Sherlock Holmes has settled down for a long retirement in the country when he is drawn into one last struggle with his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. This time the two clash over the strange murder of a country squire, the motivation for which seems to lie in the man’s past in America…
Arthur Wontner’s fourth appearance as the Great Detective finds him entangled in an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s 1914 novel ‘The Valley of Fear.’ Although Moriarty was only referenced in that story (set before ‘The Final Problem’) here actor Lyn Harding is back in fine, snarling form as the good Professor. He’s not very subtle, but it’s a decent contrast with Wontner’s laid-back performance. Also returning is Ian Fleming (the actor, not the writer!) and the chemistry between him and Wontner is improving all the time. Fleming gives Watson just a touch of pomposity, and it’s interesting to wonder just how familiar Nigel Bruce was with his portrayal before he tackled the role.
The other major departure from the source material, apart from the much increased presence of Moriarty, is that we start with Holmes in retirement keeping bees, but it’s not long before he’s received both a mysterious message and a visit from old friend Inspector Lestrade. Then it’s off to Burlstone Castle to investigate the murder of John Douglas. As in the novel, there is an extended American flashback outlining the backstory to the crime and, of course, this leaves Wontner sidelined for about 20 minutes. This is obviously unfortunate, although the striking presence of Roy Emerton in these sequences in the role of BodyMaster McGinty is some compensation. The flashback is also problematical in a historical sense, the events of the original story being based on a Pinkerton agent’s infiltration of the notorious Molly Maguires in the 1870s. Not a problem on Doyle’s timeline, of course, but the film is obviously set in modern times.
The only bad guy present in both parts of the tale is Ben Welden, a short, balding actor who went to Hollywood and became a familiar face as a featured ‘heavy’ in many famous films, including ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946), ‘The Roaring Twenties’ (1939) and ‘Dangerously They Live’ (1941). His career ended less notably in bottom of the barrel material such as the unintentionally hilarious ‘Killers From Space’ (1954) and ropey serial ‘The Adventures of Captain Africa’ (1955).
Technically, things have moved on considerably since Wontner’s first appearance as Holmes in ‘The Sleeping Cardinal’ (1931), which was a bit on the stuffy side, but the film still lacks the pizzazz of a Hollywood production of the period. A good thing, some might say, but at times proceedings are a little heavy-handed when they really need to fly. It’s interesting to see that Moriarty had become the ‘villain in residence’ in this U.K. series; perhaps a sign of the indelible impression Doyle made on the British public with the death struggle between the Professor and the Great Detective above the falls at Reichenbach.
Given the climax, it may well have been intended as the last in the series, but Holmes actually returned two years later in ‘Silver Blaze’ (1937). No retirement or beekeeping is mentioned in that one, though!