The third film produced at Universal, Sherlock Holmes in Washington marks a turning point in the series. The last film to deal explicitly with the ongoing World War 2, it also marked an experiment in shifting Holmes out of London and into more familiar climes for the largely American audience. This proved relatively unpopular, however, and the series shifted back to more traditional roots – placing Holmes and Watson (mostly) in Britain, at least, and having them deal with more traditional mysteries rather than current events.
The film is also noteworthy for the villains. George Zucco (last seen playing Moriarty in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, back in the Fox era) returns, and is joined by a man who would go on to play Moriarty two years later, Henry Daniell. We’ll be going into Mr Daniell’s career a bit more when he returns to play the Napoleon of Crime, but he had appeared previously in The Voice of Terror as Sir Alfred Lloyd. The film very nearly added another recurring character to the series – originally Holmes’ brother Mycroft was to appear, but the actor who was to play him could not commit due to family issues, so the role was cut back and shifted to be the generic “Mr Ahrens”. What makes this truly intriguing, however, is that the actor who was to play Mycroft was Oscar Homolka, perhaps best known to modern audiences for playing Colonel Stok, opposite number to Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in the films Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain. Quite how his thick Central European accent (he was Austrian, but from a Czech family) would have fed into Mycroft’s character is somewhat hard to picture, but it would definitely have made for an interesting dynamic.
One final piece of trivia – the co-author of both this and Voice Of Terror was American playwright and author Lynn Riggs, who is best known for writing the play Green Grow The Lilacs, which became one of the most famous musicals of all time, Oklahoma! Definitely not two worlds I’d have expected to be connected.
At a customs station manned by British soldiers, Mr William Easter (Henry Daniell) has his passport checked, before boarding a transatlantic flight to New York. As he boards, Sir Henry Marsden arrives, dogged by reporters. He refuses to comment on their questions, and after having his passport stamped he boards. The plane is still missing one passenger – the hapless John Grayson, who arrives at a run, apologising and tripping over himself.
Aboard the flight, Easter eyes Sir Henry, while Grayson smokes nervously and eyes Easter. The plane arrives in New York (with some awesome aerial footage of the city, a curious blend of the familiar and the strange) and a shot of Grand Central Station segues nicely into the three men aboard a train bound for Washington. Grayson reads a newspaper article about Sir Henry, while the man himself deals with the pressure of celebrity, as Washington society matron Mrs Jellison attempts to persuade him to stay at her house during his stay. Meanwhile in a private room, Easter discusses with two confederates who on board is the British agent they are pursuing. They feel that Sir Henry is clearly a diversion, and decide that Grayson must be carrying the document they are after, and come up with a plan to eliminate him.
Grayson notices them eyeing him, and moves to leave the bar, accidentally jostling a man next to him, who introduces himself as affable senator Henry Babcock. Babcock invites him to share a grape juice and chat, which Grayson does (although he decides to substitute a whisky and soda for the juice). As they move to more comfortable chairs he comments on the white mice being carried by the elderly Mrs Ruxton. He gives the senator his address and lights the cigarette of Nancy Partridge, a young lady sitting next to them. As the train approaches its destination, Grayson goes to get his bag, but Easter’s associates turn off the lights and Grayson is knocked out and bundled in Easter’s private room in the confusion.
The train arrives and Nancy is met by her fiancé, Lt Pete Merriam, who gives her an engagement ring. She says goodbye to Grayson, who is clearly being held under a concealed gun by Easter as he leaves. They put him in a car and leave. His absence is soon noted, as the front page of the Washington Mercury appears on screen, with a headline “Man Abducted From Train”. (Not a real newspaper, although the amount of effort shown in the many other headlines and stories on the page is impressive.) It is followed by similar fictional and impressive fake papers the New York Vanguard and London Beacon.
In 221B Baker Street, Holmes and Watson hear a BBC new broadcast describe the incident. Watson denounces it as “deplorable” and Holmes is surprised at his passion, until he discovers that Watson is actually referring to the cricket results. Holmes then astonishes Watson with his deduction that Watson has decided against going to watch the cricket today, a deduction that turns out to be based on the fact that he had filled his hipflask with Holmes’ “best whisky”, but then poured it out. This scene of domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Mr Ahrens (the replacement for Mycroft from the original script), from the Home Office. He reveals that Grayson was actually a secret agent by the name of Alfred Pettibone (who Holmes recognises and describes as a “good man”), carrying a secret message, with the usual dire consequences if it falls into enemy hands. Holmes agrees to go to Washington to investigate, a prospect that delights Watson, who has never seen a game of baseball. However, before they depart Holmes decides that they must investigate Pettibone’s home for clues.
