34. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

IMDB score = 7.0/10

Holmes and Watson? = Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

Synopsis = Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson travel to Washington D.C. in order to prevent a secret document from falling into enemy hands.

Defense by Lyn Adams, @itsalways1895:

Being a lifelong fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, my mother tried to make me a convert as well, encouraging me to watch her favorite on-screen incarnations of the Great Detective starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. So being the ever-dutiful daughter, when I was about 11 years old, I watched (well, actually, I tried to watch) “Sherlock Holmes in Washington” – that attempt lasted about 15 minutes. I can’t say for sure how I felt about this portrayal of Holmes from that failed effort, but I knew without a doubt that Watson was much too buffoonish. How could such a brilliant detective associate himself with such an unworthy sidekick? To my youthful, impatient mind, nothing could right that ship, I was done!

Fast forward to today, having now watched this episode in its entirety. Being a rather recent yet quite ardent Sherlock Holmes devotee, I was fairly certain I would once again be disappointed. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it!

The opening credits immediately draw us in to the unfolding mystery – Fog! Shadowy figures! Ubiquitous mid-century dramatic musical score! I admit, though, to being momentarily put off by the on-screen prelude indicating that Sherlock Holmes was a “fictional character”. As Watson would say, “Hrumpf!” But I digress - moving on!

Many Sherlockians consider the Rathbone/Bruce performances as definitive, canonical Holmes/Watson portrayals. Yet of the 14 films starring these lead actors, only 2 are set in the Victorian era and based on the original stories. The remaining 12 films are set during the World War II era. Placing Holmes in a modern setting (this film was produced in 1942, and chronicles events based during that time period) was a bold, creative move, leading the way for the many modern adaptations that followed.

Rathbone accurately portrays Holmes’ steely determination, brilliant rapid-fire deductions, not to mention the canonical sharp facial features; the razor-sharp cheekbones, and the aquiline nose. Admittedly his hairstyle is rather distracting, appearing as if he was constantly walking upwind of a hurricane – I’ll assume that style was popular during those war years. More than likely, we’ll feel the same bewilderment about curly-haired BBC Sherlock fifty years from now! Holmes also sports a spiffy dressing gown, uses tobacco products to excess, and still has Mrs Hudson, always on hand to chastise clients for barging in on him, regardless if they work for the government or no. Steadfast features from the original stories that help keep us interested in the storyline.

I need to admit to one nagging problem with Holmes in this film – Holmes not only once but twice misses obvious visual clues that criminals are sneaking up on him. I’m going to attribute this to jet lag, he no sooner arrived in America (trans-Atlantic flights were much more exhausting decades ago than they are today) when he is immediately put on the case.

Time now to discuss John Watson - (deep breath) – yes, Watson is most definitely portrayed here as the stereotypical goofy, yet lovable sidekick. But research has shown that this portrayal was due to decisions made by the studios and producers, and not by any fault of Nigel Bruce, a rightfully popular actor of his day. Once we come to terms with that unfortunate decision, we can observe Watson through new eyes, and as the studio-designated comic-relief, he does not disappoint! There is undeniable joy at watching Watson contentedly enjoying his first American milkshake, all the while blissfully ignoring the mundane discussions about the criminal case, preferring to study the book on American idioms and slang terms that he brought on the trip.

Our acceptance of this Watson is made easier by the fact that Holmes, as always, treasures Watson’s friendship, never hesitating to ask for his assistance, knowing that Watson will always do what he can to protect Holmes. And here again, Watson doesn’t disappoint, as he manages to save the day (and Holmes’ life) not just once, but twice! Despite any possible milkshake-induced apathy, he manages to remain alert, even when Holmes’ overlooks telltale clues, in order to save his dear friend.

The film ends with the criminals being brought to justice, and our detective duo driving one final time through the US capitol, on their way to the airport to return home to England and 221B Baker Street. Upon seeing the White House, Holmes ponders the state of the world, and quotes Winston Churchill, affirming the deep connection between these two strong countries, allies in the war against the Nazis; a poignant ending which brings to mind the touching finale of the canonical “His Final Bow”.

Please give this film a try, whether for the first time, or a second (or third) try, and enjoy yet another modern setting for the immortal Sherlock Holmes, who continues to be the one constant in an ever-changing world.

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