer. They're all fine, but on the downside Nigel Bruce's Watson is less memorable than I'd hoped. He's a blatherer, wibbling on less entertainingly than usual. Plenty of lines, but not so much value. I did laugh at his attempt to use American slang, mind you. He gets a few gags like that, chewing gum and so on.
Meanwhile Rathbone does his job. He's the straight man. He's always energetic and dedicated, but there's not much interpretation going on there. This time he doesn't even get a disguise, but he pretends to be an antiques collector and over the telephone does a spot-on George Zucco impersonation! I didn't know Rathbone could do impressions. That was a cool bit.
Overall, this isn't a film to sustain much discussion. It's thin, but amusing and without obvious flaws. It's also rooted more in the real world than most of the other films in this series, with a documentary feel to some of its American footage and one or two details that might surprise a modern audience. They allow smoking on an aeroplane! I also enjoyed the tour of Washington landmarks. Well, I've never been to Washington. It's also the last of these Sherlock Holmes films to build its plot around the World War Two setting, with the next film (Sherlock Holmes Faces Death) including a few convalescent soldiers and then the one after (The Spider Woman) having Hitler, Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito painted on the targets at a fairground shooting gallery. That's it. I won't be sorry to see all that go, although I did enjoy how they used it in The Secret Weapon.
It passes the time. It's quite nice. That's about all I have to say, really.