Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s third last outing in the series of films they made as Holmes and Watson between 1939 and 1946, is one of the best. Atmospheric, cerebral and quite disturbing in some ways, it’s a film that is saved from silliness and excess by one of Basil’s most accomplished turns as Holmes, as well as the bewitching realisation of the main villain by Hilary Brooke.
The script, written by Bertram Millhauser, a prolific Golden Age screenwriter, takes material from The Final Problem and The Empty House. London is gripped by the gruesome murders of young women, which involves severing their forefingers for what appears to be an extremely macabre calling card. Through an extensive investigation into the grimy underbelly of the criminal world that has connections to the shiny penthouses of the city, Holmes and his faithful companion, Watson, discover an elaborate blackmail plot spearhead by Lydia Marlowe, a woman who uses hypnosis and suggestion to convince men of their guilt in these murders. Will Lydia and Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ old foe, succeed in outwitting and possibly even killing, the great sleuth?
The film currently holds a certified fresh rating of 100 % on that infamously prickly website known as Rotten Tomatoes, and while there is no critical consensus on the site, the reviews that are present are almost, as indicated by the rating, universally positive. What makes this film so compelling for most, is its unusual approach to the Sherlock Holmes formula. Four of the early films focused primarily on Holmes’ involvement in the war effort, before moving onto disconnected adventures that while largely fascinating and enjoyable, lacked a supernatural overtone. The Scarlet Claw , of course, is the exception to this rule, and even The Pearl of Death and The House of Fear have their spooky moments, but The Woman In Green really puts mysticism and the “unnatural” at the fore. It also explores stereotyped Occidental ideas about the rituals and medicines of the East, with much of Lydia’s villainy being dependent on the mystery of these regions. Although, blessedly, we are spared yellow face.
I feel that Basil’s performance in this film is the last great one of the series. In Pursuit To Algiers, he looks largely like he’s sleepwalking through the role from one train compartment to the next, and although he rouses quite nicely in Terror By Night and Dressed To Kill, which are the final two entries in the franchise; he never quite recaptures that passion for the role. When he finally outwits Lydia and Moriarty quite spectacularly, he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, and there is no sign of fatigue with either his characterisation or the material. This is perhaps also to do with the strength of the main cast in this film, which is, in my view, the strongest since Pearl of Death.
Rathbone always said that the restrained Daniell was his favourite Moriarty, and on the evidence of this film one can see why – with his air of cerebral containment and softly spoken precision, Daniell shows all too clearly the similarities of temperament between the master criminal and the Baker Street sleuth.RadioTimes
Henry Daniell’s performance as Moriarty in this film is truly exceptional. He manages to be both sinister and almost charming, and while I very much like George Zucco in the role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I feel that Daniell’s performance is more sinister, more creeping, like Moriarty is in the original novels and short stories. Daniell and Brooke’s approach to their respective roles is wonderfully understated, as observed in the quote above.
Neither of them ever over milks the gradually building sinister events of the story, nor do they seem unbelievable the more fanciful the story becomes, especially in the scene where Holmes manages to seem impervious to various physical devices that are supposed to prove the genuine state of the victim’s hypnosis. An earlier scene in the film, where poor Watson is made a fool of (as usual) after neigh saying hypnosis, is very well realised in terms of Brooke’s performance.
What I really like about her realisation of the deadly, and very cruel Lydia, is that there is never too much slinking or side-eyed female villainy going on. Although I love Gale Sondergaard who made an art of that kind of villainess, particularly in The Spider Woman, that kind of villainess would not have suited this film. Brooke’s understated turn means that her motives and the means by which she commits her crime, becoming even more perturbing when you take into consideration how calmly she achieves her murderous games. The scene in which she comforts one of her victims, knowing that he is likely to take his own life to avoid scandal, is absolutely chilling, as Brooke shows the psychopathy of her Janus role.
Overall, The Woman in Green is probably my favourite Rathbone and Bruce outing in the Universal Sherlock Holmes films, after The Scarlet Claw, due to its concentration on the mundanely sinister concealed beneath the short sightedness of Occidental superstation about the East, as well as the power of social standing to decide how we conduct our lives, and what we will do to maintain that social standing. Even if it means bringing about death to ensure that the status quo is preserved.
This is my second and last contribution to my The Suave Swordsman Blogathon, which is entirely dedicated to Basil and his films. Please visit the rest of my blog to read the gorgeous entries by the other participating bloggers.