Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Case: original screenplay
In Pursuit to Algiers, Holmes and Watson attempt to smuggle the heir to a foreign crown out of England. In order to accomplish this task, Holmes arranges for several blinds, hoping to throw Prince Nikolas’ many pursuers off track. With everyone a suspect, Holmes and Watson find themselves on a steamship bound for Algiers, and it’s only a question of whether they will reach the shores before their enemies succeed in assassinating the Prince. Pursuit to Algiers has been marked as one of the lesser of the later Universal films, and yet, I found it quite endearing; likely due to a rather brilliant performance by Nigel Bruce. It was quite refreshing to see what he was truly capable of.
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
As always, Rathbone is quite delightful in this film. His portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is flawless, and I often found myself forgetting the actor behind the character. He still maintains his own personal sense of humour, and this creates a version of Sherlock Holmes that is quite refreshing.
Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson
The real triumph in this film, however, is Bruce’s portrayal of Dr. Watson. In addition to enunciating his lines, Bruce was also quite quick witted, and, indeed, very reminiscent of the Dr. Watson found in Canon. Of course, the most delightful part of Bruce’s performance was his singing. I can honestly say that I was quite surprised, and indeed, delighted, to learn that Bruce had an excellent singing voice, and while it was slightly unusual to see Watson breaking out into song, I easily managed to overlook this in favour of appreciating Bruce’s performance.
While not my favourite Rathbone/Bruce film to date, I must confess that I was rather taken by the subtextual elements of the film. The story begins with Holmes and Watson planning their vacation in Scotland. This is quite adorable, for it is quite apparent that Holmes and Watson are very much a couple.
This theme continues as they make their way into a small restaurant and Holmes orders for both. It is interesting to note that this restaurant is in Soho, an area now considered to be one of the most gay-friendly areas of London.
Holmes is, of course, wearing his trademark pimp fedora, and he takes literally every opportunity to touch or caress Watson. In fact, in one scene, he actually sets Watson’s hat upon Watson’s head for him.
When we finally get onto the boat, there is a scene where Watson has read a telegram announcing the crash of Holmes’ plane, and it is here, above anywhere else, where Watson’s affections become most noticeable. He is quite beside himself with grief, and the audience senses that he is completely lost without his Holmes.
Watson does not grieve long, however, before he is called to attend to a passenger. The passenger turns out to be Holmes’ charge, and Holmes’ unveiling is met with Watson’s extreme relief and happiness. This entire scene is quite charged, for Rathbone steps directly into Bruce’s space and we get the impression that he is thinking of jumping Watson. That Watson later becomes angry at Holmes for deceiving him is also quite enjoyable, for it gives Holmes a chance to apologize profusely.
This gives way to Holmes’ discovery of Watson’s female interest, and this is quite amusing, for Holmes immediately sets to proving that she is evil. In fact, Holmes’ jealousy here is so obvious that the side-plot instantly moves from the subtextual to the textual.
The slash continues, with a thousand little moments designed to showcase the intimacy between Holmes and Watson. There is Watson’s singing and Holmes’ praise. There is the scene at the party, when all the other passengers are dancing, and yet, Holmes and Watson are tucked into a corner, the camera angle making it appear as though Holmes is sitting upon Watson’s lap.
All of this, combined with Rathbone’s constant invasion of Bruce’s space (indeed, I am utterly convinced that Rathbone wanted nothing more than to pounce on Bruce) made for one of the most slash friendly films I have seen to date. It was really quite enjoyable.
Slash aside; this film did present several other elements of interest. The plot, although slow moving at times, was quite ingenious. The reference to the Giant Rat of Sumatra was also quite amusing. Then, of course, there was the ending, which presented an interesting plot twist that I did not see coming. Finally, of course, there was Nigel Bruce. I was beyond impressed by his performance as Watson. He spoke clearly, and I could understand him throughout. This is a remarkable change from my first impressions of Bruce; I had begun to believe that the whole of his role would be that of Holmes’ blundering fool. To learn, too, that he possessed a lovely singing voice was also quite endearing.
While I overall I quite enjoyed the film, there are, of course, some quibbles which come to mind. I mention above the slowness of the plot, and there were quite a few times when I became quite bored with the film. I suspect this had to do with the limitation of location (the bulk of the film takes place on a boat). It is quite hard to fill two hours set solely upon a steamship. There was also some repetitiveness, and the film could have been made infinitely better by cutting approximately half an hour from its length.
Some of the supporting characters were also quite woollen, and while this was likely a reflection of the script, it tended to distract from the main story. There were also several romantic side-plots that I could have done without.
I mentioned above the slowness of the plot, and it should also be noted that the mystery was distinctly lacking. This was by no means a true Sherlock Holmes case, the entire story lacking the tension one would usually associate with Canon. This is understandable, as it is not an adaptation, but it is for this reason that the film ranks only 3 out of 5 pipes.