Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Case: The Musgrave Ritual
Warning: Review contains detailed spoilers
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is set during the Second World War, but unlike its predecessors, the film manages to accomplish this quite subtlety and without the WWII propaganda prevalent in Rathbone’s other WWII films. In Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, Dr. Watson has volunteered his time at a convalescent home for veterans, and it is there that a man’s life is attempted. Not wishing to bring scandal to the home, Watson decides to bring in a private detective; and who better than his long-time friend and companion, Sherlock Holmes. Attempted murder soon turns to murder, and it is soon discovered that the entire affair is seemingly tied to an unusual family ritual which has been passed down from generation to generation. The story is very loosely based on The Musgrave Ritual.
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
As always, Rathbone is quite delightful in his role as Sherlock Holmes. He is, sadly, lacking his pimp hat, but again this can be forgiven, for he truly gives an outstanding performance. Time and time again Rathbone portrayed Holmes as a slash friendly character, and Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is no exception. Indeed, in addition to touching Watson at every given occasion, Holmes also seems to be perpetually terrified of women. In one scene, a hysterical woman rushes towards Holmes, hoping to seek comfort in his arms, and Holmes cries out for Watson’s aid, narrowly averting disaster. He then goes on to request that Watson sedate her. As an added benefit, the script allowed Rathbone to portray a furious Holmes, and I must confess that the entire scene gave my chills.
Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson
Nigel Bruce was utterly fabulous in this movie. Not only was he coherent, but he was useful and clever, and even when it appeared as though he bungled, it was later revealed that he’d carried out his instructions to the letter. Watson is even presented with the opportunity to tell Holmes what to do, and this scene brought a genuine smile to my face.
I mention below my quibble with Watson being away from Baker Street, and while I would have preferred for Holmes to stumble across the case in some other manner, I will confess that having Watson return to Baker Street was quite ingenious. Seeing Holmes and Watson’s reunion (and it was painfully obvious that they both were forced to fight against the urge to draw one another into a passionate hug) was quite possibly the pivotal moment (in terms of slash) of the Rathbone films. It is quite obvious that both Holmes and Watson were delighted to see one another. Indeed, that Holmes would know Watson’s step, and break out into a grin upon hearing it upon the stairs will leave me grinning for days.
On a side note, and in addition to the delightfulness of the Holmes/Watson slash, we are also treated to some lovely scenes between Dr. Sexton and Phillip Musgrave. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Dr. Sexton later kills Phillip Musgrave, I might have been inclined to slash them.
Then, of course, there is the lovely one-sided triangle between Lestrade and Holmes and Watson. It is quite obvious that Lestrade is completely enamoured with Holmes, and quite jealous of Watson’s role in Holmes’ life. Indeed, Lestrade and Watson butt heads on several occasions during this film –all to Holmes’ silent amusement, of course.
Slash aside, the atmosphere of this film was also quite well done. It had the same feel as The Hound of the Baskervilles; dark and sinister, with the potential for a supernatural explanation. They even managed to include the ominous image of a raven (though this raven was particularly likeable, and indeed, belongs within the delightful elements).
Most delightful of all, however, was the ending, which was so completely original and refreshing and not at all anticipated that I could not help but applaud it. Everything from the suspense of Holmes’ death to the discovery that the gun was loaded with fake bullets, to the dawning awareness that Watson had been in on Holmes’ plan from the beginning was done to perfection. I was literally on the edge of my seat. That this was followed by Holmes and Watson driving off into the sunset only made the film that much more enjoyable.
Sadly, no film is without its quibbles, and Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is no exception. I’m still not entirely certain why this film had Watson volunteering in a convalescence house. I imagine it was part of a push to get people to volunteer during the war, but it still seemed oddly out of place. In fact, Watson’s entire background in this film was poorly handled, and while it could have conceivably worked, there needed to be a clear indication of why Watson had chosen to leave Baker Street for what was obviously an extended period of time. On the plus side, it was interesting to see a film willing to touch on the PTSD which was so prevalent amongst post war soldiers.
Most of my quibbles with this film were in the details. For example, I am still not quite certain why anyone would choose to hide a body beneath a pile of leaves. This was baffling to say the least. The special effects left much to be desired, too, and this is even keeping in mind the year in which this was filmed. The lightening scene certainly added nothing to the film.
While it did contain some elements of interest, the use of The Musgrave Ritual for inspiration fell rather flat, for the story was so altered that it was barely recognizable. Unlike other adaptation, this was actually to the detriment of the film, for it felt as though they were simply lacking in ideas and decide to rewrite a classic. We recognized the character’s names, but not the characters, and everything that made the original story brilliant had been stripped away. This was quite depressing. The chess solution, on the other hand, was rather ingenious.
Overall, though, despite the few minor quibbles, this film was utterly delightful. It earns itself four out of five pipes, one for the ending, one for the slash, one for the atmosphere, and one for Holmes’ cry of: By Jove!