Saturday, November 10, 1973 (Noon): Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) / Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Synopsis: Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) is working as head of a convalescent home for war veterans suffering from shell shock. The home is located in a wing of Musgrave Manor, a stately mansion in the English countryside. Geoffrey is the elder brother to Philip Musgrave (Gavin Muir), and both are set against their younger sister Sally (Hillary Brooke) marrying American pilot Capt. Pat Vickery (Milburn Stone) who has been recovering at the home.

Late one night Dr. Watson’s colleague Dr. Sexton (Arthur Margetson) staggers into the house with a stab wound on his neck. He says an unseen assailant attacked him as he walked toward the manor. Geoffrey assures him that he will launch an immediate investigation. Sexton is reluctant to do so, however, as he fears one of the patients at the home is likely to be implicated in the crime.

Watson returns to 221B Baker Street and implores his friend Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) to come out to Musgrave Manor to investigate, and Holmes immediately agrees. Upon arriving at the estate, the two see a piles of leaves raked up outside the door of the greenhouse, which strikes Holmes as suspicious. Underneath the leaves is the body of Geoffrey Musgrave.

Entering the house, they find that Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) has been summoned by the Musgrave family.

Lestrade learns that Capt. Vickery had been in an argument with Geoffrey regarding Sally the previous day, and he is taken into custody for murder. Later, Sally is required by family tradition to recite “the Musgrave ritual”, a series of riddle-like sentences that officially place her as next in line to the Musgrave estate behind Philip, now the Geoffrey is dead. When Sally falters in the recitation, butler Brunton (Halliwell Hobbs) prompts her.

Holmes later goes to speak to Brunton, who is inebriated in the servant’s quarters. Holmes demands to know how Brunton came to know the Musgrave ritual by heart. Brunton refuses to give a straight answer, and before long Philip finds Brunton drunk and fires him.

The next day Sally asks Holmes and Watson to help find Philip. His door had been locked, and when it was forced open no one was inside. Holmes soon finds Philip’s body, inside the rumble seat of Sally’s car….

Comments: The sixth of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce cycle of Sherlock Holmes movies, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death departs from Universal’s retooling of the stories as war espionage thrillers and instead offers a fairly standard Old Dark House mystery, albeit set in England during WWII.

It’s based on the Arthur Conan Doyle mystery “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, most of it taking place in the familiar Universal mansion set. The original story was told in flashback by Holmes to Watson, a break from the stories’ usual format, and for the movie version Watson is shoehorned into the action, rather improbably, as a doctor overseeing a convalescent home for soldiers.

In spite of these changes this film is actually more faithful to the original than many of the Rathbone / Bruce films, which tended to use elements of stories (like the secret cipher from the story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon) simply to fulfill a contractual obligation to base the movies on Conan Doyle stories.

In the end it’s a passable mystery story that sails by at a brisk pace (clocking in at less than 70 minutes) and demands little of the audience; if you are distracted enough to miss any of the plot points, either Watson or Lestrade will gamely reiterate them all for you.

Cult of the Cobra

Synopsis: At the end of World War II, six American servicemen are in south Asia, waiting to be returned to the U.S. and demobilized. They watch a street performer named Daru (Leonard Strong) do a snake-charming act and Paul Able (Richard Long), who is more curious than his fellows, strikes up a conversation with him. Daru tells Able that a Hindu snake cult called the Lamians operates in the area, and has an elaborate ceremony planned for that very night; when Able expresses interest, Daru says it is only open to members of the cult. But he adds that he is in great need of money, and if they men give him $200, he will take them to see it.

Paul gets his reluctant buddies to go in with him on the venture. That night, Daru gives each man a robe with a hood that will cover his face. He warns them not to speak or disrupt the ceremony in any way.

The men see two snakes transformed into two human dancers, but in the middle of the ceremony, a liquored-up Nick (James Dobson) decides to take a photo. The flashbulb is seen by everyone and the ritual descends into chaos. A fight breaks out between the American soldiers and the Lamians. Daru is stabbed to death for his sacrilege, and the American G.I.s barely get away with their lives. In the melee, the Lamian temple is burned down.

When the remaining G.I.’s catch up with Nick, they see him lying in the street, a beautiful veiled woman skulking away from him. Nick has been bitten by a cobra, and they bring him back to their base.

Hours later Nick is doing better, though still in the infirmary. He jokes around with Able and the other G.I.s. He is being held over for observation, and will miss the flight back to the U.S. with his friends.

But during the night, a snake comes in through the window and bites Nick; the next morning his friends are astonished to discover that he has died.

Back in the States, the friends stay in touch, which is made easier by the fact that they all live in New York. Paul and fellow ex-G.I. Tom Markel (Marshall Thompson) share an apartment. Pete Norton (William Reynolds) and Carl Turner (Jack Kelly) share an apartment nearby, and Rico (David Janssen) runs the family bowling alley in Greenwich Village.

Paul and Tom have been vying for the affections of the same girl, Julia Thompson (Kathleen Hughes). Julia has chosen Paul, and a fair amount of awkwardness ensues when she tells Tom the news. Despondent, Tom meets a beautiful woman who has moved in across the hall. Exotic Lisa Moya (Faith Domergue) is new in town, and she allows Tom to take her to take in all the sights New York has to offer, including baseball games and hot dog stands.

