In 1940 Universal Studios bought the rights to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and cast Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his loyal companion, Dr. Watson. The first three movies in the series, made early in World War II, featured Holmes and Watson battling an assortment of Nazis and/or fifth columnists. Thanks to director/producer Roy William Neill, a new approach was taken in the fourth.
Roy William Neill and the Holmes Movies
Roy William Neill (1887-1946) directed all but the first of the Universal movies — Voice of Terror — and by 1943 was also sole producer of the films. Rightfully sensing that critics and audiences were becoming weary of Holmes fighting Nazis, Neill made a decision that would strengthen the series and leave it with a lasting legacy.
Knowing that Universal still wanted contemporary Holmes stories, Neill, nevertheless, felt that the movies could still capture the flavor of the original Doyle stories by creating a Victorian-like feel to them. Furthermore, he knew how to accomplish this through creating the right atmosphere by using lighting techniques and camerawork.
A successful and respected stylistic B-movie director, Neil had honed his skills directing terror films such as Black Moon (1934) and Gothic melodramas like The Black Room (1935). These movies featured meticulously lit scenes, the use of layered shadows, and restrained camera movements.
He would apply these techniques to Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and to most of the remaining films in the series. Movie goers and reviewers responded to the changes in a positive way by showing a renewed interest in the Holmes movies. It is also not a coincidence that the best of these films are those which are the most atmospheric.
Synopsis of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death
Musgrave Manor, the ancestral home of the Musgrave family, is being used as a convalescent center for army officers suffering from shellshock. Dr. Watson, who is in charge of the recovery unit, becomes concerned when the “grim, cheerless place” is the center of strange sounds and mysterious events. He finally turns to his friend Sherlock Holmes for help when a co-worker is stabbed.
The detective comes to the Manor and is immediately struck with a sense of foreboding. “Houses, like people, have definite personalities and this place is positively ghoulish,” he tells Watson. His fears are confirmed when the oldest of the three Musgrave siblings, Geoffrey, is murdered. Soon after, Philip (Gavin Muir), the youngest, is also found dead.
It then becomes Holmes’s duty, along with finding the killer, to protect the surviving Sally Musgrave (Hillary Brooke) who may become the next victim. During this time, he encounters several plausible suspects: Brunton (Halliwell Hobbes), the butler who seems to know more than he admits; Captain Vickery (Milburn Stone), an American army officer who is smitten with Sally; and, Watson’s cohort, Dr. Sexton (Arthur Maretson).
Rounding out the suspects are Mrs. Howells (Minna Phillips), the housekeeper who reminds Holmes of a trunk-murderess he once knew, and Major Langford (Gerald Hamer), an eccentric and brooding British officer.
All is resolved when Holmes discovers that the key to the mystery centers around an ancient poem and the giant chessboard-resembling floor in the Manor’s Grand Hall.