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The Sherlock Holmes character has become so connected in the minds of moviegoers with actor Basil Rathbone, and to a lesser degree among television viewers with Jeremy Brett's portrayal, that it's hard to imagine anyone else having played the part with any success. Yet there are those out there who claim the best of all the cinematic Holmeses was Arthur Wontner, who portrayed the character in five films between 1931 and 1937.
A well-known actor on the stage since 1897, Wontner made his film debut in 1916 and appeared in Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour (1931), the first of his Holmes movies, at the age of 56. Ironically, he was cast largely on the strength of his performance in a 1930 stage production featuring a character who was basically a pulp fiction knock-off of Sherlock Holmes. Wontner's interpretation of the famous detective is more low-key and studious than Rathbone's, an asset in the minds of many Holmes aficionados, although most agree that Rathbone was rather closer to Arthur Conan Doyle's more energetic and nervy creation, as opposed to Wontner's "armchair detective." All three portrayers resemble the look associated with the character since his inception, created by illustrator Sidney Paget for the original publication of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories in The Strand magazine between July 1891 and December 1892. Despite this, Rathbone comes closest to the conception while Wontner appears as a beyond-middle-age version of Holmes and not how most people envisioned him.
Less successful in the minds of critics, however, was Ian Fleming (no relation to the creator of 007) in the role of Watson. Nevertheless, Fleming played the part opposite Wontner in four more pictures. Many fans find Fleming's portrayal of a reasonably intelligent Watson preferable to Nigel Bruce's dithering comic foil in the Rathbone series.
The plot of Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour was cobbled together from elements of two Conan Doyle stories, "The Empty House" and "The Final Problem," and in combining the two, brings the intrepid sleuth face to face with a wide range of crimes and evil deeds, including counterfeiting, murder, even treason, all of which, of course, are perpetrated by Holmes' arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The British release of the film was titled The Sleeping Cardinal, a reference to Moriarty's scheme to hide behind a portrait of a dozing Cardinal Richelieu while he forces a young man in serious debt to choose between helping him carry out his dastardly plot or commit a more honorable suicide.
Although produced at London's Twickenham Studios, Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour was actually financed by Warner Brothers in a move that became more and more common for American studios. Because of the growing popularity of Hollywood films in the U.K., the British government acted to protect their own industry by establishing a quota system in 1928 requiring exhibitors and distributors to devote a significant percentage of screen time to domestic product. To get around this, Warners and other U.S. companies set up their own production units in England to keep the product rolling but profits still flowing into their stateside coffers.
One of the extra touches that made Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour a hit with audiences and critics was its opening sequence: the robbery of the Bank of England shot entirely in silhouette and almost entirely silent.
Director: Leslie S. Hiscott
Producer: Julius Hagen
Screenplay: Leslie S. Hiscott, H. Fowler Mear, Cyril Twyford
Cinematography: Sydney Blythe, William Luff>br>Editing: Jack Harris
Art Direction: James A. Carter
Original Music: John Greenwood
Cast: Arthur Wontner (Sherlock Holmes), Ian Fleming (Dr. John Watson), Philip Hewland (Inspector Lestrade), Jane Welsh (Kathleen Adair), Norman McKinnell (Prof. Moriarty).
by Rob Nixon