The previous ten films made by Rathbone and Bruce had been cast in the shadow of the Second World War, but the release of The Woman In Green was when the light was beginning to show at the end of the tunnel. The film was released in July 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day. In this period of dawning hop and rebirth for the nation, naturally Universal decided that this was the time for Holmes to wind up investigating a series of serial killings.
Of course, that’s simplifying matters a bit. In fact, the film was much in the vein of the previous outing penned by Bertram Milhauser, The Pearl Of Death. Both had a much more horror-tinged theme to them – often the case in the series, as horror was a staple at Universal, and the same techniques were used to add drama to the stories. The film is not credited as an adaptation of any of Doyle’s stories, though at least one scene is very reminiscent of The Adventure Of The Empty House. The story in general would have been right at home in the pulps of the 1920s, with its tale of hypnotism and murder.
One other noteworthy feature of the film is the return of the former heroine of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, this time playing one of the villains of the piece. Hillary Brooke (last seen playing Sally Musgrave) reappears as the “Woman in Green” of the title. Prior to this she had appeared in a 1943 film of Jane Eyre, which is nowadays most known for starring Orson Welles as Rochester. She played Blanche Ingram, the gold-digging debutante trying to snare Rochester for his fortune. However it was in the 1950s that she had the role for which she is most often remembered, starring in a recurring role on The Abbot and Costello Show as the neighbour and sometime love interest of Lou Costello. For this and her other television roles that decade, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One odd fact – her British accent was something she developed early in her career (she was actually from New York), but it became such a part of her screen persona that she wound up using it all the time even off-camera.
For the only time in the series, a non-diegetic narration opens the film and sets the scene for the opening, a meeting of CID policemen. They are restless, arguing about whether to have a window open or not, until the commissioner arrives. He is less than happy – what he describes as “the worst serial killer since Jack the Ripper” is on the loose, and the papers are highlighting the inability of the police to catch the man responsible. Three victims and all they can do is wait for the fourth. The voiceover narrate the killing of that fourth victim, as she is surprised on the stairway to her lodging, before declaring that he (the narrator) went to see Sherlock Holmes for help.
The narrator (revealed to be Inspector Gregson, here as in the books serving a role best described as “more competent version of Lestrade) meets with Sherlock at the morgue, where they view the body of the fourth victim. As with the previous victims, she has had her right forefinger surgically amputated after death. Holmes dismisses the usual motives (robbery, “passion, thanks be”, and revenge). Their nerves frayed by the ordeal, Holmes invites Gregson to come for a drink with him.
At the bar, they continue their discussion. Holmes points out that the finger, rather than the murder, seems to be the killer’s overriding motive as he has risked capture several times by staying to secure it. In the same bar Holmes and Gregson notice Sir George Fenwick, along with a young woman the Gregson first takes for his daughter.(Sir George is played by Paul Kavanagh, last seen as Dr Merrivale in the last film.) Of course, as Holmes realises the young woman is actually his recent paramour, Lydia (the woman in green, played as noted above by Hillary Brooke). Holmes observes them leaving, and comments that Lydia is a very attractive woman, not “born to the purple” but giving a very good imitation of it.
Back at Lydia’s flat, her maid Crandon leans on the balcony nervously smoking, until she sees Lydia and Sir George arrive. They seat themselves on the sofa, and make themselves comfortable with a couple of drinks. They discuss first their relationship, and then discuss the toys of their childhood. Lydia idly talks of the boats she used to play with, in a lilting calm voice, as she pushes around some flowers that are floating in a nearby bowl of water.
At the victim’s apartment, Holmes and Watson search for clues. Holmes is convinced that something links the victims, as he claims that they are too diverse to be random victims. Watson, however, is simply overcome by the sadness of the young life cut short. They are interrupted by Gregson, who brings them news of another victim, found on the Edgeware Road.
The next morning, in a Bed and Breakfast on that very street, Sir George awakens, lying fully clothed on the bed. He is confused by his surroundings, and immediately checks his wallet, but finds it untouched. As a newspaperboy outside hawks the latest story of the murder on the Edgeware road, however, Gregson finds something in his pocket that causes him to flee in a panic.
Crandon and Lydia are discussing the murder when Sir George bursts in to the flat, demanding to see Lydia. He begs her for help, then tells her that the last thing he remembered was being in her flat, before he woke up in the B&B. Crandon says that he left at 10.45pm, but he is unable to remember it. He is about to tell her what he found in his pocket, when a man arrives to speak to him. The man (played by another returning actor, Henry Daniell) produces Sir George’s cigarette case, and claims that it fell from his pocket when he was “very busy, bending over something with a knife”.
At 221B Baker Street, Watson is eating his fish dinner while Holmes smokes pensively, uninterested. All he can think of is the murder in the Edgeware Road, but he is distracted by the arrival of a client – a young lady who he and Watson observe from the window. They comment on her hasty dressing and the bag she is carrying, and then notice a cab pull up across the street that appears to have been following her. Holmes notes the number plate before the lady arrives. Holmes recognises her as Maude Fenwick, the daughter of Sir George Merrick, and she tells him that it is because of her father that she is there to talk to them. She tells them that her father was out all night a few days earlier, and then the previous night she heard noises in the garden and looked out to see him burying something. She secretly retrieved what he had buried, and found what she brought in the bag – a severed human finger. Holmes immediately gets Watson to phone for Gregson to meet them at the Fenwick house.
