Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

SH-Faces-Death_posterNot many may realise that The Abominable Bride, the marvellous Victorian-era seasonal special of Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, and this entry in the Rathbone and Bruce series share a canonical link as they were both derived Conan Doyle’s ‘The Musgrave Ritual.’ This entry is, rightly or wrongly, also generally considered to be when the Universal series really hits its stride. Gone are the Nazi spies (and Rathbone’s Caesarian haircut), replaced by lashings of Gothic mood set in a semi-modern world.

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 4
Conan Doyle Source: The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual (1893)
Sample dialogue: “I love things that have no meaning.” (Alfred Brunton)
Original filming dates: Starting on 12 April 1943
Sherlock in disguise: No
Universal’s Baker Street Regulars: One of the joys of this series is spotting the appearances of the various members of the stock company of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series in a variety of roles, sometimes as villains and sometimes as victims. In this one we have Gavin Muir (3/4) as Philip, one of the three Musgrave siblings; Gerald Hamer (2/5) and Olaf Hytten (2/6) as two of the recovering servicemen; Hillary Brooke (2/3), as Sally, the heir to the Mugrave title; and Frederic Worlock (2/6) as another ill-fated member of the Musgrave family.

The original story:
This is one of the most unusual stories in the canon in one respect at least – it is in fact narrated by Holmes rather than Watson. The story deals with the disappearance of the butler Brunton and the maid Rachel Howells from the home in Sussex of Reginald Musgrave. Brunton was serving his notice after being discovered handling a family heirloom, a document known as the ‘Musgrave Ritual.’ Holmes is able to decode its apparently meaningless phrases to discover Burnton’s dead body in a family crypt and the remains of Charles I’s crown.


The Film
This film is only loosely inspired by the story, though Brunton the butler and the maid and the ritual (albeit completely re-written) leading to a treasure in the crypt, are all retained pretty faithfully. This was the film that saw a crucial change in style, with director Roy William Neil taking over also as producer and John B Goodman installed as the new art director. The style from now on would be spooky and Gothic and references to the war only tangential.

Dr. John H. Watson: Ghosts don’t stab people in the neck, do they? Or do they?
Sherlock Holmes: Not well-bred ghosts, Watson.

Holmes doesn’t appear in the opening 10 minutes – this is instead devoted to introducing the gloomy Musgrave manor and giving some welcome additional space to Watson, who is there to help with the care of recovering servicemen (this is the only war reference in the film). When his assistant arrives one dark and stormy night and says he was brutally attacked, Watson asks Holmes to intercede. Soon members of the Musgrave family start being bumped off.


The plot does not in fact make a lot of sense, giving the impression that in the rush to make the story as horror-tinged as possible plausibility and plot relevance was just abandoned. Thus, there are a lot of amusing but irrelevant touches, like a clock that strikes 13, a blood-thirsty raven and a lightning strike during the reading of the Ritual. There is also that stylistic no-no, a lying flashback (the sort of thing Hitchcock himself would be pilloried for in his films Stage Fright and I, Confess). And why on earth Lestrade of Scotland Yard is investigating a case in Northumberland (England’s most northern county) is anybody’s guess, especially as he is incredibly stupid here, making a series of asinine decisions and even getting himself lost in the manor’s secret passages.

Sherlock Holmes: … these egomaniacs are always so much more chatty when they feel they have the upper hand.

But there is also much to love here – along with its rich Gothic atmosphere (both in the lighting and the settings, making good use of sets left over from Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein films). And then there is the splendid payoff in the ritual itself. While in the original it proves to be a code to the location of a treasure by giving directions between trees outside the house, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser turns his newly worded Ritual into a gigantic chess game played by humans on the floor of the manor. The Universal Holmes and Watson films were always planned and produced in batches of three to fulfill their contractual obligations to the Doyle estate and this film was the first of a trio, continuing with The Spider Woman and then concluding with The Scarlet Claw, that would in fact see the series at its absolute best. It is a great jumping on point for newbies and great fun for anyone but the most severe of Holmes aficionados.

DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, looks absolutely terrific. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death looks decent but not great, not having been able to use an original camera negative. The encoding on the disc is also not of the best sadly, with much evidence of video noise in many scenes.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Harold MacArthur
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade),  Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson), Hillary Brooke, Halliwell Hobbes (Brunton), Arthur Margetson, Minna Phillips, Milburn Stone, Gavin Muir, Frederic Worlock, Gerald Hamer

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, England, Film Noir, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    This does sound as though it’s absolutely dripping with Gothic atmosphere, Sergio. I’m usually not one to like film adaptations that take too many liberties, but it sounds as though this one works.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    Regarding the ritual, there are similar questions and answers in T. S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder In The Cathedral:
    Thomas: Who shall have it?
    Tempter: He who will come.
    Thomas: What shall be the month?
    Tempter: The last from the first.
    Thomas: What shall we give for it?
    Tempter: Pretence of priestly power.
    Thomas: Why should we give it?
    Tempter: For the power and the glory.
    I have not seen Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). However, I have seen the Russian TV film adaptation (2013)
    The story has been adapted in a very dramatic and interesting manner by Russian TV in their Sherlock Holmes series (2013) with several variations.
    The series consists of 8 episodes of which The Musgrave Ritual is the 5th episode There are interesting variations in the series itself like Sherlock Holmes being 15 years younger than Dr. Watson and their partnership being on equal terms complementing each other.
    All the 8 episodes with English subtitles are available on You Tube.

