The first film in the series made after the end of World War 2, Pursuit To Algiers is less of a mystery and more of a spy film, and in fact not even one that makes much sense for the period in which it was written. The tale of central European power struggles and assassinations is in fact surprisingly true to the tone of the original stories, although that does make it seem oddly antiquated. The notion of a prince ruling his country was considered normal in Doyle’s tales, such as A Scandal In Bohemia. The depiction of the Balkans as a seething pot of intrigue and revolution is seen in many other pre-war works, such as Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys, and of course Anthony Hope’s classic Ruritania trilogy, the most famous of which is The Prisoner of Zenda. (It is implied, however, that the alternative to monarchy in this case is Communism, as given by Holmes’ comment the King’s death was “a great blow to democracy”.)
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce played Holmes and Watson together in fourteen films, not to mention over two hundred episodes of the radio series. It’s fair to say that the role of Watson marked the high point of Nigel Bruce’s career, at least in terms of him being remembered. (In fact, Bruce had played prominent supporting roles in several landmark films, such as Rebecca and Lassie Come Home, but none proved as memorable as Watson.) As in the stories where Watson is the narrator, in the films Watson often serves as our viewpoint, and this is very much on display in this film. More than any other in the series, this film belongs to Watson.
Holmes and Watson are buying a gun, planning a holiday in Scotland, their usual retreat. Watson is delighted at the prospect of getting out of the city, though Holmes is distracted by a headline about the theft of the Duchess of Brookdale’s emeralds. Watson reminds him that he has promised to take a break from cases until after the holiday. A passerby tells Holmes that he dropped his newspaper and hands it back to him – both Holmes and Watson point out that he did no such thing, but the stranger is insistent. Holmes agrees and takes the paper to Watson’s puzzlement. Another stranger pops up and recommends that they visit a nearby fish and chips shop, to Watson’s disgust. “I never eat fish and chips. My friend doesn’t eat fish and chips; we loathe fish and chips sir.” Holmes, however, agrees that fish and chips sounds good and whisks Watson into the cafe, much to his disgust (he wishes they’d brought the cat to feed it to). The waiter circles the cost of the grilled salmon (two shillings and sixpence), before taking their order.
While they wait, one customer complains about a fishbone in his soup and is told “go and eat in the alley then, that’s where you belong”. The wheels start turning in Holmes’ head, and he realises that this is a setup to give them the address “26 Fishbone Alley”. Further, he notices that the newspaper he was given has the time “8 o’clock” underlined, further setting up the meeting. They abandon the fish and chips and rush off.
At Fishbone Alley, they find the door to number 26 open, and inside they are greeted by the man who gave Holmes the newspaper, along with the others from the evening’s drama. They have sought to recruit Holmes as a bodyguard, but when they refuse to give him details he threatens to leave. He also reveals that he recognised the man who recommended the fish and chip shop as the Prime Minister of the (fictional) European country of Rovenia. Holmes makes reference to the recent death of the King of Rovenia, which the Prime Minister says was actually an assassination. This was the first step in a planned coup, with the second being the murder of the King’s son who has been attending an English private school. Against Watson’s protests, Holmes agrees to take the case, and sends Watson off to pack his things and arrange a car for him at Baker Street while he makes the final arrangements.
Holmes and Watson drive to the airfield, where they meet the Rovenian ministers. A small airplane is waiting, where Holmes and Watson are introduced to Prince Nikolas. Apparently the plane does not have room for Watson, much to his chagrin. Holmes asks him to board a boat for Algiers and to act as a decoy, as Holmes is certain he will be followed. Watson is left alone to voice his disquiet as the plane takes off.
On board the SS Friedland, Watson is introduced to his steward (played by Morton Lowry, last seen as Stapleton in Hound of the Baskervilles), before he meets Sheila Woodbury, a singer from New York. She recognises him as “the Dr Watson”, much to his delight. Her agent delivers her forgotten music arrangements as the liner departs.
Sheila is played by Marjorie Riordan, a young actress who at the time was on a strong upward trajectory in her career. However a few years later she and a friend of hers (actress Joyce Reynolds) would decide that acting wasn’t quite intellectually stimulating enough, so they started studying psychology as post-grads along with their acting. Reynolds at first studied the psycho-dynamics of stuttering, which led her to clinical psychology. Eventually she gave up acting entirely to become a full-time clinical psychologist, clearly finding it far more to her taste.