At Pettibone’s house, they are greeted by name by Pettibone’s mother, who has no qualms about letting them come in and search her son’s room (although she does not know that he has been kidnapped). Watson comments on the large number of collections that Pettibone has, leading to the amazing comment from Holmes: “Indeed. I shall write a monograph someday on the noxious habit of accumulating useless trivia.” Holmes determines that Pettibone created a microfilm duplicate of the document and then burned it, possibly hiding the document inside a “V for Victory” matchbook. As they leave, someone on the roof tries to brain them with some falling masonry, leading Holmes to realise that the spy ring that kidnapped Pettibone has them in their sights.
On the plane to the US, Watson reads up on American habits and speech, as their plane flies over New York and makes directly for Washington. He loses no time in trying out his newly discovered vernacular on Detective Lt Grogan and Mr Lang of the State Department, who meet them at the airport. They drive past the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial and the Capitol as Holmes mentions a telegram that Lang had sent letting them know of the hotel reservations that he had made for them. When Lang denies sending such a telegram, Holmes is even more enthusiastic to stay there.
In their hotel, Watson enthusiastically drinks a milkshake as Grogan tells Holmes about the people who Pettibone spoke to on the train – Senator Babcock, Mrs Ruxton and Mrs Jellison. (His interaction with Miss Partridge is not reported). Holmes immediately asks which of those people have already been attacked, and finds out that senator was held up when he left the station (with nothing taken), Mrs Jellison’s house was ransacked (with the book that Pettibone had picked up for her torn to pieces) and Mrs Ruxton had her mouse cage taken apart during the night. A trunk arrives, delivered anonymously, containing Pettibone’s dead body.
Holmes and Watson go out to look at the club car that Pettibone was abducted from, and find it thoroughly searched – and not by the police. Holmes rearranges the room, and moves Watson around the room to establish the position of everyone in the carriage – finding out from the porter, George, that a mysterious young woman was also present in the carriage, and that Pettibone lit her cigarette with a match from his own matchbook. George remembers that she was met off the train by a young man in the uniform of a “Navy flyer”, who put a ring on her finger.
George is played by Clarence Muse, who makes the minor part extremely memorable, packing a lot of character into his few lines. Despite being an African American in the 1940s, Muse was actually a big enough star that this was essentially a cameo appearance, explaining the characterisation of his part. Clarence had been the leading actor in Hearts in Dixie, the first African American to ever get leading billing in a Hollywood film. He would go on to star alongside Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr and Mickey Rooney, writing and directing as well as acting. He even auditioned for the role of Sam in Casablanca, and while he lost out, he went on to play Sam in the short-lived 1950s TV series based on the film.
Easter and his men see the notice of Nancy and Lt Pete Merriam’s engagement in the paper, and recognise her from her photo as the lady whose cigarette Grayson lit. As they worry about Holmes’ involvement, they receive a message from their boss (on a phone hidden inside an oriental vase that swings open on hinges). They are to infiltrate the reception Nancy’s aunt is throwing for her under the guise of a catering company.
Watson reads the American comics, commenting that Flash Gordon “seems a very capable fellow”, before moving on to the sports papers. He is also chewing gum, much to Holmes’ disgust. Holmes also sees Nancy’s picture, and determines from the match between the article and what George overheard that she is the girl they’re looking for.
Meanwhile Nancy takes the fateful matchbook from her purse and goes to light a cigarette, unaware that Easter is lurking outside. Pete arrives, and the two discuss the possibility of ditching the party and either eloping, or going to see the apartment they are to move into, before deciding to go. Nancy puts the matchbook into her handbag and they leave. Easter enters and begins a swift search.
At the party, one of Easter’s men arrives as a guest, and makes contact with the caterer who is also one of the gang. The caterer draws Pete off to answer a fictitious phone call and he leaves, but not before first borrowing Nancy’s matches, and then giving them to a nearby Major, who leaves them on a tray. Pete is led into a room in the empty wing that is to become his new apartment and locked in. Meanwhile the matchbook is used by Sir Henry to light a cigarette, as he declares he’d “do anything to get my hands on that document”. Nancy is also decoyed up to the new apartment, and retrieves the matchbook from the tray before she leaves. She is chloroformed, and both she and he handbag (which holds the matchbook) are rolled up into a carpet, and are carried out as Holmes and Watson arrive.