    • Thanks Santosh – and yes, Eliot did acknowledge that the reference was intentional. Not seen the Russian versions though I hear they are very good. The Jeremy Brett version of ‘Musgrave’ is very good too.

  3. Bradstreet says:

    FACES DEATH is perhaps the point where the Rathbone movies really take flight. I like the earlier SH vs The Nazis entries, but this seems as though they finally hit upon the right approach. The best of the movies take place in a sort of timeless limbo, with elements of the ‘modern’ world jostling with timeless gothic trappings. This one uses the original story in an imaginative way, and even the final patriotic speech is talking about something that has relevance now.

    • Thanks for that. I did mean to focus more on the concluding speech which posits a fascination, near socialist utopia – easy to see why, after the war, this would have seemed so welcome (still is to me, but that’s another conversation).

  4. Great review!

    We are currently making our way through the Rathbone/Bruce films on our own blog Back on Baker Street where we host The Great Sherlock Holmes Experiment. We’d be honored if you visited our site. Hopefully our review of “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” will be posted later this week.

    Nick & Cat

  5. Colin says:

    Yes, this is the one where things start to come right and Neill directs with style and bags of atmosphere. The earlier movies are fun of course, but this is the entry that gets all the important ingredients in place.

  6. Sergio – I remember this one with the chess game on the floor of the hall. The 1980s TV series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes also did “The Musgrave Ritual.” For me, Rathbone and Brett were the best Sherlocks.

    • Thanks Algin – I think I agree with you on the whole, though I love Robert Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the current TV Holmeses, Cumberbatch and Miller, are to my mind extremely good too.

  7. Yvette says:

    Thanks for a terrific review of a film I’m not crazy about (but then I loved SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR and you didn’t ) but I like to see another point of view and truth to tell, there are some parts of this that I enjoyed. I never did mind WWII finding its way into the world of Holmes. Why not? We currently have several Holmes series modernized for today’s tastes. Not that I love those overmuch, but still.

    But the thing I disliked most about this film is the idea that the actor portraying Watson’s associate at the home for soldiers is considered ‘his young assistant.’ There is no way that guy is young in any way shape or form. So that always throws me off. Maybe it doesn’t bother anyone else, but it sure as heck bothers me. Usually these films are cast so wonderfully with, as you say, a ‘stock company of supporting actors’,

    There’s also the fact that the screenplay doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense. But you’ve covered that too. And hey, by the way, in the early scene at the pub, there’s a bit by a very very young Peter Lawford as a sailor who’s only line – if I’m remembering correctly – is ‘Blimey!’

    • Thanks Yvette (and belated happy new year) – up until the 1939 Hound all Shelock films were set in contemprary times so I agree, that si not an issue at all – I just think these later ones were better on their own terms, but really, I enjoy them all. Yes, I suppose he was ‘young’ by Watson’s standards but actually I wish they had cast a different sort of actor in the role as he isn’t really good enough to convince.

  8. tracybham says:

    Every time I see one of your posts on these films, I want to watch them. Looks like I am going to have to buy them. They don’t seem to be on Netflix.

  9. bkfriedman says:

    Thanks for this great review! It reminded me I have to watch this one again! This, THE SCARLET CLAW (modern day but a GREAT whodunit dripping with atmosphere) and THE HOUSE OF FEAR are my three favorite Rathbone/Bruce SH films! Both are also exquisite in the wonderful radio series, largely written by Anthony Boucher (and sponsored by Petri Wine!) But then, I could watch Nigel Bruce read the phone book . . . and laugh uproariously from A to Z!

    • Thanks very much Brad – I must listen to mor eof the later radio plays (I’m a huge fan of the form). SCARLET CLAW and PEARL OF DEATH may be my favourites – reviews of both comming up soon!

  10. Santosh Iyer says:

    All the films of the Rathbone and Bruce series are available on You Tube (perhaps illegally).

    • Most of them are definitely there illegally though four are int he public domain in the US (not the UK though): Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, The Woman in Green, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill

  11. I was hugely enjoying the review and those fab photos – could they BE more Rathbone & Bruce SH? – and wondering vaguely if I might have seen this one. Then the mention of the chess game settled it – I can remember being completely riveted by that scene during a TV showing, even though I don’t remember much else about the film….

  12. Mike says:

    Great review Sergio – we had a Rathbone-Bruce binge over the Christmas break and this one stood out as a real pleasure. Of course Mrs M and I have seen them all before many times, but I agree with you and the other commenters that FACES DEATH is a confident and sparky entry, and that fabulous chess game breathes life into the film’s second half. It might not make complete sense but it’s always a lot of fun.

  13. Thanks for the review, Sergio. I have yet to watch Rathbone’s Holmes and I’m glad they might be available on YouTube. My daughter was full of praise for the Cumberbatch-Freeman series SHERLOCK which, I think, is currently being telecast on Indian cable.

    • Thanks chum – I think the Cumberbatch is splendid and it was inspired by the Rathbone and Bruce series, all of which seems to be on YouTube (mostly illegally, but that’s YouTube for you) – you can see theme here:

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