The Spider Woman marks the midway point of the Rathbone and Bruce film partnership. By now the leads had settled into the roles, and had developed a firm friendship that appears easily on the screen. The writing, however, had not yet settled on a tone. The previous film had mixed melodrama with a genuine air of mystery to great effect, but that was a hard trick to repeat. The prior films from Universal had been war films that Sherlock simply walked through, and the public was sick of war movies. Instead, Universal looked back to the original stories for inspiration. The Spider Woman borrows from a wide number of Sherlock films – with elements of The Sign of the Four, The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, The Adventure of the Speckled Band and Scandal In Bohemia. The script was penned by Bertram Millhauser, a veteran of the series who had penned both of the previous two films as well. He would return two more times, once with another tale inspired by the works of Doyle, The Pearl of Death, and once with possibly the most original of the Rathbone and Bruce films, The Woman in Green.
The “Spider Woman” of the title is played by Gale Sondergaard, a classically trained actress who brings a quiet menace to the role. She was later Oscar-nominated for her role in the 1946 film Anna and the King of Siam, an adaptation of The King And I, but is nowadays best remembered for two events in her life. The first, more tragic, one was her husband’s blacklisting by Hollywood after he went to jail for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Gale stood by him and was frozen out of Hollywood, though never formally blacklisted. In fact, she never worked in Hollywood again, although she did return to acting on TV twenty years later. The second and more intriguing story is that in MGM’s classic film The Wizard of Oz, the original plan was for the Wicked Witch of the West to be an attractive but dangerous woman, similar to the Wicked Witch in Snow White, played by Sondergaard. When the decision was made to go with a more traditional witch with the famous green makeup, Sondergaard bowed out of the picture, unwilling to risk disfigurement by wearing the notoriously toxic makeup. Possibly a wise decision – the woman who replaced her, Margaret Hamilton, suffered a second-degree burn on her face and a third-degree burn on her hand during one scene involving fire effects, while her stunt double wound up spending eleven days in hospital after a prop smoking broomstick exploded. It’s hard to imagine the film without the iconic green witch, but if anyone could have pulled it off, Sondergaard could. She was definitely a hit as the Spider Woman – enough to prompt a “sequel” two years later, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, where Sondergaard plays a different character entirely, a blind lady with a penchant for poison flowers.
The film opens with a dramatic shot of a figure crashing through a window, followed by a cut to a busy London street, where newspapermen hawk the latest edition telling of the latest “Pyjama Suicide”, as overlaid headlines tell us that this is the seventh such occurrence. A married couple argue the case and ask “Where is Sherlock Holmes?”
Scotland, if the map that appears is to be believed. Indeed, we find him casting a fishing rod into a roaring river that is in no way a rear projection, while Watson surreptitiously reads a newspaper. He tried to conceal it from Holmes, but Holmes soon realises that he has, against Holmes’ request, been reading about the latest “Pyjama Murder” – for Holmes is sure that these are not suicides. He has no intention to do anything about it however, for he claims to no longer wish to pursue criminals – indeed, he lists a set of symptoms (including dizzy spells) that Watson believes could be precursors to a cerebral hemorrhage. Watson wishes to take him to a specialist immediately, but Holmes insists that they finish their holiday. However, the holiday is immediately cut short as with a cry of “Watson!”, Holmes’ legs give way and he topples into the river. By the time Watson makes it to the edge, he is gone from view.
“Death Of Sherlock Holmes,” scream the headlines as a crime wave follows the detective’s death. Yet more pyjama murders are on the radio as we learn (from the same couple as before) that Watson plans to bequeath Holmes’ records and notebooks to the British Museum. Indeed, at 221B Baker Street Watson is sadly reading through one of those scrapbooks as Mrs Hudson weeps, but tries to keep a stiff upper lip. Lestrade arrives, having arranged to be the security for the transport of the papers. He admits that without Holmes’ assistance, he would still probably be a Sergeant, something Watson wishes he had told Holmes when he was alive. The two men are both visibly upset, and Watson offers Lestrade one of Sherlock’s old pipes, an offer the other man gladly accepts, before heading off down to the museum van to be alone for a while.
