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Spider Woman, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A female Moriarty? I think not!"
2 stars

"The Spider Woman" is the sort of movie that seems as if it would be quite useful in filling out a double feature. Clocking in at just over an hour, it won't extend the total running time too late into the evening or too far in the other direction for matinees. It's got a brand name, so it will attract a bit of interest on its own. And there is very little chance that it will outshine the main feature.

It starts with a series of suspicious deaths in London being dubbed "the pyjama suicides" by the press - a half-dozen well-to-do young men have suddenly committed suicide in the middle of the night, which seems too clear a pattern to be mere coincidence. The people wonder where Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is when such a mystery is going on. It turns out that he's in Scotland, fishing with his friend Doctor Watson (Nigel Buce), ready to give up the detective business, as it seems to be bringing on a cerebral hemorrhage. That malady soon takes him, but he's no more actually dead than he was at Reichenbach; he's just setting up the opportunity to capture the murderess - a "female Moriarty" by the name of Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard) - without being expected.

The opening credits describe The Spider Woman as being based upon a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but don't specify which one. The main ingredient seems to be "The Devil's Foot", but there's also bits of "The Empty House", The Sign of Four, and perhaps even "The Speckled Band" in there. It's not a smooth mixture, though; the story feels like it jumps from one story to another: It's as if writer Bertram Millhauser wasn't really getting anywhere with Holmes faking his death, so then it was on to this other thing, but that didn't really make for an exciting last act, so shift the action over here.

This mess is made worse by having Adrea not be in Sherlock Holmes's league as a villain, so he has to stumble, fall prey to ambush twice, and ultimately be saved because Watson and Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) suddenly have moments where they revert to confused, dithering form after having actually been shown as being good at something. It's hugely annoying to watch; there's no mystery worth figuring out, not much in the way of suspense, and while the filmmakers get some small amount of thrills from a murder weapon of the creepy-crawly variety, the horror described is never actually seen. The actors don't really seem to be into it, either. I'm told that Rathbone eventually got bored of the character, and the malaise is perhaps starting to appear here, and Sondergaard never really finds a hook for her character; there's a lot of scenes where it seems like there should have been a spark between the two, but it never develops.

What is good? A rooftop chase scene that manages to overcome the film's small budget. An opening that quickly sets the scene - the "newspaper + clips" montage to get the audience into the story without delay is a much-parodied device, and I don't know if it's been done straight since Dead Again, but it undeniably works when done well. A couple lines from Watson to Lestrade that would work much better if Watson taking someone else down a peg weren't ironic. And a creepy little kid that could have been a nifty signature for the movie if he were used more.

They're not enough, though. In many ways, a hero is defined by his villains, and since The Spider Woman is unworthy of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes suffers in comparison.

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originally posted: 12/09/09 16:00:00
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