Dennis HoeySherlock Holmes - Basil RathboneRoy William NeillGale Sondergaard
The Spider Woman
Medium: film
Year: 1944
Director: Roy William Neill
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Bertram Millhauser
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: USA
Actor: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Gale Sondergaard, Dennis Hoey, Vernon Downing, Alec Craig, Arthur Hohl, Mary Gordon, Teddy Infuhr
Format: 63 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Basil Rathbone >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 11 December 2008
It's bollocks, I'm afraid. There's been plenty of nonsense in this surprisingly weak series, but I really hope this particular entry is unique in being so obviously cobbled together from leftovers. Only a third of the way in, I'd already lost patience, although its good bits might make it worth a spin if you're feeling forgiving. I got some enjoyment from it. It also has a strong finale, which is a big plus.
We begin with Sherlock saying he's giving up being a detective! He's through with crime. The reason is a medical condition that gives him dizzy spells that might produce a cerebral haemorrhage. That startled me, but it all became predictable as soon as Holmes died. A six-year-old child would have been embarrassed not to see through that one. Yes, of course he's faking it. That's the film's first ten minutes wasted. Needless to say he's doing it to lure the Spider Woman into a sense of false security, but the move has no effect since she sees through him almost immediately and the matter of his death is dismissed in a couple of lines of dialogue. Imagine my joy.
Next, he disguises himself as an Indian army officer in a turban. He's called Rajni Singh. He's already pretended to be a postman and thus given Watson the surprise of his life, but he's much more subdued in his Singh persona since this is a serious undercover operation. This lasts ten minutes too and is another waste of time, with Holmes and the Spider Woman seeing through each other and yet keeping up their mutual pretence. I don't think anyone was fooled. Admittedly this could have been dramatic, but there's no danger to Holmes when he blows his cover. He just walks away. They can't hurt him. That section would have been scarier had there been an entire gang of villains present and so a chance of being murdered, making us afraid for Holmes when the Spider Woman's in danger of seeing through his disguise.
So that's the first 20 minutes of this hour-long movie being a waste of time. You can see why I wasn't impressed, but fortunately it improves after that. The plot remains a load of ramshackle rubbish, but at least we've got the preliminaries out of the way and we can get down to open warfare between Holmes and his adversary. She's played by Gale Sondergaard and I'm going to stop calling her the Spider Woman because it looks silly. Their sparring can actually be rather fun, with the two always being ready to indulge the other in a friendly chat before the next murder attempt. It works better than the Lionel Atwill Moriarty's antics because at least Sondergaard means it. She honestly wants Holmes dead and (mostly) avoids over-elaborate deathtraps. It's just that she's also a bitch who takes pleasure in snuggling up to her enemy in the knowledge that he can't do a thing to her.
She also has a sidekick played by the chap I liked from the previous film, Vernon Downing.
Personally, I think she's okay. She's not my favourite villain in this series, but it's such a great name that Universal tried to build it into a horror franchise and so two years later made The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946). This film was apparently rubbish and so the proposed series died there, but decades later the name returned in the Oscar-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). In Sondergaard's own words... "Playing the Spider Woman was easy because the characterisation was up to me; she was not intricately conceived. Frankly, it was something to help pay the bills. I knew it wasn't art. I certainly didn't think it would outlast all my pictures other than The Letter. And I'm not sure that even The Letter would be so esteemed now if not for Bette Davis's performance."
My reaction to that is, "Gale, are you stupid or something? He's Sherlock Holmes, d'oh."
She says lovely things about Rathbone and Bruce, though. Rathbone's completely efficient and as cool as ever. Bruce gets a scene where he uses his medical expertise to correct Sherlock on a point of detection, which might just be his finest moment. However he also gets a comedy scene where he jumps to exactly the same mistaken conclusion that the audience have been duped into, which I thought was clever.
However. That plot. Wow. 1. There's an enormous spider that I'll assume is a tarantula. 2. There's an extraordinary mute child, who jumps and catches flies. Why is he mute? Why, because this is a Hollywood film and so the boy's presumably American and can't do an English accent, perhaps? 3. There's a nifty murder attempt on Holmes and Watson, but it's been taken from The Devil's Foot and is far less horrific than Conan Doyle's version. 4. There's the pygmy from The Sign of Four, played by a dwarf in blackface called Angelo Rossitto. All these elements are thrown in almost at random. They'll crop up in one scene, then get forgotten. They're cool, yes, but they'd have been cooler in a proper film.
Even as a production, it has more holes than usual. There's an obviously painted backdrop of the London skyline visible from a rooftop, plus a laughable accent slip from an alleged Scotsman. This could be argued to be deliberate, given the nature of the character, but if so then why doesn't Sherlock see a clue in this amazing mutating accent?
The finale's good, though. It's an OED (Over-Elaborate Deathtrap), but an entertaining one. In fact it's probably the best deathtrap I can remember seeing in a film, since it so nearly works and only dumb luck keeps Watson from unknowingly killing Sherlock three times over. I enjoyed that. I haven't yet watched my DVD of Saw, though. Memorably it also takes place amid the political incorrectness of a carnival, with Fat Ladies, pygmies and a shooting gallery where the targets are Hitler, Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito. That's the last World War Two mention you'll see in this series, apart from the poison gas reference in the final film, Dressed to Kill.
This film is rubbish, but it has quite a lot of cool bits. It doesn't really do anything with them, mind you. I enjoyed the relationship between Holmes and Sondergaard, which is like a criminal chess game. "Your turn." It even gives Watson a mention of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, which he calls a ghastly affair. I completely see why I enjoyed this film when I was ten, but it's equally clear that the screenwriter Bertram Millhauser seems to regard that as the mental age of the audience.