As he leaves he passes a moustachioed postman with a registered package for Holmes, which Watson agrees to sign for. While he fetches a knife to sharpen the pencil, the postman wanders around and speaks contemptuously of the dead Holmes, until Watson has had enough and floors him with a single punch. The postman just lies on the floor laughing, however and reveals himself to actually be Holmes, disguised – a revelation that nearly drives Watson into a faint. As he sits on a chair, gasping, Holmes berates him for daring to think of publishing his papers. Watson declares that he will never forgive him, and Holmes apologises for the postman disguise (although not for faking his death). Lestrade comes back in, and on seeing Holmes demands to know what he thought he was doing. Holmes explains that he faked his death in order to catch whoever is behind the “Pyjama Murders”, which he suspects to be the work of a gang headed by a woman, who he describes as a “female Moriarty”. His reason for thinking that a woman is behind them is because the crime seems “Subtle and cruel, peculiarly feline, not canine”. (This would be less irritating if it didn’t turn out to be right.) He also comments that the victims were all men, well-off, and fond of gambling. He then arranges to have notices of the arrival of “native officer Rajni Singh” put in the paper by Lestrade, in order to provide him with the cover he needs.
His plan works, as we see the “female Moriarty”, Adrea Spedding, read of Rajni Singh’s gambling habits with interest. She discusses the prospects of him as a victim with her half-brother and lieutenant, Norman Locke, who is played by Vernon Downing. Downing had played Lieutenant Clavering, one of the convalescing officers, in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, but as was often the case with returning actors in the films he plays Norman as a totally different character from the twitchy but prim Clavering, to the extent that one is never at risk of confusing the two. They arrange to have Singh get a card for the “Urban Casino”.
In the “Urban Casino” (a drawing room with a roulette wheel), a crow mills around. Rajni Singh is immediately visible (and recognisable as Rathbone wearing a turban, a fake beard and some rather unfortunate blackface). Adrea makes small talk with him as he bets on the roulette, but after losing heavily, he bids her goodbye and exits to the balcony. She follows him, and finding him apparently contemplating jumping, she persuades him to step back and talk. He confesses to having just drawn a bad cheque to cover his last bet, and that he is without funds or friends here in London to support him. She finds out that he has a life insurance policy, however, and suggests that he use it as collateral, making a monylender the beneficiary on the policy in exchange for a loan large enough to cover the bad cheque. He agrees, and arranges to see her the next day to thank her.
In Adrea’s room, “Singh” comments on her authentic Indian decor (having spotted the labels of cheap London knockoffs), and her photographs of India that she claims come from her father’s sojourn there (although she misidentifies a holiday camp as a local shrine). She, in turn, tries to trick him into using the arm that “Singh” has supposedly paralysed, but he does not do so. He reveals that the moneylender loaned him five hundred pounds on the policy, and hands her a silver cigarette case as a thank you. Once she has admired it, however, he takes it back to “have it engraved”. Once she offers to wipe her fingermarks off it and he refuses, however, the jig is pretty clearly up. She deliberately spills tea on his hand (forcing him to move his paralysed arm), and then rubs at his hand to dry it, revealing the dye he has uses to stain his skin. Norman arrives before the situation can escalate, however, and “Singh” takes the opportunity to make his exit. Adrea immediately reveals to her brother that she’s pretty sure that “Singh” is actually Holmes in disguise (thus calling the need for the whole “fake your own death” plan into question). She intimates, however, that by the next morning the false nature of Holmes’ death will no longer be an issue.
At the address that he had given as Singh’s, Holmes and Lestrade are busy recreating the circumstances of the “Pyjama Murders”. Outside, Norman serves as getaway driver while another henchman sneaks in the servant’s entrance with a mysterious box. He makes his way to the roof, and begins to open the box. Back in the flat, while Lestrade stands guard in the hall, the door opens a crack and a torch pans across the floor and onto the face of the sleeping Holmes. A gigantic spider crawls in through the ventilator and makes its way down towards Holmes. Eventually the shadowy figure nails the spider to the bed with a knife and calls for Lestrade – it is the real Holmes, the figure in the bed simply being “a mask I had made”.