Holmes finds out that Nancy and Pete have vanished, and after a short discussion with Nancy’s aunt (who believes that they must have gone off together for some privacy) Holmes remembers the rug he saw being carried out. He asks to see the apartment, and notices the tracks of a woman’s heels in the dust. They find Pete, locked in an adjoining room (and suffering from a blow to the head that we never actually saw him receive). Holmes decides to check into the findings on Pettibone’s body and the trunk it arrived in. While nothing was found on them, he discovers a sliver of wood in the blanket it was wrapped in that he deduces came from a piece of antique furniture.
The two canvas the antique shops of Washington (via a montage of shop signs and walking feet), before they arrive at Stanley’s Antiques where Holmes’ suspicions are immediately aroused by the sight of imitation cabinets in the window priced as if they were authentic examples. Within, Nancy is being interrogated by the boss, Richard Stanley (our old friend Zucco). He remains unfailingly polite as he searches her bag. He insists despite her denials that she has the secret document, as he lights his pipe with a match from the matchbook that conceals the document within. He mentions that the room they are in is secured with a combination lock. She denies that Pettibone gave her anything, as Stanley reveals that they killed him. Her denials are honest, although as Stanley lights her cigarette it seems that she remembers the matchbook. If she does, she doesn’t reveal it even as Stanley calls for one of his men called Howe to persuade her to talk.
Holmes enters the shop in character as a fussy collector, finding fault in all he sees, while Watson waits outside as backup. He quickly discovers that one of the mirrors is two-way (in an impressive display of realism, he determines this by turning off the light in that part of the shop, allowing him to see what is on the other side), and sees Easter and another man beyond. He also finds that the sliver of wood from the blanket perfectly matches one of the cabinets. He smashes one of the vases, then argues the valuation and demands to see the proprietor. Stanley agrees to see him, and tells Howe “No screams until the customer’s gone.”
Holmes arrives in Stanley’s office, and immediately notices the matchbook on the desk. Stanley tries to get rid of him quickly, before revealing that he recognises him as Holmes. Holmes also recognises him as a German agent named Heinrich Hinkel, which he denies. Holmes sounds him out and discovers that he has not found the document, before managing to subtly convince him that it is actually Babcock who unwittingly has the document, concealed under a postage stamp on a self-addressed envelope that Pettibone gave him. Stanley, still remaining civil, offers to let him look around for the girl (who he claims not to have), which turns out to be an attempt to get Holmes to trigger a pair of blades hidden in a trunk in the room. Holmes is not fooled, and sets off the trap without being caught. Holmes prevents Stanley from drawing a gun from a drawer, then finds the phone hidden in the fake vase and imitates him to have the girl sent up. Holmes hides to cover him, but inadvertently hides with his back to the secret door and is overpowered by the very men he asked to come up. Stanley prepares to kill both him and Nancy, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the police. His men are defeated and Holmes and Nancy are rescued, but Stanley escapes.
Holmes arrives at Senator Babcock’s office. He warns him that he is in danger from Stanley, but while he tries to persuade him Stanley arrives. He retrieves the envelope and mocks Holmes, saying that while his investigative abilities may suffice for London, in America he is put of his depth. Holmes responds by asking if he minds if he smokes, and Stanley gives him a cigarette, and the matchbook. As he leaves, however, he is overpowered by the police. Holmes then reveals that the microfilm was in the matchbook all along.
The final scene has Holmes and Watson in a car, driving towards the capitol. Holmes then quotes from a speech that Churchill had made about the need for America and Britain to “walk together, hand in hand” as we close.
Oddly, this is a film I like a lot more on this second viewing than I did on the first. There are a lot of nice touches (Flash Gordon, the booby trapped cabinet, the verbal sparring between Holmes and Watson) that point to a great deal of care, and the way the action follows the matchbook as it moves around is classic directorial technique. Daniell, Zucco and Muse all give amazing performances, while the interplay between Nancy and Pete shows real chemistry – not surprising as the pair were married in real life. In addition Marjorie Lord (who played Nancy) has the odd distinction of being one of the few actors from these films who is still around and active in the world of cinema today – she even has a website.
Next time is actually possibly my favourite film of the series. Holmes may be done with propaganda, but the shadow of the war still looms large as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death.