Sherlock Holmes - Basil RathboneDennis HoeyNigel BruceHarry Cording
The House of Fear
Medium: film
Year: 1945
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Roy Chanslor
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Aubrey Mather, Dennis Hoey, Paul Cavanagh, Holmes Herbert, Harry Cording, Sally Shepherd, Gavin Muir, Florette Hillier, David Clyde
Format: 69 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 2 February 2009
The problem with this film is that it doesn't have a girl. No, I'm not being frivolous. Girls make films better, especially when they're pretty. Instead we're watching seven affluent white middle-aged Englishmen living together in a clifftop house, which lacks variety. It's the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy problem. You wouldn't watch this film for its cast. Throw in Holmes, Watson and Lestrade and you've got ten affluent white middle-aged Englishmen, few of whom could be described as dynamic or even particularly intelligent. Apart from Holmes and his two idiot sidekicks, everyone's basically hanging around waiting to get murdered. They don't have goals or motivations, except in wanting to stay alive. If they hadn't happened to find themselves in the middle of a detective story, they'd barely exist at all.
That said, it's not the actors' faults that at no point does Arnold Schwarzenegger chat up a woman with three breasts. All films should include exactly this. Something like that would have improved things greatly, but the players do perfectly well with what they have. Most memorable is Paul Cavanagh as a doctor who might have previously got away with murder, if only since he appeared three times in this series and we recognise him. Other series veterans include Holmes Herbert, Gavin Muir and an enjoyably blustering Harry Cording. Even the bit parts will have usually done at least one other film in this series. There's also Aubrey Mather as the Pickwick-like owner of the house, plus his lady housekeeper who from the wrong angle sometimes looks a bit like Boris Karloff.
The plot is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. Our seven heroes have no wives or families, call themselves the Good Comrades and have gone away to live together in seclusion in Scotland. This might be funnier if you choose to see in it homosexual overtones. Needless to say, these men have all taken out life assurance policies in each other's favour and stand to gain considerably should their friends start dropping dead. Guess what happens?
Naturally they live in the aptly named Drearcliffe House and its traditional Scottish weather of darkness, driving rain and lots of lightning. This isn't one of the more overtly horror-tinged Rathbone Holmes films, being more of a traditional murder mystery, but it's shot with a certain amount of style. One sequence in particular gets nasty with Watson by soaking him in the rain and frightening him enough to make him start firing bullets at random in a darkened room. For a character who's normally comic relief, that was surprising. Naturally the locals won't go near the place and speak ill of it in the pub. Furthermore this is another of those Rathbone films that seems to be going out of its way to avoid seeming too contemporary, as if trying to suggest the Victorian era without actually going to far as to do a U-turn and do it properly. "We've never had a telephone at Drearcliffe House." Holmes and Watson even arrive in a horse-drawn cart. Universal had admitted publically that their plan of doing Sherlock Holmes films set in America during wartime hadn't elicited the reaction they'd hoped for, which explains the change in direction in the later films in the series.
Ironically though, this particular film is based on The Five Orange Pips and so would have been a wonderful choice to Americanise. You see, the original story has as its villains the Ku Klux Klan, albeit only the prototype ones who were established in 1865 and only lasted for about half a decade. They wanted to re-establish white supremacy and were stamped out by President Grant in 1870-71. The second Klan was founded in 1915, putting the publication of Conan Doyle's original story almost exactly in the middle of this period. For him, these people were undoubtedly a bunch of almost forgotten hoodlums from another continent. For us today, they're a name with frightening historical weight, almost more shocking than would have been Hitler and Goebbels. This film was made in 1945, a time when the Klan had declined a long way from its peak of twenty years before but was still far from extinct. To have done a faithful adaptation of The Five Orange Pips would have stirred up certain Southern states and I regret the fact that this didn't happen, although it would be naive to think that it was ever a possibility.
Instead the film is merely a surprisingly rich murder mystery, with (as Holmes says) almost too many clues. What impressed me was how well it engaged me on a detective story level. What looks like bad acting turns out to be a clue. When I thought I'd caught the film napping, Holmes turned around and identified what I'd just spotted. Another possibility I'd spotted turned out to have unexpected dimensions. Some internet reviewers seem to find the climax far-fetched, but an alert fan of detective stories might find it rather satisfying in how it keeps you hunting for the clues and eventually ties them together into an ending you probably won't have seen coming but nonetheless doesn't cheat and incorporates everything that went before without undermining any of it. They also put a slight twist on the orange pips themselves, by varying the number. Instead of there always being five, the number counts down to reflect the number of surviving comrades. I liked that.
This is one of those well-made films that doesn't do much wrong, but doesn't really stand out in the memory either. It's one of Nigel Bruce's best outings, oddly enough, if you're looking for a Watson you can take halfway seriously. He has the aforementioned scare scene, survives a murder attempt and even recognises the story's vital clue all by himself. However on the downside the film suffers from "only one police inspector in Britain" syndrome. Why does Lestrade get called all the way to Scotland? Is he famous or something? It's not as if he's even any good at his job! This isn't the most memorable film in this series, but it's more intelligent than most of them and one of the few Sherlock Holmes adaptations I can think of that really goes for the whodunnit aspect. It's got the Agatha Christie thing down pat, easily outstripping its only competitors in this series, The Musgrave Ritual and The Scarlet Claw. It's not as dramatic as some, but you could say the same of Agatha Christie.