They arrive to find that Sir George is ensconced in the library. With Gregson in tow, they head into the library but find Sir George dead, shot in the back. Holmes realises that this must be the work of whoever employed the mysterious cab-driver who tailed Maude Fenwick, and that this was done to prevent him telling Holmes what he knew. Holmes reconstructs the murder, as the butler listens at the door, and finds that Sir George dragged himself to his desk before he was shot. He realises it was to retrieve something clenched in his hand, a matchbook from the bar where Holmes and Gregson had seen him, along with Lydia.
A report from Sir George’s bank arrives at 221B for Holmes, telling him that he withdrew the contents of his account the day after the Edgeware Road murder, leading Holmes to believe that he was being blackmailed. However he does not believe that Sir George was the killer, but instead that he was framed by an organization, and he believes that only one man could be behind it- Moriarty. Watson is dubious, pointing out that this is slightly undermined by the fact that Moriarty is dead, hanged in Montevideo over a year ago. Holmes points out that they don’t know that the person hanged was actually Moriarty. The phone rings – it is a medical call for Dr Watson. He protests that he is retired, but the person on the other end convinces him that it is an emergency, so he agrees to go out. He leaves, and a figure in a black coat and hat glides in – the mysterious stranger who confronted Sir George at Lydia’s flat. Holmes recognises him as Professor Moriarty. They verbally spar, and he surreptitiously moves Holmes’ armchair to line up with the window. Holmes points out that he could take Moriarty into custody now, but Moriarty assures him that if he does so, Watson will be killed. Moriarty then warns Holmes off, assuring him that if he goes under he will take Holmes with him. Holmes sees him out, commenting that he thinks it would be worth it.
Watson is walking back to 221B Baker Street, being harassed by an apparently one-armed seller of shoelaces, who unseen by him is holding a hidden knife in his supposedly missing arm. The seller break off, however, as he sees Moriarty go by. Watson returns to meet Holmes going out to look for him, and tells him that the call was a hoax. Holmes tells him that the call was engineered by Moriarty. He recounts the conversation, and then says that he still does not understand the basic method of the crime. The three key questions are how Moriarty gets the blackmail victims to the scene of the murder, how he plants the fingers on them, and how he scares them into believing that they may be responsible. He spots an open in the empty house across the street, that was closed a half an hour ago, and asks Watson to go and check on it.
In the empty house, Watson finds a stuffed gorilla umbrella stand (providing a minor jump scare), and heads upstairs. He notes the silhouette of Holmes in his chair, and complains about being out while Holmes sits reading. At the sound of footsteps he hides, and sees a young man arrive and aim a rifle out the window. Before he can stop him the man fires, shooting through the window of 221B Baker street and scoring a hit on the silhouette of Holmes. As Watson shouts in dismay, however, Holmes grabs his arm, revealing that the silhouette was actually a bust of Julius Caesar. They move to the young man, who offers them no resistance but simply stares placidly ahead. His papers show him to be a discharged Corporal named Williams. Holmes questions him, but he answer in vague terms, making reference to a woman telling him that he had to do it. Holmes realises that he has been hypnotised, and that this is the method used on the blackmail victims.
Holmes explains his theory to Gregson, while the Corporal stares blankly ahead. He points out that Williams was a sniper, conditioned to kill men for his job and thus possible to hypnotise to do it again. He describes the woman he thinks is responsible (although Gregson does not realise he is describing the woman they saw at the bar). He hopes to get the address from Williams, once he comes out of his trance. Watson is still confused, so Holmes explains that the severed finger is used to link the victims to the murders, and that the blackmailers then pounce on them. He then tells Watson that he saw the woman he described with Sir George when left the bar that the matchbook came from. He states that Williams will let them link her to him, but as he does so the phone rings. Gregson has been run off the road, and Williams is missing. They run out, but find Williams dead on their doorstep – a gift from Moriarty.
In Lydia’s flat, Moriarty arrives and finds a softly-spoken older man stroking a doll in a nurse’s outfit. The man, Dr Simnel, comments on the splinter in Moriarty’s finger, and offers to get it out with a scalpel, which Moriarty dismisses brusquely. He goes in to Lydia’s room, and tells her that Holmes is going to visit the Mesmer Club, the gathering place of the top hypnotists of London. He tells Lydia to go to the Mesmer Club and induces Holmes to come back to her flat, since he didn’t see her face at Pembroke House. He suggests that she use one weakness to lure him back – his curiosity.
