Thursday, November 24, 2011

Identifying the killer doesn’t always identify the killer

The first two movies in the Sherlock Holmes film series staring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were quite properly set in Victorian England. The first was a faithful adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (the best of Conan Doyle’s novel-length tales), while the second was a loose adaptation of the famous William Gillette play.

Then World War II broke out. The series, originally produced at 20th Century Fox, moved to Universal Studios and updated Holmes to contemporary times. That allowed the Great Detective to match wits with Nazi spies.

Later on, the films moved back to more traditional mystery fare, but remained set in what was then present day. For this reason, they are, though always entertaining, never quite as satisfying as they could be—in the end, Holmes and Watson belong in Victorian or (late in their career) Edwardian England. The two never really fit in later times.

All the same, there are a few gems in the series. The Scarlet Claw (1944) is one. Holmes and Watson are visiting Canada. Holmes learns that a woman was brutally murdered in a nearby village. Soon after, he receives a letter from her (obviously mailed just before her death), asking him to protect her from a vaguely-defined danger.

Holmes notes that it’s the first time he’s been commissioned by a dead person, then determines to find the murderer. He heads to the village, where most of the locals have decided that the killer is a legendary monster. 

But Holmes soon finds clues pointing to a more rational solution. (I like it when Watson refers to The Hound of the Baskervilles and “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” as examples of supposedly supernatural crimes that proved to have a rational explanation.)  A little investigating finds a motive for the first killing—a motive that also indicates several other people are in danger.

It really isn’t long before Holmes knows who the killer is. But bizarre circumstances (which I don’t want to spoil if you haven’t seen the film) mean that, in this case, identifying the killer doesn’t really identify the killer. Holmes knows who it is without really knowing who it is.

So begins a race to find a murderer before he or she can murder again.

The movie is great to look at—the Universal storytellers had more than enough experience at producing horror movies to succeed in giving the village an appropriately creepy and dangerous vibe. The various supporting character all have… well, character—both in their appearance and their behavior. Rathbone, as always, is excellent as Holmes. (Arguably beaten out as the best-ever Great Detective only by Jeremy Brett.)  Bruce, if you can accept a comic relief Watson, is funny and likable. And the mystery is well-constructed, with clues that are uncovered in a logical manner and make sense when revealed.

Also, it’s very easy to imagine this movie being set in the early 20th Century—lets say 1902, perhaps a year before the most likely date of Holmes’ retirement in “real life.” Neither the war nor any then-current events are mentioned. It’s not too much of a stretch to accept the prevalence and reliability of telephones, even in a remote village. Flashlights are used instead of lamps and a character takes a bus when leaving town, when a train or a coach might have been more likely forty-two years earlier. But even these are within the realm of possibility for an Edwardian era mystery. The first dry cell flashlight, for instance, was invented in 1896. So we have room to think of this movie as being set in a proper Holmesian universe.

But, well, then Holmes spoils it all in the very last scene by quoting Churchill. No way to fit that into 1902. Gee whiz, Holmes, you just had to blow it, didn’t you?

Despite the 1940s setting, the Universal Holmes series really is quite good. And maybe it’s just as well that Holmes occasionally gets updated to modern times. After all, someone has to match wits with all those criminal masterminds. Heck, I’ll take Holmes over those annoying CSI guys any day of the week.

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