Friday, March 27, 2009


This Sherlock Holmes adventure, based on "The Valley of Fear," begins with a short scene in which criminal mastermind Prof. Moriarty agrees to help an American thug take out someone. We then jump to Holmes retiring out to the countryside to do some beekeeping; Dr. Watson is soon trying to get him to forget about a mysterious note warning that there will be trouble at Birlstone Castle. The note, however, seems to have come too late, as Inspector Lestrade arrives with news that the squire of the castle, a Mr. Douglas, has been killed, his face blown away with a shotgun. He had a brand on his arm which Holmes recognizes as a mark of the Scowrers, an American secret society centered in Pennsylvania coal country (the "valley of fear" of the novel's title). There's a long flashback sequence in which his American wife Ettie tells Holmes about the group, their terrorizing ways, and why its members may have been looking for Douglas, a man who was living under at least two other names, Murdoch and Edwards. In an unusual move for a Sherlock Holmes film, this flashback, without Holmes or Watson, takes up almost half of the film's running time and makes for an interesting subplot, even more so when we come to suspect that Ettie may be an unreliable narrator. Was Douglas a good guy or a bad guy? Does it matter which name he went under? Why does Holmes obsess about a missing barbell, part of the deceased's daily exercise routine? And how is Moriarty mixed up in all this? The plot is fairly clever and I don't want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that Holmes makes everything clear and justice is served.

I'm a big fan of the American Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone; I've enjoyed other one-offs (Christopher Plummer, Rupert Everett, Reginald Owen) but I still think Rathbone is the one and only Holmes--though to be fair, I have yet to see Jeremy Brett who played Holmes for British television in the 80's and whom many people think is the best Holmes ever. This British film is one of five which stars Arthur Wontner (who resembles Rathbone) as the fabled detective, and it's quite good. It's also apparently much more faithful to the Doyle stories than the Rathbone films were, most of which were based only on the characters and not individual stories. Ian Fleming (not the James Bond author) makes an OK Watson, who doesn't really have much to do except be the butt of a running gag about Holmes forgetting to introduce him to others. Lyn Harding makes an effective Moriarty, reminding me at times of George Zucco who played Moriarty in the first Rathbone film. Ben Welden, a familiar character face from literally hundreds of movies, mostly in the 30's and 40's, is good as the American thug. The print I saw, from a Goodtimes VHS tape, is not in the best shape; for a low-budget film, the sets were good, especially in the finale set at night in the castle tower. I'd be interested in catching another Wontner Holmes someday. [VHS]

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