Holmes and Watson arrive at the Mesmer Club, with Watson loudly announcing his disbelief in most hypnotists even as Dr Onslow, one of those hypnotists, enters behind him. Onslow greets Holmes, saying that he was asked to help him by Holmes’ brother Mycroft (his only mention in the series). He takes them through to a demonstration and discussion of hypnotism, where a man is being hypnotised to feel no pain even as he is stabbed with a needle. Holmes eyes the women in the audience but does not see Lydia, as the demonstrator comments that the lack of sensation of pain is “the one infallible demonstration of profound hypnotic trance”. Watson is openly sceptical of the whole proceedings, leading Onslow to draw him over to a rotating spiral wheel and seat him in front of it. He repeats Watson’s comments about hypnotism only working on the feeble minded in a lilting monotone, lulling him gradually into a hypnotic trance. Once Watson is under, he takes him through the scenario of wading through a stream in Scotland, getting him to removes one of his shoes and socks, before sitting him down again. He then tells him to wake up, which Watson does, and immediately comments on how the hypnotism didn’t work on him. He soon stops, however, when Onslow hands him his shoe. As he leaves the stage, Lydia appears and berates Onslow for using hypnotism for parlour tricks. Holmes spots her and decides to play along, and the two leave for the bar where he saw her with Sir George.
At the bar, she comments on never having been there before, as Holmes (somewhat unconvincingly) flirts with her. He confides in her that he is investigating the murder of Sir George, and that he had seen him in this very bar with “a charming young lady”. He tells her that the case is leaving him unable to sleep, and she offers to cure his insomnia via hypnotism. Back at her flat, she puts some music on and lowers the lights, though she thinks that Holmes will be hard to hypnotise. She persuades him to imbibe a drug (which is apparently a variant on cannabis) to lower his inhibitions. She then hypnotises him, using the floating flower once again, in a lengthy sequence.
Once Holmes is in the trance, Lydia’s maid summons Moriarty and Dr Simnel. Moriarty is worried that Holmes may be faking the trance, and has Dr Simnel cut him with his scalpel to prove he is insensitive to pain. Moriarty then dictates a suicide letter to Holmes, and has him put the letter in his pocket. He then takes him out on to the balcony, and has him walk along the top of the wall along the edge of it. He is about to have him step on a loosened brick when Watson and several policemen rush in. Holmes comments on the view of London (which, amusingly, is pretty obviously a matte painting in the restored print), before revealing that he is not hypnotised. He tells Moriarty that he substituted a powerful painkiller for Lydia’s sedative, leaving him with an unweakened will and an insensitivity to pain that let him ignore the scalpel cut.
Lydia is led away, but Moriarty breaks free and attempts to escape across the rooftops. However a pipe he grabs for support breaks away, and he plunges to his death. Holmes is unmoved, and simply comments that the stars now look down on women freed from the threat that menaced them.
There’s a lot to like in Woman In Green. Hillary Brooke is excellent as Lydia, while Daniell gives Moriarty an air of genuine menace. Gregson is less fun than Lestrade but is written very differently, showing less flair but also more competence. There are a lot of nice touches from the canon – the scene with the fake silhouette from Empty House is very well realised, as is the small detail of Holmes keeping his tobacco in a Persian slipper.
The hypnosis scenes deserve special praise for the amount of realism in them. The actors do behave as a genuine hypnotist would, with calming voices and distracting calming images, and scripts which will ring true to the modern audience. The effects of hypnotism are well portrayed, too – the actions of characters under hypnosis are well within character, and care is made to state that the man who tries to shoot Holmes is a man already conditioned to kill. The blackmail victims are not made to kill, or even told to believe themselves killers, but rather simply to forget. The treatment of Dr Watson at the Mesmer Club will be familiar to anyone who has ever gone to see a “comedy hypnotism” show. And the one scene that stretches the belief of what someone under hypnotism would do – the scene with Holmes at the end – turns out to be fakery on his part.
This film has the final appearance of Moriarty in the series, so it seem like a good time to sum him up. Three appearances, and three different actors. Each of them would actually appear in the series several times playing different characters, and each of them brought their own edge to the role. George Zucco’s casual sadism combines with his manipulation of Holmes (by arranging a peculiar crime to distract him) to create an impression of a true equal of Holmes at work. Lionel Atwill’s Moriarty is corrupt to the core, willing to sell out his country for profit. Daniell’s calm malevolence in this film is perhaps the most chilling – a man to who murder is neither to be savoured nor drawn away from, but simply used as a tool to accomplish an end. All three did more to shape the popular perception of Moriarty than the original Doyle novels ever did. In fact, for example, elements from the films can easily be spotted in the recent BBC version of Sherlock – the attempted theft of the crown jewels and Moriarty walking free from a trial are both present in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the confrontation between Moriarty and Sherlock at 221B Baker Street in the TV series is very reminiscent of the one from this film. Even the final confrontation between Moriarty and Holmes takes place on a rooftop, just as two of the three films in this series have the two settle it out – although unlike the films, in the TV series it is Sherlock who (apparently) falls to his death. Of course, the films did not originate the “extended canon” around the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty, but they certainly helped to popularise it. Even some of the other villains in the series (such as Giles Conover) are clearly Moriartyesque in design.
We may have seen the end of Moriarty in the series, but this is not the end of villains from the books. Later, we will see the film’s take on the villain of the Empty House, Moriarty’s lieutenant Colonel Sebastian Moran. First, however, Holmes gets involved in Central European politics in Pursuit To Algiers.