Film Score: Hans J. Salter Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Arthur Margetson and Hillary Brooke
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is an adaptation of the Conan Doyle short story “Sherlock Holmes and the Musgrave Ritual.” The plot is essentially an old dark house mystery in which Holmes is charged with finding the murderer among the people living there. Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser was no stranger to the detective, having also written an earlier British Sherlock Holmes film in 1932 starring Clive Brook as the famous detective. Director Roy William Neill had directed the previous two films in the series, and does a solid job of creating interesting camera angles and movement without the effect being intrusive. Though the story has nothing to do with the war, Rathbone’s unfortunate epilogue to the film calls for people to end their greed and think of the needy and the oppressed, a rather too obvious plea to the audience to keep up their support for the war. But it was part and parcel of the times, and in a way more true to the original character than in the last few films where he and Bruce were involved directly in the battle against German espionage.
The film opens in a pub, the Rat and the Raven. An old man tells some sailors to stay away from Musgrave Manor, which he paints as sort of a British version of the House of Usher. Frederick Worlock is the patriarch of the family, Gavin Muir the rather cheeky brother, and Hillary Brooke their younger sister who is in love with American pilot Milburn Stone, much to the disapproval of Worlock. The tremendously talented Halliwell Hobbes is the butler who eavesdrops on everyone and knows all. Inexplicably, Nigel Bruce is downstairs in the study, and later another doctor, Arthur Margetson stumbles in after being stabbed in the neck by an unknown assailant. Everything becomes clear when Worlock enters the room and it comes out that he has opened up his home for use as a convalescent center for officers, one of whom is Stone, while Bruce and Margetson are the doctors overseeing their care. Margetson says there’s no need to try and find the man who assaulted him, but Worlock insists, and who better than Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes to investigate. The first thing Rathbone finds when he gets there, however, is the body of Worlock hidden under a pile of leaves. The second thing he finds is a confident Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, convinced he knows what happened to Margetson but oblivious to the actual murder that has taken place. There are plenty of suspects among the motley assortment of battle fatigue victims at the hospital, Hoey has his sights set on Stone, but the murders continue.
Hillary Brooke--a poor man’s Evelyn Ankers--had already appeared with Rathbone and Bruce in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, which actually starred Ankers, the previous year. Universal’s stock company of B-list (British List) actors also include the creepy housekeeper Minna Philips and Norma Varden as the pub barmaid. The lone American, Milburn Stone, who would go on to play the grizzled Doc Adams on the Gunsmoke series, doesn’t have much to do and has very little screen time. The British cast is capable, but little more, though the acting is hardly the point. The key to the murders is the poem that the surviving heir must recite over the body of the most recently deceased member of the family. Basil Rathbone is brilliant as always, his Holmes high-strung and delivering his lines in rapid fire, moving about just as quickly and pulling everyone else along in his wake. And this is necessary in a stage-bound drama like this, all of which takes place within the confines of the old house. More than in previous films, Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson is used to good effect, and winds up not nearly as bumbling as he appears. But the film as a whole is also fairly adept at undermining audience expectations to keep the mystery just that, especially in the climax that gives the film its name. While Charles Van Enger’s lighting is terrific, the music by the great Hans Salter is fairly undistinguished, probably made up of little more than his own stock cues. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, while not the best in the series is far from the worst, and certainly not to be missed by fans of the Rathbone-Bruce duo.