Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

(1943), 68 min. b&w

The sixth film in the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" is an entertaining and intriguing mystery. 

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story "The Musgrave Ritual." While it is not the same story, there are many similarities. The names of some characters (Brunton) and places (Hurlstone) appear in both the story and the film. Both story and film involve something valuable, which is hidden in the cellar of an ancient manor, and clues to its location are hidden in a series of questions and answers, called The Musgrave Ritual. And in both the story and the film Sherlock Holmes deduces the meaning of the ritual and solves the mystery. At the beginning of the Conan Doyle story, Watson writes about Holmes adorning the wall of their London flat with bullet holes. Sure enough, in Holme's first scene in the film, he is at 221B Baker St., shooting his gun at a figure drawn on the wall!


Holmes listens to Watson explain what's happened at Musgrave Manor.

Holmes finds the housekeeper suspicious.

Thankfully, the mystery in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death has nothing to do with Nazis, although it is still set in the 1940s.  The characters of Holmes and Watson are more in keeping with the way Conan Doyle wrote them, and that makes this film especially enjoyable for a Holmes fan. Musgrave Manor is a splendid, spooky old mansion, complete with secret passageways and howling wind outside. The Musgrave siblings, Geoffrey, Phillip and Sally, have opened their home to convalescing soldiers. Dr. Watson and Dr. Sexton are also staying at Musgrave Manor, taking care of the patients.

Holmes comes to the Manor after an attempt is made to kill Dr. Sexton. Shortly thereafter both Geoffrey and Phillip are murdered. After Geoffrey's death, Sally must recite the centuries-old ritual, which is meaningless for her. Holmes realizes that the words in the ritual describe movements of chess pieces, which are in fact clues to the location of something. Since the black and white floor of the main hall resembles a chess board, Holmes has the rest of the household move as human chess pieces. Eventually he finds a crypt in which is hidden an ancient land grant signed by King Henry. Also in the crypt is the body of the butler. Holmes very cleverly devises a plan to lure the killer back to the crypt later that evening, and traps him into confessing all the murders. Holmes then fakes his own death and allows the killer to leavebut he walks right into the hands of Lestrade and half a dozen policemen.


Holmes meets Lt. Clavering

Rathbone assures Sally he will help Vickery.

Holmes explains to Sally Musgrave that all the killing was because of a land grant that makes Sally one of the richest women in England. The killer had planned to marry Sally so that he could share in the wealth. When Sally learns that declaring ownership of the land would affect hundreds of people who current live on the land and think that they own their own land, she says she won't do it, and she throws the land grant in the fireplace. (Aargh! I hate seeing an historic artifact destroyed. She could have donated it to a museum ... but of course it wouldn't have had the same dramatic impact.)

The film ends with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson driving away from Musgrave Manor. Holmes explains to Dr. Watson that Sally Musgrave destroyed the ancient land grant because "the old days of grab and greed are on their way out." But why is Dr. Watson leaving Musgrave Manor? Don't the convalescent soldiers need him, especially since Dr. Sexton has been arrested?

 

"Sherlock Holmes Faces Death"

While pic is far from best of series, it should manage to satisfy the Holmes fans.

Although this one is among the weaker of the Sherlock Holmes films, it should have little trouble pleasing the admirers of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brain child. Roy William Neill's direction keeps the action moving smoothly and quickly.

This time Sherlock instead of jousting with enemy agents has the job of solving a mystery locked within the musty wall of Musgrave Manor, where dr. Watson and his assistant are looking after a group of convalescent British soldiers. There are many suspects offered for the audience's inspection before Sherlock uncovers Dr. Watson's aide as the guilty party. Some three murders are committed before justice is done. The cause of all the violence is an ancient land grant belonging to the owners of the manor. The killer hopes that by eliminating the male members of the Musgrave household and marrying their sister he'll come into possession of the extensive lands.

