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Sherlock Holmes in Washington
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by Jay Seaver

"He need not have left England."
3 stars

Sherlock Holmes stories, and mysteries in general, sometimes treat the audience unfairly, holding the really key bits of information back until the last minute, to be sprung on the audience without warning. "Sherlock Holmes in Washington", on the other hand, arguably goes too far in the other direction: It more or less presents the solution to the case not much more then twenty minutes in, before Holmes and Watson have even left London, and then spends the next forty-five minutes or so stalling for time.

An English diplomat has been dispatched to Washington, but he is only a decoy for the real agent, Alfred Pettibone (Gerald Hamer), who has been charged with delivering a two-page document of great importance. The ruse is deduced, though, and Pettibone is kidnapped from the train between Washington and New York. The Home Office dispatches Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) to find him and the papers, which Holmes deduces must have been passed to one of the other passengers. Is it Senator Henry Babcock (Thurston Hall)? Pretty young Nancy Partridge (Marjorie Lord)? Or elderly Miss Pringle (Margaret Seddon)?

The scene on the train where Pettibone knows that he is being tracked down is clever and suspenseful; it invites the audience to watch the agent's every motion carefully. It's a tense little scene, and it kicks off a series of nifty little scenes that will recur throughout the movie, as the audience is tasked with tracking the hidden MacGuffin as it is passed around by people oblivious to its importance. There's something about those scenes that is, if not inventive, then at least a clever combination of tension and mischief, that certainly grabs the audience's attention.

The trouble with that is that only half of them actually involve Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson spend one of those sequences in a taxicab, beneficiaries of the occasional cut away from the action but not actively involved. Indeed, the film includes too many scenes of the pair in some form of transport, being shown the sights so that Universal can break out a bit of stock footage and stretch the movie a little longer. There's no need to look out an airplane window at Manhattan twice, and the scene where various national monuments in Washington are pointed out actually is padding of the most obvious sort. A few issues delay Holmes actually getting his hands on the documents, but they are mere stalling tactics as well.

That wouldn't be so bad if the stalling was more interesting. Unfortunately, there's not a single character in the film beyond Holmes that is worthy of the audience's attention. The girl, the thugs, the local cops, and even the villain are utterly generic. Thurston Hall manages to stand out simply by playing a stock character. Heck, I can usually depend on Nigel Bruce's Watson to cause a reaction by irritating me, but midway through the movie, his obtuseness takes a backseat to the simple necessity of moving the plot forward. Rathbone is in fair form as Holmes, but the movie doesn't provide him with much opportunity to impress.

And as much as Sherlock Holmes is one of the great characters of fiction, he needs a challenge worthy of his efforts - an intractable case, or a grotesquerie too horrifying for lesser minds to confront. Despite a few interesting hints, "Sherlock Holmes in Washington" ultimately lacks that, and as such rates just a tick below average.

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originally posted: 12/08/09 16:00:00
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  30-Apr-1943 (NR)
  DVD: 14-Sep-2010

  N/A (U)


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