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
Oh, sometimes pastiches can work really well, Sergio. And you’re reading that from someone who’s usually a
cranky, insufferable, irritatingdedicated purist. This one sounds as though it’s got a real affection for the series underneath it, and that, to me, makes all the difference.
🙂 Well, I do take you point – let’s just pretend that Rathbone and Bruce were playing Sherringford and Wilson instead!
One of the best of the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies. Almost as good as THE SCARLET CLAW.
Thanks for that – I think I’d agree on both counts! Review of Claw coming to this blog fairly soon, hopefully …
This entry is great entertainment, Sergio, and you’ve done a cracking job of emphasising that whilst also being playful about its ‘lesser’ or perhaps that should be ‘more idiosyncratic’ elements e.g. any scene that has Rathbone showing up in a disguise. Sondegaard makes for a smashing villain and even gets the better of Holmes – not a surprise to see her get a spin-off, a shame it wasn’t very good. For me, this is one of the series’ most fun episodes and for that reason amongst its best.
Thank you Mike – I had a great time watching this again as I’d forgotten quite how much I liked it! It makes for a great contrast with the entries on either side of it, but I think that these three may just see the series at its peak.
Well done, and I agree with yourself and the others that this is a marvelous piece of entertainment. The set pieces are memorable and the whole thing is just such fun.
Thanks chum, I’d forgotten just how entertaining it is. And that scene with the young lad prowling around 221b is just utterly priceless – not much plot but handled with such gusto and the set-pieces are just great fun! I really wish she had recurred in the series as a villain – but it is interesting what they do and do not do with the canon. I mean, no Irene Adler for starters …
I guess I have said this before but not sticking to the canon – taking wild leaps away from it in fact – doesn’t trouble me too much as far as Holmes is concerned.
I love the blend adventure, intrigue, creepiness and gentle humor these movies achieved. There were some fine villains in the series and Sondergaard has to rank up there among the best – I agree it’s a shame she couldn’t have been worked into the series again.
In a way, having accepted the ersatz, quasi Victorian atmosphere as a parallel 1940s universe does properly free one to enjoy these on their own merits – it’s the way I feel about the current SHERLOCK and ELEMENTARY TV shows, bot of which I enjoy immensely in very different ways but which both show the correct level of love for the original works, which is very different from slavish fidelity – we’ll always have the first two series of the Jeremy Brett show to remind of of what that can be like 🙂
I hadn’t seen the Brett shows for years (and only bits and pieces then) and started going through some last summer. I liked them fine and think they do a good job of sticking to the Doyle stories. And all of this just proves, to me anyway, that there’s plenty of room for different interpretations and imaginings of the Holmes character – they’re all good.
Yes – because when it does go wrong, it can be just saw dull and awful (and yes, I’m thinking of Roger Moore or Stewart Granger as Holmes here …)
I can’t imagine Moore in the role. It’s so long since I saw the Granger effort that I remember almost nothing about it – perhaps it’s just as well. 😉
I think so chum, I think so … 😉
Watched a few of the Bretts recently and found them very slow! Though I love Brett as Holmes and they generally got the clothes and atmosphere perfectly. But somehow they muffed the Copper Beeches.
I think the Brett is as close as it has got to the real thing, but it is only ever going to be an approximation given the demands of series TV
Great review! Agreed that though it has not much to do with canon, it’s great fun! And really, Rathbone was such a great Holmes you could forgive much in these films.
Thanks Karen – we are clearly of one mind on this – hurrah, time to get my calabash 🙂
I bet it has been more than fifty years since I saw this one. Very dim memory.
You should remedy that right away Patti 🙂
One of my all-time favourites. It’s such a wonderful, busy film. You made the point that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, which is true, but it’s moving at such speed that you don’t really have time to think about it. Sondegaard is such a splendidly feline baddie that she is perfectly cast against Rathbone’s canine detective. I’m also very fond of the scene where the regulars believe that Holmes has perished. It’s genuinely poignant, and there is real subtlety to the moment where Lestrade quietly returns Holmes pipe, which he has taken as a memento. Holmes sees that he has taken it, but pretends not to notice the return in order not to embarrass him.
Thanks for that and I completely agree – and it is interesting how it steps out completely from the Gothic mode in favour of a comic strip, pulpy feel which, amazingly, suits it so well!
Holmes, can a child have done this terrible thing? (or something)
And then it turns out to be a fake pygmy 🙂
Thanks for the review, Sergio. I really ought to check out Basil Rathbone play Holmes. I’m also inclined to revisit some of Doyle’s stories. It’s interesting that this has elements of many of those stories.
Thanks Prashant – this is a real pastiche of elements, but if you like this sort of thing, then you’ll love it!
Sounds very good, I look forward to watching it someday. (Of course I may have watched it sometime in my distant past, but have no memory of it.)
Thanks Tracy – I bet your hubby has seen it 🙂 It is easy to find online too but it just packs a huge amount of entertainment into its hour
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