Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are off to a remote part of Scotland to investigate the peculiar goings on at Drearcliff House, a gloomy old mansion where its inhabitants are all starting to receive mysterious threats before dying. Has their group insurance policy got something to do with it?
Dr Watson: I’m sorry I’m late. I didn’t sleep very well.
Sherlock Holmes: Didn’t sleep very well? You snored like a pig!
The following review is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
Universal Sherlock Holmes # 8
Conan Doyle Source: The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips (1891)
Sample dialogue: “Murder is an insidious thing. Once a man has dipped his fingers in blood, sooner or later he’ll feel the urge to kill again.”
Original filming dates: Starting 9 May 1945
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: Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording (7/8) in one his most substantial roles as the pipe-smoking Captain; Gavin Muir as the insurance agent; and Paul Cavanagh as a very sinister doctor.
The original story:
Holmes is asked by John Openshaw to investigate a threatening letter that has arrived containing five orange pips, with the initials ‘KKK’ on the outside. This it turns out has happened before, to his uncle and his father, in both cases leading to the death of the recipient. Holmes sends Openshaw home and learns that he was killed shortly after. The case ultimately proves to involve material that could harm men in the upper echelons of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the tale is a bit thin and one element, the use of the KKK initials, will be no mystery at all to modern readers, I’ve always liked this story just for the fact that it is set in Horsham, West Sussex, which is where my mother and her family came from and where I spent many a happy Summer as a youngster.
Originally planned under a much better title, The Murder Club, this film is lots of fun but its very generic title really is very indicative of the product as a whole. We have a scary house at the top of a cliff, a sinister servant (Sally Shepherd) who creeps around making odd pronouncements, a stormy night, yokels, foolish policemen, secret passages, etc, etc. The plot of the movie has nothing to do with the original story – instead, we have our duo hired by an insurance company to find out who is trying to kill off the seven members of a club, ‘The Good Comrades,’ who all live together in a lonely old clifftop manor in the wilds of Scotland, the death of the men presaged by the delivery to them of the eponymous pips. Bizarrely, the insurance company seems to be happy to keep paying out on each individual policy seemingly within minutes of the deaths being reported! No wonder they decide to ask Holmes to intervene … Holmes is particularly interested in the case because one of the men, Merrivale (Paul Cavanagh), was previously accused of murder but got away with it.
Inspector Lestrade: I like big solid clues and people I can question
In many ways, the best and worst aspects of the film are summed up in a single five-minute sequence, in which Dr Watson has been left to guard the surviving inhabitants of the house while Lestrade and Holmes investigate a murder in the village. A violent storm batters the house with rain and lightning and the doctor becomes increasingly befuddled and ultimately starts shooting the place up, having convinced himself that he is surrounded. The house at night is beautifully shot and is just how you want a spooky old house in a 1940s movie to look like – but Watson is also at his most comical and foolish. So we have bags of atmosphere, but an approach to story and character that is pretty much playing it all for easy laughs and effects.
Sherlock Holmes: This is a most unique case. Instead of too few we have too many clues and too many suspects. The main pattern of the puzzle seems to be forming, but the pieces don’t fit in.
It is nice to see Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording get such a substantial role in the film as the ex-sea captain with a taste for very peculiar tobacco. On the other hand, as the mild-mannered leader of the house, Aubrey Mather is portrayed in such a stupid way as to suggest that he must be suffering from a severe form of mental impairment!
The ending is a terrific surprise , it has to be said, but is also incredibly silly. I don’t want to include spoilers here, but I think most viewers will be able to drive a herd of elephants through the central hole in the plot and on which the whole story depends, unfortunately. There are some nice jokes though, such a funeral in which one of the villagers decries the death as his friend was ‘in the flower of his manhood’ – only for Watson to discover that the the dead man was 72! On the other hand, a sequence in which Watson is digging up a grave and ends up mistaking an owl’s hoots for Holmes’ voice is very daft indeed.
Sherlock Holmes: At the moment I suspect no one and everyone.
There are lots of messy deaths though the ending tends to undermine this, while Lestrade and Watson prove particularly thick throughout, though this is a movie that is not taking itself even remotely seriously – so if you are in the mood for a black comedy featuring Holmes and Watson, then maybe this is the one for you. I’m less convinced though, so all in all, this movie is a bit of a disappointment, despite its many incidental pleasures – certainly producer/director Roy William Neill and his technical team do their best to paper over the cracks with lashings of Gothic atmosphere – but one wishes they had come up with a better plot and made Watson just a bit less of a buffoon, though it is nice that it is actually he, rather than Holmes, who solves the case at the end.
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 House of Fear, look pretty good, though the first and fifth reels are noticeably faded and battered in comparison to the rest of the film, which looks tip top! Things aren’t helped by a surprisingly low bitrate on my Koch Blu-ray. None the less, most of the time it looks fab.
The House of Fear (1945)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Roy Chanslor
Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Eugene Lourie
Music: Paul Sawtell, Frank Skinner (theme music)
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Dennis Hooey (Inspector Lestrade), Aubrey Mather, Sally Shepherd, Gavin Muir, Harry Cording, Paul Cavanagh