Rathbone gives a standard performance as Sherlock in his latest appearance in the role. Nigel Bruce's enactment of Watson makes the film easier to bear. Arthur Margetson is acceptable as the villain. The girl he seeks to make his wife is played by Hillary Brooke. Among the other players are Milburn Stone, Halliwell Hobbes, Dennis Hoey, Gavin Muir, Frederic Worlock.

Neill also acted as associate producer. The screenplay, which is not always to be taken seriously, is the work of Bertram Millhauser.

DIRECTION, Okay.  PHOTOGRAPHY, Good.

The Film Daily, September 16, 1943, p. 11

 

It may be of interest to note that Captain Vickery, the love interest of Sally Musgrave, is played by a young Milburn Stone (Doc Adams of "Gunsmoke" fame). Notice that you never see his feet in this film. Stone was so short that he had to stand on something when he shared a scene with taller actors. Stone recalls, "There was this shot where Basil and I had to walk across the room together. He walked on the floor, but they built a special platform for me, so I'd look taller. I had a love scene with Hillary Brooke which was even worse. We were sitting on the sofa and I looked almost like a midget next to her. The property man supplied me with some pillows to prop me up." (David Stuart Davies, Starring Sherlock Holmes [London: Titan Books, 2001], p. 50) I didn't see a scene where Stone and Rathbone were walking together. It must have been cut from the film.


Watson and Holmes listen to the ritual being read.

They stop in the local pub and have a pint.

A 20-year-old Peter Lawford appears in the pub scene at the beginning of the film. He plays the sailor at the bar who bandages his friend's hand and says "Blimey!" when he hears about the raven. Lawford later became well-known for being a member of the Rat Pack (along with Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.) and John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law.

 

A fair "Sherlock Holmes" murder mystery melodrama; it holds the audience in suspense for not until the closing scenes is the identity of the murderer made known. The unravelling of the mystery is far-fetched, but it is in keeping with the amazing talents of "Holmes," to whom the most baffling murder case is never more than elementary. The usual tricks have been employed to create an eerie atmosphere, such as an English manor in a deserted country section, a storm, and secret doors. As in the other "Sherlock Holmes" pictures produced by Universal, Basil Rathbone enacts the role of the master sleuth, and Nigel Bruce plays "Dr. Watson," the detective's blundering but genial friend:--

Summoned to Musgrave Manor, where Geoffrey Musgrave (Frederick Worlock), head of the house had been murdered, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) learn that Captain Vickery (Milburn Stone) was suspected of the crime, because of a lovers' quarrel that had occurred between Sally Musgrave (Hillary Brooke), the dead man's sister, and himself. Holmes learns also that the manor was used as a sort of sanitorium for the rehabilitation of shell-shocked soldiers. Soon after Holmes' arrival, a mysterious attack is made on Dr. Sexton (Arthur Margetson), a physician who treated the soldiers. Holmes, during the course of his investigation, learns from Philip Musgrave (Gavin Muir), the dead man's brother and new head of the house, of an ancient family ritual that was observed by each succeeding head of the house upon the death of his predecessor. Holmes believes this ritual to be the key to the murder, as well as to a family secret of great value. Philip, too, is slain mysteriously, and Sally becomes the new head of the manor. Holmes takes careful notes of Sally's recitation of the ritual and discovers clues that eventually lead to his discovery of a subterranean crypt beneath the basement of the manor. There he finds the family butler (Halliwell Hobbs) murdered, a third victim of the mysterious killer. To catch the murderer, Holmes sets an ingenious trap, which leads Dr. Sexton to the crypt and causes him to expose himself as the triple-slayer. The doctor confesses that he, too, had solved the riddle of the family ritual, and that, from the solution, he had learned of ancient land grants that would make the house of Musgrave one of the richest in England. He had slain both brothers and the butler to get them out of his way, and had planned to marry Sally.

Bertram Millhauser wrote the screen play, and Roy William Neill produced and directed it.

Morally suitable for all.

