by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Sleeping Cardinal, a.k.a. Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (a U.S. title that’s quite a misnomer because Sherlock Holmes’ life is never seriously threatened at any time during the film, though there’s a plot gimmick taken from one of the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories that makes it look like he’s in mortal danger — more on that later), made at the independent Twickenham Film Studios in Britain in 1930 (released in February 1931) and the first of five films featuring actor Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve seen his last two, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (based on the Conan Doyle Holmes novel The Valley of Fear — and copying the book’s annoying structure of a first half in which Holmes is front and center, followed by a second-half flashback in which Holmes doesn’t appear at all but which establishes the motive for the crime Holmes was investigating in the first half) and Silver Blaze (released in the U.S. as Murder at the Baskervilles — by making Sir Henry Baskerville the owner of the horse Silver Blaze the writers linked the two stories and made the film appear to be a sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles even though the story wasn’t), and as much as I usually respect the critical judgments of the late William K. Everson (who thought Arthur Wontner was one of the two best actors ever to play Sherlock Holmes), I find myself unconvinced by Wontner as Holmes.
Wontner was a tall, rather beefy actor with an imperious upper-class British manner, superficially right for Holmes and actually quite convincing in the cerebral scenes in which Holmes lays back at Baker Street and thinks out his theories about the crime he is investigating. The problem is that Conan Doyle created Holmes not as just a cerebral “armchair detective” (in one story Conan Doyle actually has Holmes say that if the art of the detective began and ended from an armchair, his brother Mycroft would be a better one than he) but also as an action hero and as a neurotic, driven man who (at least in the early stories) had recourse to recreational drugs when he didn’t have a case to keep his mind occupied. Wontner is totally wrong casting for those sides of the Holmes character, and the Holmes films of his I’ve seen suffer because of it.
The Sleeping Cardinal deserves credit for some points: the script starts out not only from Conan Doyle’s characters but actually uses his plots as well. The film claims basis from the stories “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” (“Holmes’ death and his resurrection,” Charles joked to me) and uses quite a lot of the original dialogue regarding Professor Moriarty (though the writing committee — Leslie S. Hiscott, who also directed; H. Fowler Mear and Cyril Twyford — for some reason changes his first name from “James” to “Robert”) and the sheer extent of his empire of crime, as well as the plot resolution in which Moriarty (of course in “The Empty House” Moriarty was already dead and the would-be assassin was Col. Sebastian Moran, his second-in-command) attempts to kill Holmes with an air gun but only succeeds in blasting to smithereens a bust of Holmes which he had put in his window as a decoy, instructing his landlady Mrs. Hudson (Minnie Rayner) to move it every few minutes to make it seem alive.
The film also scores in some remarkable proto-noir scenes in the first and last reels — during the 1920’s there were enough co-productions between the U.K. and Germany that a lot of British directors learned the chiaroscuro visual tricks invented by the Weimar-era German filmmakers that later became the basis for film noir — and in the casting of Ian Fleming (not the later Ian Fleming who created the character of James Bond!) as a reasonably intelligent Dr. Watson instead of a comic foil à la Nigel Bruce. Alas, in between those visually distinguished first and last reels, the movie is a forest of talk, talk, talk, taking place almost exclusively indoors — and in just two locations, at that: the home of Ronald Adair (Leslie Perrins) and his sister Kathleen (Jane Welsh); and the digs of Holmes and Watson at 221B Baker Street (though the address isn’t given in the film). It’s an indication of how claustrophobic this movie is that though we hear Holmes deduce that Watson has had trouble getting his car started, and therefore we know the film is supposed to be set contemporarily (in 1930 instead of the 1890’s), we never actually see a car in the film.
The “Sleeping Cardinal” itself is a painting that is illuminated whenever Moriarty wants to communicate with any of his subordinates — his words emerge through a loudspeaker mounted on the ceiling just above the picture — and it’s clear Hiscott and his co-writers, unable to discern from the Conan Doyle stories just how Moriarty was supposed to have given orders to his subalterns, decided to copy the iconography of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse movies (though undoubtedly there were literary antecedents to the gimmick of the criminal mastermind posing as a respected member of society and therefore having to issue orders to his staff in cloak-and-dagger ways to preserve his incognito), especially when we cut to Ronald Adair playing cards (high-stakes bridge) and we get an extreme close-up of the cards themselves being dealt, reminiscent of the opening of the 1922 Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in which the other characters’ faces appear as cards held in Mabuse’s hand. The central intrigue of the movie — Moriarty’s gangsters break into banks but apparently don’t steal anything; Holmes, however, deduces that they’re actually stealing real currency and planting their own counterfeits in its place, then smuggling the real green to the Continent to destabilize the European economy — is also rather Mabusian.
Alas, the movie is mostly just dull; director Hiscott has absolutely no sense of pace or suspense (I couldn’t help but wish they could have borrowed Alfred Hitchcock from British International to direct, but not only was BIP a more prestigious studio than Twickenham but at the time The Sleeping Cardinal was filmed Hitchcock was preparing his early masterpiece, Rich and Strange) and scene after scene plods through pages of script, delivered in that mind-numbingly slow style that accursed all too many early talkies. (Sound recorder Baynham Honri’s credit is in the same size type as the director’s, a throwback to the earliest days of talkies in which the sound men were largely taking over the director’s function, from telling the actors when they should begin a scene to instructing them on how to read their lines and in particular not to interrupt each other, even though real people talking interrupt each other all the time.)
It’s an indication of how hard the writers worked to turn two fast-paced, thrilling stories into a slow and boring movie that the murder of Ronald Adair, which has already happened when “The Empty House” begins, doesn’t take place until 54 minutes into this 82-minute movie — and it also doesn’t help that Ronald Adair is such an annoying upper-class twit (he fell into Moriarty’s clutches when he started cheating at cards to maintain his and his sister’s financial position, and Moriarty caught him at it and blackmailed him) that he way overstays his welcome and we’re really not sorry to see him go when he finally does get killed. The film’s other problem is that Moriarty is operating under an assumed identity as “Col. Henslowe” (Norman McKinnell) and is only revealed as the villain at the end — though there’s an early scene that drops a Mack truck-sized hint when Henslowe, having just lost a game of cards to Adair, quickly calculates how much he owes Adair and the other characters comment on his being a genius at math — and therefore, until his “unmasking” scene, he can’t play Moriarty as the bravura villain George Zucco and Lionel Atwill made of the character in later Holmes films with Basil Rathbone.
But then again, and despite the horribly contrived nature of most of the scripts for Rathbone’s Holmes films (Universal’s licensing agreement specified that each installment had to draw on the Conan Doyle canon for some element — a plot twist, a dialogue exchange, a famous deduction — but they still stayed far away from the letter of Conan Doyle’s conception and only intermittently did justice to its spirit), Rathbone himself was so ideal for the role — he looked like he’d just stepped out of Sidney Paget’s illustrations and he was superb as both the cerebral Holmes and the man of action — that (to paraphrase the famous opening of Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) to me, Basil Rathbone will always be THE Sherlock Holmes.