Sunday, March 3, 2013

In-Class Movie: "The Spider Woman" (1944)

“What a woman—oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we all three read this epistle.
--Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Austin: Now I respected our last Basil Rathbone movie. It was fine, bit rushed but a bit unremarkable. I really liked Rathbone and could see why he would be such a popular incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Now this one, this one really turned me around on his tenure. Much like when we reviewed Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles, this was just filled with awesome.

At part, I wasn't sure if this was intentionally awesome. There are a series of pajama suicides that the police and the public are very suspicious of. Especially this couple who keeps yelling that Sherlock Holmes should have solved these suicides which is such a bizarre demand. (Less so, if you've seen the first episode of BBC's Sherlock but still.) Then we cut to one of the best Holmes/Watson pre-mystery conversations we ever had as they are out fishing and discussing how Sherlock is tired from crime. THEN SHERLOCK DIES.

BAM! (Oh it's probably worth noting that Sherlock was wearing that hat.)

Then what results is a really fun mystery that suits Sherlock tales the best where we aren't trying to discover who did it but exactly how it all works. There are some nice twists, fun sense of adventure and surprisingly successful costumes that I'm not sure are that racist!

Am I building this one up too much or does this deliver on the awesome? If so, what does this have that our last movie lacked?

Leigh: First, I'd like to apologize. It's my fault that this post is so late. Life got in the way like it likes to sometimes. 


I love how pervasive pop culture is. 

If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you can watch this movie and see how much it has influenced so many other Sherlock Holmes movies/episodes/stories this has influenced. I'm a very big fan of the show QI. In one episode, Alan Davies references this movie. You mentioned that Sherlock is very similar to the beginning of this movie. And the final scene is eerily similar to a scene from House of Silk that we will get to in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

 I enjoyed this movie a lot and I wasn't even on cold meds when I watched it! It had a lot of influences from lots of different Sherlock Holmes stories, some not as obvious as others. I also am in love with Nigel Bruce as Watson. Yeah, he's not the brightest but he does help move the mystery a long when it matters. Holmes probably would've figured out it was a pygmy skeleton eventually on his own but Watson was able to quickly tell him so that they wouldn't lose precious time. 

I do enjoy that Holmes decided the only way the solve the mystery was to kill himself. There was no possible way at all that it could've been solved with Holmes being alive especially since the Spider Woman saw through his disguise really easily. That scene seemed a bit clumsy to me. I would like to think that Sherlock Holmes would be able to act a bit better than that. Poor acting and a somewhat crappy plan? Maybe this isn't the best Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, he's charismatic and quick but some times things just kinda fall apart. Am I being too critical?

Austin: Well that makes me more excited for The House of Silk, which I shall start reading very soon...

Sherlock Holmes faking his death may not have made the most sense, but it worked well enough to let the Spider Woman think she is working without witness at least for a little bit. It bothered me less than when James Bond did the same thing in You Only Live Twice. He faked his death and then pretty much immediately walked around telling everyone that he was James Bond.

I suppose I was just distracted by the disguise scene with the woman because it was done rather well. Basil Rathbone was technically in brownface, but he wasn't doing a very racist character. He just played upon Sherlock's cunning tendencies and his arrogance to think he could get that close. All of the disguises were fun, especially when he fooled Watson. That was when I most liked Nigel Bruce because this was a great movie where he earnestly defended Sherlock as a close friend, not as a genius. 

One of these is Sherlock Holmes. Either way, I'm impressed.
Luckily the disguises were of good quality too. I was very impressed by the getups so the comedy scene with Watson falsely accusing someone of being Sherlock in disguise worked really well.

If we have to be critical--and I guess we have to--the plot may not work as well if you look at it too closely. The mystery element is simple, but the filmmaking was on such a higher level than our last Rathbone/Bruce movie that this makes it one of the stronger movies we've watched so far.

Due to the nature of movies playing up the adventure elements of Sherlock Holmes for the sake of making a more exciting story, is it possible to ever have a mystery as strong? Will that be a fundamental problem with these movies?

Leigh: I will admit that the disguises were done incredibly well! I really appreciated that aspect and of course the hilarity that followed when Watson mistook the entomologist. I also enjoyed the propaganda that wasn't always obvious. India, at the time, was an ally to Britain so the last thing that filmmakers want to do is make fun of a large country who was helping them out. 

BBC's Sherlock has shown us that you can have a proper mystery and have a great visual appeal but the problem is that it is A LOT of work, both to make and to watch. I think that these movies, the Rathbone/Bruce and Hammer and any others from about this time, were more for entertainment value for wide audiences, not necessarily making a great mystery. The mystery for this one might not be the most complex and the movie revealed whodunnit really early on, but it was still very entertaining. The complexity of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries isn't quite there but the adventure is and it's done well. I think that part of the reason that the books were so popular is not just because they created a new genre but also because of the adventure. We travel all over England, we go to the untamed United States, we even hear stories from jungles on other continents. Since adventure is so important to these stories, I think that since the movies get that part at least, they aren't failures. I do miss the mystery sometimes but they're entertaining. If they stumble upon a great mystery in the process of production, good for them. I'm still going to enjoy the adventures that the various Holmes and Watson go on. 

Next time, we are going to take a look at The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a relatively new novel about Victorian London and the seedy underbelly that just wasn't talked about at the time. So get your fainting couches ready and prepare to fan yourselves when we discuss it next!
And here’s Austin Lugar with the last word.

Austin: Spider-women?
Write in the comments if you know what this image is from!

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