Harrison's Report, Sept. 4, 1943, p. 142

 

The Musgrave Ritual in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is different from the ritual in Arthur Conan Doyle's story. This is the ritual in the film:

Where was the light on the face of the messenger?
Where did he speed?
To guard the queen's page.
Who to repel?
The King's cautious page.
What then this disaster?
Page slaughters page.
Who came to slay him?
The bloodthirsty bishop.
Where shall he go?
Deep down below.
Away from the thunder,
let him dig under.


Holmes directs the human "chess pieces."

Holmes questions Capt. MacIntosh

This is the ritual from the story "The Musgrave Ritual":

Whose was it?
His who is gone.
Who shall have it?
He who will come.
Where was the sun?
Over the oak.
Where was the shadow?
Under the elm.
How was it stepped?
North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.
What shall we give for it?
All that is ours.
Why should we give it?
For the sake of the trust.

 

Excellent Sherlock Holmes

This is the first of Universal's new series of Sherlock Holmes detecting stories and it measures up well with the best of the three turned out last season. Although it's a modernized version of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, it does not deal with Axis spies.

Brought up to date by placing the Doyle story, "Musgrave Manor," in the period of the present war, with the manor being used for a convalescent officers' home, the story sticks closely to the Doyle original.

The master unraveler of baffling crimes is called onto the scene when Dr. Watson's assistant surgeon at the manor is stabbed in what appears to be a murder attempt. In true Doyle character, Holmes arrives with the good doctor just in time to find the manor lord murdered.

Suspense is built up through the antics of the butler and his wife and the strange striking of 13 by the tower clock, marking a murder.

Holmes solves the motive for murder through deciphering the strange Musgrave ritual repeated at the funeral bier of each heir by the second in line.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the clever Holmes and blundering Watson turn in exceedingly smooth performances well supported by Dennis Hoey, the interfering Scotland Yard inspector. Hillary Brooke and Milburn Stone supply the slight romantic thread.

Producer-director Roy William Neill left nothing to be desired in suspense, action, and portrayal of the true Holmes and Watson characters in his direction from a screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, which adheres very closely to Doyle's story. Photography by Charles Van Enger was well done, as was the art direction of John B. Goodman and Harold MacArthur.

Reviewer: Jack Cartwright

Motion Picture Herald, Sept. 11, 1943, p. 1529

 

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death was the first film in the Universal series that didn't have the statement at the beginning about Sherlock Holmes being ageless. Thankfully, Rathbone's hairstyle looks normal again instead of the bizarre "windswept" look it had in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, "The Voice of Terror," and "Sherlock Holmes in Washington."

Two of the sets in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death were used in earlier Universal films. The set for the village (where the pub was located) was used in the Frankenstein films. The crypt set was built for film Dracula in 1931. (Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 [McFarland & Co., 2007], p. 356)


They hear a strange noise, which turns out to be Lestrade trapped behind the wall.

Holmes tells Dr. Sexton to keep an eye on Sally Musgrave.

"As drawing cards, there are Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce giving expertly smooth accounts of Holmes and the blundering Watson." Hollywood Reporter, September 1943

"Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are ideally cast as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this well-constructed detective tale. ... The film is first class entertainment of its kind." Motion Picture Reviews, September 1943

"Mr. Holmes moves with absolutely mathematical precision and the clipped peremptory tones of Basil Rathbone." New York Times, October 8, 1943

"Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, as Holmes and Watson respectively, contribute their standard performances." Variety, September 8, 1943

 

Based on a new "murder for money" angle, Universal's newest in the Sherlock Holmes' series is a fast moving story in which the unpredictable Holmes becomes involved in a triple murder plot in an ancient English castle, converted into a home for convalescent soldiers.