They run for the roof, and chase the henchman. He and Holmes engage in a shootout,that ends with Holmes shooting him at the roof’s edge, before he plunges to ground right next to where the horrified Norman is waiting. Norman speeds off, while Holmes investigates the mysterious box, which appears to have been designed to have airholes. Holmes reasons that the bite of the spider must have been painful or maddening enough to drive the victims into apparent suicide, but the mystery remains as to how the spider was brought from the roof down to the vent into Holmes’ room. Only the foot print of a child remains as a clue.
Holmes’ resurrection is now on the news, and reports of Watson’s silence cut to a reality of him practicing the tuba, before he is interrupted by a stooped old man wearing dark glasses and a beard. Watson for once suspects that the mysterious figure may be Holmes in disguise, and so of course for once it is not. Rather it is Adam Gilflower, a renowned entomologist who is less than impressed by Watson’s attempt to pull off his beard, which is fortunately interrupted by Holmes’ arrival. Holmes, of course, agrees that Watson is mad without admitting his own culpability in him reaching that state. He identifies the spider as “the deadliest insect known to science”, the Lycosa Carnivora, and its bite does exactly what Holmes guessed – induces sufficient agony to drive victims to suicide. Only one man in England would be likely to have a live specimen – Matthew Ordway, another entomologist.
As Holmes prepares for a trip to Chipping Walton to see Ordway (by getting Watson to look up the train times while he fills his hipflask with whisky), he tells Watson of Adrea’s scheme. First she finds gamblers desperate for money, then she persuades them to take out loans using life insurance as collateral, then she kills them with the spider (and claims on the insurance). As he explains this, however, Mrs Hudson arrives with a message – Adrea Spedding has arrived with a child in tow, to see Sherlock Holmes.
Adrea (affecting not to have met Holmes before) introduces the child as her nephew Larry, a mute, who Watson attempts to entertain while the two talk. She then tells Holmes that she has come to see him because her friend, Rajni Singh, has disappeared without trace. Adrea gives Holmes the life insurance policy that “Singh” pawned, and the two engage in some verbal sparring, while Larry wanders around creepily barefoot while snatching flies from the air. Holmes makes Adrea a gift of the cigarette case that “Singh” had got for her, which he has had engraved with a spider, while she gives Larry a sweet to distract him – “American candy, hard to get you know”. As Larry throws the wrapping paper in the fire, she takes her leave of them.
Holmes and Watson discuss Adrea, but soon start to slur their words and drift off as the fire smokes alarmingly. Holmes fights his way back to consciousness, however, and smashes a window before dragging Watson to it, urging him to breath. On the train, Holmes explains that the wrapping that Larry threw in the fire concealed, between the inner paper and outer foil layers, a deadly dose of the Devil’s Foot powder (from the story of the same name, which Holmes actually references), enough that the fumes would overwhelm and poison them.
The two arrive at Ordway’s house, and find a balding nervous man who is at first reluctant to admit them, but relents when he hears Holmes’s name. Holmes deduces that he is nervous because he fears the people he sold the deadly spider to will return and kill him, because he realised that they were being used as murder weapons. He takes them downstairs to show them the remains of his collection to prove that he has sold them no more spiders. There he stumbles over the name of Lycosa Carnivora, which (along with several other errors) lead Holmes to ask him if he has any specimens of the Mendix Flagrante. He claims that he sold the last one he had yesterday, leading Holmes to draw a gun on him, noting that it means “Flagrant Liar” in Latin.
The fake Ordway (named “Radlik”, although the name only comes up in the credits) knocks the gun to the ground, before smashing a jar of poisonous spiders on top of it and fleeing. He escapes, so Holmes and Watson search the house, finding the real Matthew Ordway dead in his study. They find a partially burnt journal that refers to the spiders, and to something “doglike” and faithful that was immune to their venom. In a cupboard they find what Holmes first assumes is the (wired and displayed) skeleton of a child. In a wonderful inversion of the usual relationship, Watson then points out all the obvious reasons why this is not a child’s skeleton (the teeth, the proportions, the level of development), leading Holmes to realise that the creature referred to in the journal is in fact a pygmy. (Yes, they do refer to the pygmy as a creature. Yes, it is alarmingly racist. See Conclusions for some more discussion on this.)