That evening, Watson and Woodbury are in the lounge, together with Agatha Dunham (played by Rosalind Ivan, a character actress known as “Ivan the Terrible” for her onscreen “battleaxe” persona). Agatha is very keen to organise some deck games, a prospect that Watson finds less than compelling. Sheila and Watson discuss music, though this is interrupted when a gun falls out of Dunham’s handbag. She is pretty blasé about it, though Watson is left musing over what Holmes would do.
So involved is he in this conundrum that he almost misses the two suspicious characters that he walks past – until he realises that they are discussing a fanatical faction and their need for the body of a king. He is considering this when he reads a news snippet on the bulletin board that details a plane crash in the Pyrenees, which he realises from the description must be Holmes’. Watson is still clutching the rail and staring out to see when the steward arrives with a request for him to attend a sick passenger.
The steward leads him down to the cabin that adjoins Watson’s own cabin, where he listlessly takes the pulse of the figure on the bed. He is interrupted, however, by the appearance of Holmes, who hadn’t been on the plane when it was shot down. He had decided that the plane flight was too great a risk (as it was known to too many people), and so he and the prince had secretly boarded the boat. He proposes that Watson pass the prince off as his nephew. Watson tells him about Agatha’s gun (which Holmes does not take seriously), and the conversation he overheard in the bar (which he does).
That evening Sheila plays the piano and sings, to congratulations from Watson. He hands her the music case (which he drops, of course – he is still Watson), before introducing Nikolas and Holmes to her. At the sight of Holmes she makes a hasty excuse and bolts, which piques Holmes’ interest. Watson insists that it cannot be a guilty conscience, as she sings so beautifully. Holmes points out that musical competence is not a sign of virtue – in fact “the late Professor Moriarty was a virtuoso on the bassoon”. He reminds Watson that Nikolas must be guarded, and says that they will wait for the enemy to make the first move.
The next morning, Sheila asks Nikolas to accompany her on a walk around the deck, so Holmes and Watson decide to go after them. However the ship is enveloped in thick fog and they lose sight of them. Watson overhears two men discussing the need to send a message that they are afraid to trust to the wireless, but he interrupts them before they finish. He continues to search and finds Agatha Dunham, hiking around the deck. Meanwhile Nikolas and Sheila are flirting gently when she drops her compact, and it skids towards the edge of the deck. Before Nikolas can go to retrieve it, however, Holmes picks it up and hands it back to her.
In the lounge, Sheila plays the piano and sings for Nikolas, while Watson, Agatha and two other passengers play a card game, and Holmes plays chess. Suddenly the ship’s engines stop. Holmes comments that they are off the coast of Lisbon, and that he expects that they will be getting some unexpected visitors on board. Back in their cabin, Watson mentions the conversation he overheard earlier, and Holmes agrees that it’s possible the two were going to call for reinforcements. They go up to see who is coming on board, leaving Nikolas locked in the cabin. As they leave, they pass the steward, who seems curious to know what they are doing. Sheila tells them that three men have come aboard, before running off again. While Holmes waxes lyrical about Lisbon and is regret over not visiting it, one of those three men appears – Mirko, played by Martin Kosleck.
Martin was a German actor (although his hometown is now actually part of Poland), who’s opposition to the Nazi party in the 30s saw him get the honour of being placed on a list of Gestapo undesirables. Moving to the US for the good of his health, he spent most of the war starring as the villain in anti-Nazi propaganda movies, which he was more than happy to do (his signature role being impersonating Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels). Following the war he spent a brief period of time in horror movies before moving to television. He appeared in Batman, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible and Wild Wild West, among others, including an appearance as a Gestapo general in Hogan’s Heroes, mocking the Nazis one last time. His most memorable film role was as a sculptor in House of Horrors, playing against our old friend Rondo Hatton (aka The Creeper).
Mirko greets Holmes, though he declines to introduce himself. Holmes muses that he recognises him from somewhere, as one of his compatriots calls for him, giving Holmes his name. Holmes hurries back to the cabin, where he moves Nikolas over into Watson’s cabin, as the one he and Holmes are currently in has a porthole opening to the promenade.
