Saturday, May 1, 2021

Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944)

Director: Roy William Neill                           Writer: Bertram Millhauser
Film Score: Hans J. Salter                           Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Gale Sondergaard and Vernon Downing

For the seventh installment of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser used parts of several Conan Doyle stories, “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” (1913), The Sign of the Four (1890) and “The Final Problem” (1893) among others, for his story called The Spider Woman. Oddly, while the film uses more Conan Doyle material that any other film, Universal decided for some reason to omit “Sherlock Holmes” from the title of the picture, as it would for the rest of the series. Director Roy William Neill, for which this was his fourth Holmes film in a row, adds some nice touches to the usual medium shots and close ups. One is a long shot in Sondergaard’s apartment, which seems quite unique for the time, and another is an overhead shot of Holmes’ apartment at 221B Baker Street, both of which add some nice variety to what is essential a B movie. The great Hans Salter was assigned the chore of selecting stock music--primarily from previously written cues by himself and Frank Skinner--for the film from Universal’s library. And Charles Van Enger, the director of photograph on the previous entry, is behind the camera on this outing as well.

The film opens on the London rooftops with a man falling through a window to his death, one of a string of apparent suicides by men wearing pajamas. Meanwhile Homes and Watson have been in Scotland fishing, but Basil Rathbone as Holmes believes the deaths are murders because none of the men left suicide notes. Then, after confesses to having dizzy spells to Nigel Bruce as Watson, he faints and falls into the river to his death, all of which unleashes a crime wave in the city. Everyone who knew him is upset, even Dennis Hoey as Lestrade. But, of course, Rathbone eventually turns back up in disguise. Since all the dead men were rich, and the murders subtle, he believes the murderer a woman, and sets out to trap her by going undercover as a rich Indian gambler. The film’s villain Gale Sondergaard and her associate Vernon Downing naturally fall into the trap when she invites Rathbone to her gaming establishment. But when the two spend time together at her apartment, it’s not quite clear who really has the upper hand. That night Rathbone sets his trap. Henchman Harry Cording goes up on the roof, and soon a large tarantula comes through the vent, but both of them die at the hands of Rathbone. So now the detective knows the method and the murderer, but the real mystery will be figuring out a way to tie the two together.

Rathbone and Bruce do their usual stalwart jobs on the production, along with Dennis Hoey. As a villain, Gale Sondergaard makes a valiant attempt but lacks the menace associated with a typical Holmes villain--two years later Universal made an attempt to capitalize on her appearance here by reprising her role for another film, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, but it has no relationship to the Holmes series. After that the quality of the acting drops off precipitously. Vernon Downing as the nervous assistant is a bit wooden, and Alec Craig as a phony professor is a little over the top. There’s nothing particularly special about the film, and in some ways abandoning the World War Two connection that the previous films revolved around is something of a disappointment--though Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini do put in an appearance in the finale. There’s also the fact that Rathbone’s disguises, while well done, are fairly easy to detect for regular watchers of the series. Where the story excels is in completely accepting these familiar tropes, and because Rathbone has to figure out exactly how the murders are committed rather than who the culprit is, it makes it slightly more interesting than it might have been otherwise. For fans of the series, however, very little of that matters as The Spider Woman is simply another fun romp with Universal’s Holmes and Watson.

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