Monday, August 11, 2014



Our story begins with two plot threads that will obviously come together: 1) Someone is breaking into London bank vaults, injuring or killing the night watchmen, but no money is ever missing, and Inspector Lestrade asks for Holmes' help; 2) Ronald Adair, a British diplomat, has been cheating at cards and winning big, trying to keep up appearances after his inheritance went bust. His concerned sister, afraid he'll get in trouble if he's exposed, goes to Dr. Watson to see if Holmes can help her. We eventually see the connection: Adair is taken to a room where he is blackmailed by an underworld figure who speaks from behind a painting called The Sleeping Cardinal. The bank break-ins have involved stealing money and replacing it with counterfeit bills, then taking the real money overseas where it won't be traced. Adair, traveling with a diplomatic passport, doesn't have his luggage searched so the Voice wants him to smuggle the money out; if he refuses, he is told that his cheating ways will be exposed and he will be ruined. As Holmes delves into these cases he beings to suspect that the culprit is his old nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Arthur Wontner played Holmes is a series of 30s British B-films (I reviewed a previous film here) and is considered by some to the best movie Holmes. Wontner is fine, probably playing the character more like Doyle wrote him than most, but I still like Basil Rathbone best. One problem is that Wontner is very low-key, as is Ian Fleming as Watson. This leaves Lastrade (Phillip Hewland) to provide much of the energy. Leslie Perrins as Adair is fine, but no one else leaves much of an impression. Based loosely on two Doyle stories, "The Empty House" and "The Final Problem," this is one of the most strongly plotted of any Holmes film, and the cinematography gives the movie some atmosphere; the opening scene of the bank robbery is shot in almost total darkness with just enough glossy white light that we're confused about what's happening. Similarly, the spooky scene with the Sleeping Cardinal painting seems to have come right out of a Saturday matinee serial. Because Wontner's films are mostly in the public domain, available prints are often in poor condition, but the one I saw on Hulu Plus was in good shape. [Hulu Plus streaming]

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