The next day the steward arrives with their morning tea and coffee. Watson notes that Nikolas’ coffee appears to be curdling his milk, leading Holmes to stop him drinking it, guessing that it has been poisoned with cyanide. They briefly discuss who could be responsible, but come to no conclusion. Later, Watson and Holmes play shuffleboard up on deck with Mirko and his comrade Gregor. Gregor and Holmes spar verbally, with allusions that leave no doubt that Gregor has designs on Nikolas’ life, and is well aware that Holmes knows of it.
Following the game, Watson points out the Rock of Gibraltar ahead, while Mirko, Gregor and the third man, Gubec, discuss whether they will need to eliminate Holmes. (Gubec is played by William “Wee Willie” Davis, a former professional wrestler in his first film role.) Mirko feels that Holmes must be eliminated to reach their target, but Gregor is reluctant to rob the world of a man like Holmes. Still, he agrees that their mission is paramount. Later in their cabin, Gubec communicates is doubts about Mirko to Gregor – in sign language, as he is a mute. Mirko demonstrates his skill however, nailing Gubec’s hat to the wall with a knife thrown through their porthole.
In the bar, Holmes stands the drinks for Watson, Mirko and Gregor as captain of the losing team in the shuffleboard. The steward brings them their drinks, and then once again watches them from the bar. They finish their drinks and head to bed, although Gregor and Mirko wait in the bar for a while, before heading to the promenade. They spot Holmes through the window, but have to hide from the patrolling captain, and when they return Holmes has turned out the light. Mirko goes to make his throw to where he saw Holmes, but his arm is grabbed by Holmes, who breaks his wrist with the porthole cover. He reveals that Mirko’s prowess at shuffleboard led him to remember where he had seen him before – as a circus knife-thrower.
The next day Gregor greets Holmes and Watson, and Holmes glosses over his encounter with Mirko the night before. Watson comments on how it took him an hour to set Mirko’s fracture, and Holmes says that they will not be getting much sleep tonight, as they will arrive in Algiers overnight, so Gregor and his friends will have to try something. He also mentions that Sheila seems to be nervous about arriving in Algiers, and hasn’t let her music case out of her sight since he first met her. He asks Watson to get her to sing the song she had been going to get from her case earlier which he does. She says that she doesn’t know it from memory, but when he says that she mentioned earlier it was in her case, she grabs the case and flees.
Holmes follows her out onto the deck, where he persuades her to trust him. He deduces that it must be jewellery of some kind hidden in the case, and that the man whose cafe she is engaged to play in is a notorious fence. He realises that it must be the stolen emeralds that were mentioned in the newspaper headline that he saw earlier. She confirms it, and he retrieves them from the case. He tells her that he will return them and give her the reward from the insurance company, which will make up for her cancelling her contract to play for the fence. She is delighted, as this will allow her to return to Brooklyn.
That night, she sings the song she had promised to play for Watson – the Scottish song “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”, a musical arrangement of a Robert Burns poem. While she sings, Agatha sets out crackers on the table, each with a name on them. She is using them as place settings, an idea suggested to her by Gregor. Meanwhile, Sheila persuades Watson to sing “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, a traditional Scottish song with the famous lyric “Oh, ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road, And I’ll get to Scotland afore ye.” While Watson sings (with Bruce himself providing the vocals, rather than a professional singer being looped in as was the usual practice), Gregor substitutes a cracker of his own for Nikolas’ place setting.
Watson finishes his song, and looks around to find that a crowd have assembled, who applaud his singing. Holmes then introduces him to two members of the crowd – the sinister pair he had earlier heard discussing “the body of a king”. It turns out that they are archaeologists, who are going to Egypt to excavate a tomb.
Slightly deflated by this, Watson is perked back up by Agatha Dunham’s request for him to tell them a tale of his adventures with Holmes. He delightedly asks if any of them have ever heard of “the Giant Rat of Sumatra”, which had to be hushed up at the time, but which he feels safe in telling now. He begins the story, though we cut out to Gregor and friends out in the bar before he gets past the opening. When we return he is explaining the layout of a specific occurrence in the story, using his cutlery as props. Meanwhile, Nikolas and Sheila get ready to pull Nikolas’ cracker, but Holmes interrupts them and examines it, before offering his to them as a substitute. Watson continues his story, while Holmes slips away.