Nigel Bruce, as Dr. Watson, in charge of the hospital, enlists the aid of Basil Rathbone as Holmes, following the attempted murder of the young assistant, Dr. Sexton, played by Arthur Margetston. Holmes discovers the body of Geoffrey Musgrave, lord of the manor, and soon afterward, the body of Geoffrey's brother and heir, Philip. Scotland Yard's blundering Inspector Lestrade is holding Captain Patrick Vickery, American pilot in love with Sally Musgrave, sister to Philip and Geoffrey and heiress to the Musgrave fortune.

Following an investigation into the ancient family ritual of the House of Musgrave, Holmes places himself in an ancient burial crypt where he traps the murderer and uncovers an old land grant, the motive for the crime. The tables are suddenly turned and the crook gets the upper hand. In what he thinks is his moment of triumph he confesses his crime to the detective who has planted blanks in his gun. Watson and the inspector come in the nick of time and the murderer is caught.

Rathbone's usual fine characterization of A. Conan Doyle's famous creation and Bruce's portrayal of the blustery Watson, plus a plot with an unusual twist and unexpected climax make this a good show for the mystery devotees.

Roy William Neill produced and directed, and quite capably so, from an effective screen play by Bertram Millhauser, based on A. Conan Doyle's story.

Helen McNamara

Motion Picture Daily, Sept. 9, 1943, p. 8

 

When Sherlock Holmes discovers the ancient land grant (or crown grant) in the Musgrave crypt, he reads the first few words: "Henry, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith ..." The document does not specify which King Henry authored it, but the title "Defender of the Faith" suggests that it was Henry VIII. That title was first conferred on an English sovereign, Henry VIII, by Pope Leo X on October 11, 1521. Henry VIII's title was King of England. There was no official "Kingdom of Great Britain" before the 1707 Act of Union, but James I nevertheless called himself King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland in 1604. Henry may also have called himself "King of  Great Britain, France, and Ireland." Many English monarchs claimed to also be King of France even when England no longer held any territories in France.


"Did you hear his confession?" asks Holmes.

Holmes explains the crown grant to Sally Musgrave.

Hillary Brooke told the authors of Universal Horrors that working on the Sherlock Holmes films at Universal was delightful. She said, "Nigel Bruce became a dear friend and Basil was a darling. We both loved animals and ice cream. When we were not working, we would get ice cream cones and stroll to the back of the lot to see and visit with the animals."  (Universal Horrors, p. 356)

See Page Two for screenshots from the film. See Page Three for pictures of posters, lobby cards and promo photos.

..

Cast  
Basil Rathbone ... Sherlock Holmes
Nigel Bruce ... Dr. Watson
Dennis Hoey ... Inspector Lestrade
Arthur Margetson ... Dr. Sexton
Hillary Brooke ... Sally Musgrave
Halliwell Hobbes ... Brunton
Minna Phillips ... Mrs. Howells
Milburn Stone ... Capt. Vickery
Gavin Muir ... Phillip Musgrave
Gerald Hamer ... Maj. Langford
Vernon Downing ... Lt. Clavering
Olaf Hytten... Capt. MacIntosh
Mary Gordon ... Mrs. Hudson
Joan Blair ... Nora (maid)
Heather Wilde... Jenny (maid)
Frederic Worlock... Geoffrey Musgrave
Peter Lawford ... sailor at bar
Harold de Becker ... Pub Proprietor
Norma Varden ... Gracie (barmaid)
   
 
Credits  
Production Company ... Universal
Producer ... Roy William Neill
Director ... Roy William Neill
Screenplay ... Bertram Millhauser
Cinematographer ... Charles Van Enger
Film Editing ... Fred R. Feitshans, Jr.
Music Director ... H.J. Salter
Art Directors ... John B. Goodman, Harold MacArthur
Set Decorators ... Russell A. Gausman, E.R. Robinson
Asst. Director ... Melville Shyer
Sound Director ... Bernard B. Brown
Sound Technicians ... Paul Neal, Edwin Wetzel
Costumes ... Vera West
   

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Images on this page and pages 2 and 3 are from the film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death.

 

 

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DVD also available as part of The Sherlock Holmes Collection, Volume 1:

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2017