May 1, 2007

Review: Sherlock Holmes In Washington

When a top British agent acting a courier between London and Washington disappears, along with the highly sensitive document he was transporting, Her Majesty’s Government calls on Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, to solve the case. Yes, this is the Holmes who fights Nazis, the Universal incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great logician starring Basil Rathbone. I should get this out of the way first and foremost: so much does Rathbone embody the character that it doesn’t matter one bit that Holmes is a man out of time, a creature of another era thrust into the midst of a war-torn world. Rathbone is so good as Holmes that I would happily accept him in any era. And the films have the same look and feel as the studio’s famous horrors of the period, a gothic noir sheen that seems to set them in their own, ageless universe altogether, a setting entirely appropriate for Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes and Watson (the famously bumbling Nigel Bruce, all wrong for the Doctor of the books, but somehow screen perfection in tandem with Rathbone) begin by investigating the home of the missing agent (who, in a nice, quirky touch, still lived with his mother) where Holmes quickly deduces that he shrunk the document down to a microdot before setting out with it. An assassination attempt right out of Conan Doyle’s "The Empty House" is made on the duo, proving they’re on the right track. Then they’re off to Washington, by airplane. (It is admittedly a strange sight to see Holmes and Watson flying, no matter how much of its own world the film takes place in!) With assistance from the FBI, the detecting duo move through the circles of the city’s power elite, attempting to protect the life of the young woman Holmes suspects has unwittingly come to possess the microdot.

Meanwhile, the spy ring that tried to kill them in London is still at large, and always one step ahead of Holmes and the law in tracking down the elusive MacGuffin. To taunt their adversaries, the Nazi conspirators even send the body of the missing British agent to Holmes in his hotel, stuffed into a trunk. Holmes insists on examining the trunk himself, and soon puts the FBI’s fancy crime lab to shame by turning up clues whose significance their technicians didn’t recognize. (I’m not sure how J. Edgar Hoover allowed the Bureau to be shown up by an interloping Limey sleuth; he was notoriously protective of how his G-men were portrayed on film back then!) As usual, Rathbone relishes the scene where he pronounces these amazing deductions to an amazed and bemused Watson, making this a standout moment.

Holmes’s detection leads him and his stalwart sidekick to a confrontation with the Nazi spymaster, whose secret lair is full of all of the sorts of gadgets and traps that the genre demands. In order to penetrate the hideout, Holmes gets to play an amusing alter-ego, with Watson stationed outside the window poised to summon help, a scenario vaguely reminiscent of "A Scandal in Bohemia." Despite his relatively brief screentime, George Zucco plays one of the better adversaries in the Rathbone Holmes cycle, a sort of proto-Blofeld, remaining unseen until the detective calls him out.

WWII (and Hollywood’s eagerness to promote the Allied cause) led to a lot of blurring of the lines between the spy and detective genres. Most ‘B’ movie sleuths of the period (including Charlie Chan and Mike Shayne) dealt whatever blows they could to Ratzi infiltrators, and Holmes came up against German spy networks on a few occasions. No stranger to such conspiracies in Conan Doyle’s fiction, the match proves a good one in Sherlock Holmes In Washington. The movie makes an interesting link (and a more direct one than John Buchan’s novels) between the literary Sherlock Holmes and his pulp progeny, James Bond. Spy fans who enjoy Golden Age American cinema are encouraged to check it out.

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