Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” (1943) – reviewed by George

Directed by Roy William Neill, with a screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the Conan Doyle story “The Musgrave Ritual”, this is one of the best Rathbone-Bruce-Neill collaborations, and emphasizes that now Rathbone has taken the banner and is the best Sherlock so far. His air of competence and confidence is unshakeable, and his attitude toward Watson is as patient as his treatment of Lestrade is just slightly disgusted.
Musgrave Manor and the Musgraves who live there (two brothers, one sister) are the object of suspicion and fear whenever the family’s history becomes the topic of conversation at the local public house, The Rat and the Raven. Located in Northumberland, the pub benefits from the close population of military men, and on this night two sailors (Eric Snowden and Peter Lawford in his uncredited days) are concerned about the live raven in the bar, and its liking for and interest in blood. The proprietor (Harold De Becker) tells them the bird came from Musgrave Manor, a sinister place where strange things happen. The barmaid Grace (Norma Varden) backs him up, but the sailors remain doubtful.
A shift to the Manor catches the oldest and youngest Musgraves, Geoffrey and Sally, (Frederic Warlock and Hillary Brooke) fighting over Sally’s attachment to Captain Vickery (Milburn Stone), and thus we learn that the Manor is being used as a retreat and treatment center for shell-shocked men from all services, and even some Yanks are there. Vickery is an American and that is what Geoffrey has against him.The middle sib Phillip (Gavin Muir) is also a bit of a jerk.
Now Dr. Watson appears summoning the butler Brunton (Halliwell Hobbes). Watson is volunteering his services to the center and indeed is in charge. His assistant is Dr. Sexton (Arthur Margetson), and they seem to be doing a good job without additional help. Watson needs Brunton to do a clean-up of his offices because a high wind has swooped down the chimney and scattered dust, fireplace ashes, and papers all over the room. We see that Watson has been working on Case Files of Officers Convalescing at Hurlstone Towers, Northumberland, and Hurlstone Towers is the older more inclusive term for the manor (includes all the grounds and outbuildings). Watson assumes that all the patients are tucked up for the night, but Brunton says Capt. Vickery is not in his room, Major Langford (Gerald Hamer) was seen walking toward the pool, and Lt. Clavering ((Vernon Dowling) can’t be accounted for. And now Doctor Sexton is attacked and stabbed near the greenhouse. While Watson, Sexton, Brunton, and Geoffrey argue about the need for an investigation of the attack, the tower clock, which shows 10:40, rings thirteen times. Geoffrey says it means nothing, but Brunton says, “Oh sir, don’t you remember? The last time it did that, your father was killed the next day.”
Well, what happens the next day is that Watson goes to London to confer with Sherlock. And the funniest line I have heard in a Rathbone film so far occurs. Sherlock makes some deductions about Watson’s travel arrangements, and Watson is amazed as usual. Then when the deduction is explained Watson says, “A child could do it.” And Sherlock replies, “Not your child, Watson.”
Sherlock returns with Watson and when they arrive at the Manor after dark they find Geoffrey’s body hidden in a stack of raked leaves. When they go to the house Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) is already there, having been asked to investigate the attack on Doctor Sexton. Learning that Geoffrey has been murdered, Lestrade arrests Captain Vickery because his fingerprints are not on the rake (“He wiped them off!”). This is too dumb to argue against, so after a perfunctory objection Sherlock lets the arrest proceed. After all, Vickery is probably safer in custody.
And now with Geoffrey dead, Phillip is the Master of the Manor and Sally becomes the next in line. Family tradition calls for the next in line to recite the Musgrave Ritual, and as she does so, Sherlock recognizes the poem as something much more than gibberish. It is a rhymed instruction, and to follow it Holmes sets up a giant game with live tokens to move about.
The ending is very suspenseful, but before we get there two more murders occur, and Holmes is in great danger himself. An excellent entry, not to be missed.

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