Gregor sees Holmes go through the bar to the deck, and follows him. Holmes tells him that the party is in full swing, but he is not one for stories and paper hats. Gregor replies that he enjoys that sort of thing, so Holmes (springing the trap) offers to pull Nikolas’ cracker with him. When he declines, Holmes pulls the trigger out and throws it overboard, where it explodes. He returns as Watson finishes his story.
Later, Nikolas and Sheila dance together, while Holmes notes that Gregor and company have made themselves scarce. As the ship drops anchor, Holmes takes Nikolas away to their cabin to pack. Sheila gazes after him, unconsciously responding to Agatha’s query of whether she’s enjoying herself with “Oh yes, he’s wonderful”.
Back in the cabin, they make their plans – Watson will go ashore and fetch a police escort, while Nikolas and Holmes barricade themselves in the room. This they do, but Gregor imitates Watson returning for his pipe and tricks Nikolas into opening the door. Gubec quickly overpowers him, while Gregor covers Holmes with a revolver. Holmes is bound, gagged and knocked unconscious while they spirit Nikolas away.
Watson returns with the escort, but they find Holmes bound and Nikolas gone. The Rovenian with the escort grows nervous, but Holmes simply asks if the escort have identified themselves. Holmes rings for the steward, who arrives and is revealed to be the real Nikolas, with the other being an actor who was serving as a decoy. He tells them that his stand-in has been rescued and Gregor and his friends arrested on shore. Nikolas leaves, but not before Holmes tells him that Watson and he will not forget that they have had the distinction of having their breakfast in bed served to them by a king. After they have left, Watson complains at being left out of the secret, but Holmes points out that Watson would have been incapable of treating the supposed steward naturally if he had known. His final remark to Watson (clearly an inside joke): “If you ever think of taking up another profession, never even think of becoming an actor.”
I like Pursuit to Algiers. It’s not typical of the series, but it is actually a lot closer to the spirit of the original stories. There are a lot of plot threads going on – the archaeologists that Watson mistakes for revolutionaries, the romance between Nikolas and Sheila that seems doomed, but presumably will now be possible since he is not actually a prince (and it’s nice that they don’t crowbar in a resolution to it), and even the constant shots of the steward and Watson’s suspicion of him which does eventually pay off. There’s a lot of stuff for fans of the series too – the SS Friesland takes its name from a ship referenced in The Norwood Builder as the site of an unpublished adventure, while the story Watson tells at dinner (which we do not get to hear) is the most famous unpublished story of all, the tale of The Giant Rat of Sumatra “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. (And yes, there’s a slight inconsistency in that in the Doyle story it’s an adventure which Watson was not present on, but I think we can forgive them that.)
The villains are a compelling bunch. The muteness of Gubec turns a potential liability (the inexperience of William Davis as an actor) into an asset, making him immediately memorable. Gregor’s civilized demeanour ruthlessness combine to make for an excellent foil for Holmes, and it’s a shame that Rex Evans didn’t get a chance to return as Moriarty (as so many memorable villains had). Kosleck plays the cheerful killer Mirko with a practised touch, and again it’s a shame the series would end before he could return.
There are a couple of nice touches with Watson this time out. First is the acknowledgement that he is quite famous in his own right. First Sheila recognises him, and then at the dinner party it is he who the crowd clamour for to tell them a story of his adventures with Holmes, something which he does very well. (As one would expect, given his role as the pair’s biographer, but it’s something a lesser writer could have neglected.) One major theme from the series that appears centre stage this time round is Watson’s Scottish heritage. From his attempts to get the pair to holiday in Scotland at the start, to his choice of music both to hear and to sing, the Scottish influence is fully on display. This is almost entirely the invention of this series (although author Dorothy L Sayers had previously speculated that Watson’s middle initial, H, could stand for Hamish). Given how much Nigel Bruce’s life parallels Watson’s in other respects (both were military men invalided out of the service after they suffered leg injuries), it seems likely that this side of Watson was his contribution to the canon. In fact, Bruce’s father was a baronet, and he could trace his ancestry from the Thomas Bruce, who was either the grandson or grandnephew of the famous Scottish king Robert the Bruce.
Next time we trade a boat for a train in the penultimate film in the series. Terror By Night sees the pair o board the Flying Scotsman, dealing with (once again) stolen jewels and murderous villains, not to mention one Colonel Sebastian Moran.