Tom is eager to be in a relationship and gratified at Lisa’s attention, but as soon as Lisa shows up, bad things start happening. Rico is killed, bitten by a cobra. When Tom introduces Lisa to his friends, a drunken Carl gets a bit too friendly and Tom decks him. Later, Lisa returns to the apartment to apologize to Carl, who eagerly lets her in. Moments later, Carl falls out the window of his apartment and is killed.

Paul tells Julia that he believes the Lamians have followed the G.I.s home and are exacting their revenge for desecrating their temple. Meanwhile, Pete Norton has begun to suspect that Lisa is connected, somehow, with the mysterious deaths. But when he confronts her she begins to change into the form of a cobra….

Comments: Viewers of a certain age will find the cast of this Universal thriller to be reassuringly familiar. Many of the actors went on to successful careers on television in the 1960s. Richard Long appeared in the western series The Big Valley and later the sitcom Nanny and the Professor; David Janssen starred in the hugely popular series The Fugitive; and Marshall Thompson became familiar to audiences in the syndicated series Daktari.

William Reynolds is less familiar as Pete Norton, but he is probably the most interesting actor of the bunch; he’s got a look and an intensity onscreen that might have made him a leading man, but he apparently had a tendency to rub directors the wrong way, and his career quickly flamed out.

Faith Domergue wasn’t a fixture on television either, though she did guest shots on various series through the 1960s. She was familiar to genre aficionados, having starred in This Island Earth (1955) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). She had originally been signed to a Hollywood contract by Howard Hughes, a man notoriously incapable of keeping his professional and personal lives separate. Domergue had a languid sensuality about her that only rarely came across in her film roles. While not a bad actress, she was distinctly lacking in range, and she found it difficult to carry off the romantic lead roles that she was assigned. In this film, playing a vengeful snake-woman posing as a wide-eyed newcomer to the city, she is actually pretty good, with her romantic role minimized; she is increasingly uncertain about her mission, and at the same time reluctantly falling for ridiculous man-child Tom.

Kathleen Hughes was being groomed for stardom by Universal at the time. She was prominently billed in It Came From Outer Space (1953) despite having only a walk-on part. She carries off the role of Julia without any trouble, but she isn’t terribly memorable.

The movie is well-paced, with each man is targeted in turn and Paul coming to realize that the Lamians are dead serious about exacting revenge, even halfway around the world. A primary point of conflict is that Tom refuses to believe Paul’s warnings about Lisa; he’s already lost Julia to Paul, and believes that Paul is now simply trying to torpedo his relationship with a new — perhaps even better — woman.

It’s hard to say today how Tom’s relationship with Lisa would have been viewed by audiences in the 1950s, but by today’s standards Tom seems painfully needy and immature. He is insanely possessive of Lisa, endlessly demanding to know where she’s been and who she has been seeing. He enters her apartment when she’s away (without her permission) and falls asleep on her couch waiting for her. He has little interest in her as a person; in fact he learns almost nothing about her in his zeal to take her to his favorite places in the city and show her off to his friends. Unfortunately, I suspect that midcentury audiences would have seen him simply as a “nice guy” whose jealousy and pettiness is held up as evidence of his serious intentions.

The movie is also cavalier about the transgressions of the American soldiers. Pete allows that the Lamians “had a right to be sore” but he doesn’t show a lot of remorse over the fact that he and his buddies intruded on a sacred ceremony, defiled a religious temple, got into a fistfight with the congregants and burned the place down (and, it should be noted, got their guide Daru killed). It’s all waved away because, after all, it’s a snake cult, not a real religion.

The world seems a lot smaller today than it did in 1955, and screenwriters can no longer get away with the sort of pseudo-mystical arglebargle that they once routinely invented. In a way that’s a pity, because I’d love to live in a world full of magic and mystery, where every country has hidden, inaccessible places and where anything is possible. But at the same time, we’re better off not thinking of other religions as deranged cults or hotbeds of vengeful were-snakes.

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4 comments

  1. With a heavy crush on Hillary Brooke, my father preferred her devious turn as THE WOMAN IN GREEN over this standard leading lady in SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH. Faith Domergue looks sexier in the poster than she does on screen, her final role opposite John Carradine in 1973’s THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES. William Reynolds actually gets top billing in Universal’s THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE in 1958, with Robin Hughes as the disembodied head searching for its body.

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  2. The Universal Sherlock Holmes series was on every Friday night at midnight on KSTP throughout most of 1971 preceding Horror Incorporated. There was also a show called Ski Scene that Kstp aired at midnight during winter months on Fridays that i would have to sit through before Horror Inc. came on. It was hosted, i think, by Barry Zevan the weatherman. Anybody else remember this?

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  3. Barry Zevan did indeed host Ski Scene for four years, starting in 1971. KSTP management was very happy with Zevan, but he took a job in I believe Detroit. He returned to the Twin Cities in the 1980s and hosted a show called “11 Ski Country” on WTCN / KARE. Here’s a great clip of Zevan doing the weather on channel 5 in 1971, and you get a look at KSTP’s infamous “blue monster” newsroom set: http://video.startribune.com/1971-barry-zevan-does-the-weather/95465244/

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    • Ah, the days when the weatherman (it was never a woman, or a trained meteorologist) would scribble up the weather map with a black marker. Very low tech stuff, but it worked.

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