Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes’s Fatal Hour” (1931) – reviewed by George

Arthur Wontner is to Holmes in the UK much as Basil Rathbone is to Holmes in the US. A man appears on screen and fires up and captures the audience’s perceptions. Surely Holmes speaks this way, making the lines on the page come to life. Surely he moves this way, and thinks this way, and uses his pipe this way to make a point. This man makes a series of popular movies and within a very few appearances has become the human embodiment of the character. Such is the power of a really fine performance.
This first Wontner film is also our first Holmes talking picture, and the speech of the principals really adds amazingly to the perceived quality of the film. Adapted from “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Screen Adaptation by Cyril Twyford, and Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott, Fatal Hour also stars Jan Fleming as Dr. Watson, Minnie Rayner as Mrs. Hudson, Phillip Hewland as Inspector Lestrade, and Louis Goodrich as Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s right hand.
We begin with a bank break-in and the murder of a security guard. The robber escapes and another man comes in and feels for a pulse, but there is none and he callously leaves. This sequence is a single shot, interrupted by a medium shot of the guard trying to rise and dying as he falls back to the floor. It is lighted at a low level so only the feet of the criminals are shown. Brilliant!
Next a high stakes bridge game, hosted by one of the players, Ronnie Adair (Leslie Perrins). The other three men are former big game hunter Colonel Henslowe (Norman McKinnell), millionaire Thomas Fisher (William Fazan), and Tony Rutherford (Sidney King). Ronnie’s sister Kathleen (Jane Welsh) is hostess and comes in regularly to make and pass out fresh drinks. During play Ronnie makes a mistake and is revealed as a cheat. No one is crass enough to say anything directly, but the milli0naire firmly rejects an invitation to the next game, and Tony apologetically says he can’t come either, his losses lately have been substantial. After the two of them leave, Henslowe says he doesn’t mind the occasional loss because quite often the cut of the cards makes Ronnie his partner.
Ronnie works for the Message Service in the Foreign Office and cheats to augment his salary, which is designed for an upperclass young man, as were most of the young men in government service at that time. Ronnie and Kathleen have the status but not the money; after their parents died their guardian spent all the money and killed himself.
The next morning Mrs. Hudson is serving Dr. Watson his breakfast and complaining about Mr. Holmes’s erratic eating habits, when Holmes makes an amusing entrance and Wontner proves himself to be the best Sherlock Holmes so far in just one scene.
Holmes has been asked to help with the bank break-in, and with Lestrade’s arrival a plan of investigation can be made. No one can understand why once the robber was inside and had been forced to kill the guard, he did not take anything – all the money was still there. Holmes tells Watson and Lestrade that 1) there was a robbery, the notes currently in the bank are clever forgeries, and 2) Professor Moriarty is behind this, as he is behind half the crime in the world. Lestrade, more sympathetically presented here than usually, groans. Give it up, Holmes, this obsession with a fiction. But by the end the forgers will have been caught, and Moriarty will have been unmasked and on his way to stand in the dock.
This is a short feature (1:21), but it is dense with information and has a fair amount of action as well. I really enjoyed this and look forward to our next Wontner.

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