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The Woman in Green

The Woman in Green(1945)

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teaser The Woman in Green (1945)

Basil Rathbone had been in motion pictures for nearly two decades before he made his first appearance as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1938). He was a highly accomplished stage and screen actor with a good critical reputation, and a particular audience favorite for the number of villains he played: Karenin, opposite Greta Garbo, in Anna Karenina (1935), Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), showing his Shakespearian chops as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936), and the dastardly Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). But after his success in a string of films featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal detective, Rathbone found it harder and harder to escape typecasting. After his last appearance as Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946), he made only two more pictures in that decade, a handful in the 1950s and a few more before his death in 1967. Oddly, his last "role" -nearly 20 years after he died -was once again as the great detective. For its animated movie The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney sampled several of Rathbone's earlier works to come up with a vocal imitation of a cartoon Holmes.

The Woman in Green was a late entry in the Rathbone/Holmes series, eleventh out of fourteen (fifteen, if you count his cameo in Crazy House, 1943). In this one, Scotland Yard asks Holmes to assist in the investigation of a string of murders in which the victims, all beautiful women, have had a digit from their hands amputated after death. The trail leads Holmes to a beautiful but dangerous hypnotist, the woman in green of the title, in league with his old nemesis, Moriarty (back for another round of evil-doing despite his having been killed off in a previous film).

The title character is played by Hillary Brooke, probably best known today as a frequent co-star and foil for Abbott and Costello, both in films and on TV. With apparently the same type of logic that kept bringing Moriarty back from the dead, this was Brooke's fourth appearance in the Rathbone/Holmes series (each time as a different character). But she always found the projects enjoyable to work on. "Basil was constantly fooling around on the set," she later said. "We had a scene in [this] picture where the two of us were in a cocktail lounge. For some reason, the sequence was taking a long time to shoot so, to break the monotony, we pretended we were getting drunk - with the scene ending by both of us sliding under the table and passing out...The only complainer on the set was Henry Daniell - invariably getting upset when things were delayed. He was a great Moriarty, though."

Critics agreed with Brooke, proclaiming Daniell the best arch-villain of all. He never returned to the role, however. Over the years the character has been played by a number of well-known actors, including Laurence Olivier, John Huston, Vincent D'Onofrio and, as a much younger version of the evil-doer, teen idol Devon Sawa in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes Returns (1993).

Returning for the twelfth time as Dr. Watson (he would play it 15 times in all) is Nigel Bruce, whose characterization, while popular and injecting some humor into the dark Holmes stories, was rather more bumbling and silly than Conan Doyle created him. The role has also attracted a number of top actors, among them Ben Kingsley, Robert Duvall, James Mason and John Mills (father of Hayley).

Rathbone may have been the most famous and popular of all the Holmeses, much to his dismay, but there have been many others: Michael Caine, Peter Cushing, Stewart Granger, Charlton Heston, Frank Langella, Raymond Massey, Peter O'Toole, etc. None of them, however, achieved the degree of identification with the character Rathbone did. People used to come up to the actor on the street and ask for Holmes' autograph, not his. Although he returned to the stage in the late 1940s, winning a Tony Award for his 1946 portrayal of Dr. Roper in The Heiress, and kept busy in film and TV for the next two decades, he never quite escaped the Holmes mold. "When you become the character you portray," he once said ruefully, "it's the end of your career as an actor."

Producer/Director: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser, based on the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Editing: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Martin Obzina
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Watson), Henry Daniell (Moriarty), Hillary Brooke (Lydia Marlow), Paul Cavanagh (Sir George Fenwick).

by Rob Nixon

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