Holmes decides that the most likely place to find a pygmy is a random sideshow, so he wanders one with Watson until he spies the sign for a pygmy sideshow. It is closed, however, something which Holmes finds suspicious in such a busy arcade. He then spies Adrea, and tells Watson to run off and phone Lestrade, then meet him back in front of this shooting gallery (which, this still being while World War 2 was ongoing, has caricatures of the Axis leaders as targets). As Holmes spies on Adrea, he sees her buy a doll, then surreptitiously entering the tent of the Gypsy Fortuneteller while tearing an arm from the doll. Norman soon arrives and does the same, leading Holmes to realise that this is how the gang organises their meetings. He buys a doll and follows them, handing the one-armed doll to the fortune teller and being directed to a secret passage. The meeting, however is a trap, and Radlik (the fake Ordway) appears in the passage behind him with a gun. Adrea gloats for a while, before revealing that her plan is to attach Holmes behind one of the targets from the shooting gallery, and allow a random stranger the honour of firing the bullet to end his life.
In front of the gallery, Lestrade tries to look inconspicuous by whistling, an attempt so pathetic that even Watson mocks it. Norman spots them and tells Adrea, who is delighted – perhaps Watson will be the one to fire the fatal shot. (Of course the rifle range is using real ammunition – not hugely authentic for England, but it is pretty necessary for the plot.) Holmes is loaded behind a Hitler target, with the steel plate that backed the target removed to leave him exposed, and the machine is started. The tension mounts asAdrea and her gang watch Watson nail his shots on the targets, but hedoes not fire Holmes in his first pass as he is checking his watch, nor on the second as he is responding to a compliment from Lestrade. On the third round, he is out of ammo, leading to an impatient Norman grabbing a rifle to fire himself, but the target disappears before he can shoot it. Holmes makes his escape, and appears behind Adrea, prompting Lestrade to call for his men, who soon grab the gang. As Lestrade takes Adrea away, Holmes and Watson debate the merits of a crowded arcade as the venue for a murder, with Holmes declaring that the most logical spot for a murder is where no cry for help will be heard, “in the middle of a crowd”.
A major stumbling point in this movie for me is Holmes’ flimsy justifications for faking his own death. First he tells his best friend that he is terminally ill, and then he pretends to drown in a river, leaving his friends distraught and his enemies jubilant (and apparently triggering a crime wave for good measure). He does this simply to shore up a weak disguise that the villain apparently sees through almost immediately. One gets the feeling that Holmes is simply looking for an excuse in order to make everyone say nice things about him. It does allow Hoey and Bruce some good acting, and some overdue character development for Lestrade, but it’s a big hurdle to throw in your path early in the movie. My first instinct was that it was designed to be used in the movie’s trailer, but in fact the “Sherlock is dead” subplot is hardly touched in it. Overall a bit of an oddity.
The spider in the film, the Lycosa Carnivora, is broadly fictional as described, but is far from unlikely. The Lycosae are a genuine family of spiders, more commonly known as “wolf spiders”, and are indeed poisonous, although their poison is not hugely toxic or painful to humans, and they will rarely deliberately bite a mammal. Of course, a variety as described in the movie could technically exist, and the region they give for finding it (the Congo) is accurate, so clearly someone on the screenwriting team believed in doing their research.
The treatment of the pygmy as nothing more than a “trained pet” is very racist indeed, but sadly nothing unusual for the time. It’s made even worse by the fact that the pygmy is actually played by a white man with dwarfism wearing blackface. In fact, the pygmy was played by Angelo Rossitto, who at the time was best known for his role in the infamous film Freaks (which is today remembered for the iconic “One of us, one of us” scene). However the role he is probably most familiar to modern audiences for (in a rare link to the modern era) is the last one he ever performed, that of Master in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
In the end, The Spider Woman is a weak plot salvaged by some good performances. The faked death and the ending at the sideshow are both low points redeemed by some great acting. On the other hand, Adrea’s visit to 221B Baker Street is a great setpiece (and the mute child Larry is appropriately creepy), while the scene in Ordway’s basement captures the essence of the series – deception, deduction, then action. Not my favourite in the series by a long shot, but far from a total loss. Next time, Holmes and Watson are off to Canada, to face The Scarlet Claw.