Friday, November 11, 2016

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Director: Roy William Neill                              Writers: Bertram Millhauser & Lynn Riggs
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Lester White
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Henry Daniell and George Zucco

In the third of Universal’s wartime Sherlock Holmes series--the fifth counting the two that were produced before they purchased the rights from 20th Century Fox--they send the detective and his sidekick to America to fight Nazi spies. What’s interesting about Sherlock Holmes in Washington is that the Nazis are never really named, perhaps to prevent any kind of panic in the U.S. about Nazi infiltration. Another interesting fact is that both Henry Daniell and George Zucco appeared in earlier films in the series, George Zucco in the second film for Fox, and Daniell in the first for Universal. The film is certainly the most propagandistic of the series thus far with Holmes touting how great America is every chance he gets. But then this was the first of the Universal Holmes series that was not derived from a story by creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Early publicity had Evelyn Ankers and Robert Paige, who had both appeared in the studio’s feature Son of Dracula the previous year, appearing in the film, but Marjorie Lord and John Archer were cast instead. The two were actually married at the time and their daughter, Anne Archer, would go on to fame as a film star in her own right. Screenwriter Lynn Riggs had also participated in writing the previous entry in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, while Bertram Millhauser would go on to co-author several more films later in the series.

The story begins at the London airport, with British foreign service agents Henry Daniell and Gilbert Emery boarding a plane to America. At the last minute they’re joined by the clumsy Gerald Hamer. After landing in New York, the three take a train to Washington, D.C. German agent Daniell and his confederates are looking for papers being transported by a British agent, and they think Hamer has them. After Hamer passes a matchbook to Marjorie Lord and an envelope to Thurston Hall playing as a U.S. Senator, he is abducted by Daniell and company. Once off the train, while Lord becomes engaged to Navy man John Archer, Hamer is taken off the train at gunpoint. Back in London, Holmes Herbert from the home office contacts Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and suggests he go to Washington to see if he can find Hamer, who was carrying papers of vital importance to the war effort. But first Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, as Dr. Watson, go by Hamer’s house. It’s here that he discovers that the information Hamer was carrying was in the matchbook, and the two fly to America immediately. The pair meet with police detective Edmund MacDonald and get a list of the people Hamer contacted on the train. At the hotel where Holmes was told to go to by an anonymous source, a trunk is delivered with the dead body of Gerald Hamer inside. After that Rathbone reconstructs the train ride and identifies Lord as the one Hamer passed the information on to.

Unfortunately Daniell is on to her as well, and winds up getting to her first. George Zucco is in charge of Daniell’s cell and gives them their marching orders. But Rathbone only manages to track him down through the blanket that Hamer’s body was wrapped in. And, as it usually is in Sherlock Holmes films, it’s enough. This is certainly one of the lesser Holmes’ films, as there is very little suspense. The business of getting from Hamer to Zucco is fairly straightforward, but their meeting at the end is every bit as delicious as one would expect. In the wartime atmosphere in which it was released it’s natural that the film would garner positive reviews. Seen from today’s perspective, however, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well. In fact, there’s nothing really interesting about the entire production, save for the co-stars assembled. Character actor Ian Wolfe turns up as an antique store clerk, but even he is the only interesting supporting character in the film. As a work of art there is absolutely nothing unique about the film, and that’s a shame, yet as one of the Rathbone-Bruce films it seems absolutely essential in retrospect. When viewed as part of the overall Universal series Sherlock Holmes in Washington is a worthy episode, but on its own it doesn’t really merit the effort to seek it out.

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