Understated but mildly sinister. It has a fairly quiet ending, but that's not really a problem as far as I'm concerned.
The most interesting thing about this film is how far it's pushing the limits of what it can get away with. The Breen Office ordered two modifications at the script stage, one minor and one a very big deal indeed, but what's left is still surprisingly risky for its era. Firstly, the hypnotised Watson was originally to be told to remove his trousers instead of just rolling up one trouser leg. Fair enough. No problem there. I shouldn't think anyone was going to be injuriously aroused by the sight of Nigel Bruce's kneecaps, but the alteration is an improvement. "That'll do. The other leg is waterproof," is one of my favourite lines in the film.
However the big change is that the murder victims were originally all going to be little girls. That's gone in favour of young women, but even so we're still left with what seems to be a serial killer striking at random and taking trophies. In each case a finger is missing. In fact the killings are being organised by a gang of four, which might seem to be less creepy until you discover that one of them is a little doctor who plays with dolls and loves knives. Imagine the film they wanted to make. That would have been a child killer. You can stop shuddering now.
Essentially it wants to be a horror movie. The later Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films abandoned World War Two and went back to a sort of London noir that would hardly have needed any tweaking at all to be Victorian England. Fog, darkness and sinister criminals. There are shots in here that could have been spliced from Universal's horror movies. Then there are the moments you'd swear were pushing for an 18 certificate.
- 1. "Is that his daughter with him?" "Don't be so naive." They've only known each other a week, but she's already inviting him home.
- 2. Hillary Brooke coming out of the bath.
- 3. Holmes's, "You and your fleshpots," in response to Watson merely suggesting that Holmes eat some dinner. Eh? Where'd that come from?
- 4. Brooke gives Holmes cannabis! "What is it?" "An oriental soporific." That doesn't necessarily mean that he takes it of course, while this is in the context of a series that had previously snuck in a couple of references to Holmes's cocaine habit.
In addition to all that, it's a pretty good film. I confess to finding myself mystified at claims that it's boring. Admittedly it slows down a bit at the end, with Holmes's hypnotism perhaps taking too long even if it's crucial to the plot. The film does everything imaginable to prove that he's under the influence, but I suppose there are always going to be people who'll assume he's faking it. Nothing you can do about them. However surely even those viewers would admit that no matter what your opinion on hypnosis, it's still a tense moment when he stumbles on the edge of the roof.
The only bit I don't like is right at the end. Moriarty has been arrested when he suddenly makes a break for it, jumps to another rooftop and fatally slips. Pavement pizza. Eh? Why? What would have been so terrible about ending the film with him in police custody and on his way to the gallows? Presumably that wouldn't have been bloodthirsty enough. Furthermore it's so sudden and clumsy that I still don't know if I was meant to read it as suicide, a desperate escape attempt or some combination of the two. Curiously enough there were three Moriarties in the Rathbone films and all three fell to their deaths. This demise is easily the worst of them. Amusingly almost everyone thinks he's dead when the film begins, but not due to inter-film continuity but because he'd supposedly been hanged in Montevideo a year previously. To see two of these Moriarty actors together, by the way, check out Sherlock Holmes in Washington. They're playing different roles, but it's still them.
All that said, this is my favourite Moriarty of these films. There won't be any agreement on that subject any time soon, although I note with interest that Rathbone shared my opinion. Obviously all three were light-years behind Eric Porter in the Jeremy Brett TV series, but we're comparing apples and oranges there. George Zucco was great once he'd lost the beard and glasses, but by then we were in the second half. Lionel Atwill was coasting on his own slime and trapped in the role of a Saturday morning cartoon villain. However this is Henry Daniell's Moriarty, perpetrating a scheme of pure evil and as cold as the Antarctic. Admittedly this is the same as all the other roles of his I've seen, but at least he's good at it. Apparently he was like that in real life, by the way.
Importantly he also gets good material, notably a confrontation with Rathbone that's lifted almost verbatim from Conan Doyle's The Final Problem before the film jumps into its sequel The Empty House. Two stories. One adaptation. Ten minutes. The unfathomable bit is how the credits dared to call this an original script, despite the fact that Conan Doyle could have sued them for plagiarism whereas some of their so-called adaptations are nothing of the kind. Weird. It's also unusual in stripping the original stories down to less than their bare bones instead of (as is more usual) padding out Doyle's skeletal originals into fifty languid minutes. Holmes doesn't die and come back to life, but otherwise it's surprisingly faithful. I liked it a lot.
Returning to the villains, in the title role is presumably Hillary Brooke. Well, it must be her. I'm only in doubt because in this black-and-white film, no one ever describes the colour of anyone's dress. We're looking out for a woman, thanks to the film's title, but we can never confirm her identity for ourselves. This I love. I don't know if it's a goof or not, but it still tickles me. Had this been a colour film, maybe the entire female cast could have worn green? Incidentally both Brooke and Daniell had already appeared twice in this series, with their debuts being in The Voice of Terror
. They're the two main villains, but they have back-up from Brooke's chilly housekeeper and that creepy little doctor.
Of the other characters, there's a police chief bloke who should have been sacked on the spot for the speech he delivers to open the film. Sir Charles? I think that was the name. It's a gigantic info-dump of a speech, in which he lambasts his men for failing to catch this serial killer who's mutilating young women and making the police look bad, but it's deftly written and should have worked far better than it does. There's no Inspector Lestrade this time, but instead an Inspector Gregson who's also the film's narrator. Gregson isn't as well known as Lestrade, but he's actually canonical and you'll see him crop up unobtrusively in a few Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years. There's also a mention of Mycroft, for the only time in the series.
Rathbone is Rathbone. He does a good job as the hero and I like him, but I don't find him particularly interesting. Obviously more fun is Nigel Bruce's Dr Watson, who talks amusing nonsense and has a daughter called Amelia. "Watson, Watson, never heard of him... me?" By this point in the series, the writers are so blatantly playing him for laughs that his idiocy doesn't even make sense. Watson thinks hypnotism is mumbo-jumbo despite having witnessed a dramatic and nearly fatal example only a few scenes previously. Naturally he says so at a big demonstration at the Mesmer Club, a hypnotists' association. He then volunteers to be a test subject. A three-year-old could see where this is going, but it's still funny anyway.
There's a goof, by the way. "Edgware Road" is spelled "Edgeware."
Overall, it's good stuff. It's more about detective work than breathless pulp and hard-boiled gunplay, but that's all to the good as far as I'm concerned. These are not action movies. Atmosphere is a good thing for them to aim at. Obviously a 1945 B-movie was never going to give us Sherlock Holmes and the Child Murders, but in its own understated way this is the nearest you're going to get.