Possibly the least ‘Sherlockian’ of all the films in Universal’s Holmes and Watson series, this is also terrifically entertaining, not least for the screen-grabbing performance by Gale Sondegaard as the eponymous femme fatale. A delightful pastiche of Doyle elements filtered through a pulpy, 1940s sensibility, this just might be the most completely enjoyable film of the series. There’s not much of a mystery as we know almost from the start that the title character will be Sherlock’s nemesis – but it is watching them square off in ingenious ways that is so much fun.
The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
Universal Sherlock Holmes # 5
Conan Doyle Source: not canonical
Sample dialogue: “… a female Moriarty. Clever. Ruthless. And above all, cautious.”
Original filming dates: Started filming on 10 May 1943
Sherlock in disguise: Postman and an Indian officer
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: Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording (4/7) as, er, the henchman, the one on the roof who is gunned down by Holmes.
This was the fifth film in the series and begins in an appropriately tabloid-like fashion with a series of headline titles as London gets caught up in a series of crimes – the so-called ‘pyjama suicides’ – which has seen half a dozen men at least kill themselves suddenly and without explanation at bedtime. Holmes and Watson are on holiday at the time, fishing in Scotland. It is here that the Great Detective tells his friend that he won’t be investigating the case as he is seriously ill – shortly after we see him fall into a raging torrent of water and the world is told that the great Holmes is dead.
Sherlock Holmes: I’m sorry, Watson. The pleasures of the chase are no longer for me. I’m through with crime forever.
The scene in which we see Watson, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade mourn the death of their friend in their own ways is handled extremely well, and there is something rather sweet about the Inspector asking to keep one of the great detective’s pipes as a keepsake. But of course Sherlock has faked his own death to investigate the pyjama case as he is sure that they are in fact murder and that the fiend behind it must be a woman due to the subtlety of their design (!)
Irate radio listener: That fella Holmes had no business dying just now. It’s an outrage, a dashed outrage!
Holmes goes undercover, masquerading as an Indian nobleman fallen on hard times and instantly comes to the attention of Andrea Spedding (Sondegaard), who it turns out gets men to sign their life insurance policies over to a confederate and then uses a deadly spider to make them flee to their death so she can cash in. No, not a plausible or sensible plan at all, in fact it is utterly bonkers – but, in a truly movie movie great way!
Andrea quickly realises that Holmes is the impecunious Indian officer she has been wooing and sets about killing him, first with a very large tarantula (to be exact, a ‘Lycosa Carnivora’ leading to another great set-piece in the lab of an arachnologist); then with gas, after visiting his rooms more or less as herself in the company of a very peculiar little boy in a great scenes in which they both appear more or less without their disguises and yet pretend that their masks are still on; and eventually in a climactic fairground sequence, the carnival setting utterly perfect for this fanciful, over the top and utterly delightful film. This climactic sequence is also notable as the only one which makes any references to the war, when Holmes is strapped to the back of the targets in a shooting arcade made up painted with cartoon of Allied enemy leaders.
Barker at shooting gallery: Take a shot at Mussolini, Hirohito, or Hitler! Hit’ em where their ‘earts ought to be, and ‘ear the ‘ollow sound!
The film is not canonical, though the credits claim it is ‘based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’ without specifying which one that might be. However it certainly drew on a number of genuine stories, most notably ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ (a brief dialogue exchange), The Sign of Four (for the pygmy), ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ (the use of a creature through a ventilation duct as the murder method), ‘The Final Problem’ (Holmes apparent death after falling into a torrent), ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (Holmes’ return from apparent death, in disguise), ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ (gas in the fireplace). and maybe a bit of ‘The Adventures of the Dying Detective’ too. But if truth be told, this never feels very Sherlockian, having instead much affinity for the melodramatic set pieces and outrageous murder methods more likely to be found in Edgar Wallace, the adventures of Sexton Blake and the tales of the yellow peril by Sax Rohmer.
Incidentally, Sondegaard was such a hit that she went on to star is a semi-sequel, The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), a pretty poor horror that beyond the title has nothing to do with the original film. For my dedicated microsite on the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, click here.
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 The Spider Woman, look absolutely terrific.
The Spider Woman (1944)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Art Direction: John B. Goodman
Music: Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner (theme music)
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson), Dennis Hooey (Inspector Lestrade), Gale Sondegaard, Vernon Downing, Alec Craig