Released: 17th September 1943
Release Order: 6 of 14
Hillary Brooke

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is another of my favourites in the series, and one of the best. It's based on the original story, The Musgrave Ritual and it takes place in the old and windswept Hurlston Towers. The plot revolves around the Musgrave family, their old family ritual and the secrets it holds. It features my favourite minor character in the series; Alfred BruntonHalliwell Hobbes, an old soak of a butler who fancies himself a poet. And he likes cats.

Synopsis

¡Contains spoilers!

In a great opening scene somewhere in Northumberland, a pub landlord regales two sailors with the tale of Hurlston Towers, ancestral home to the Musgrave family. He tells them that a curse hangs over the family and that the locals are wary of the wind-ravaged old pile, and he warns them to keep clear.

Dr. Watson is serving as resident doctor at Hurlston, as the owner Geoffrey Musgrave has given over part of the house as a convalescence home for military personnel suffering from shell shock. Watson's assistant, Dr Bob Sexton, is attacked and Geoffrey Musgrave promises an investigation. Watson travels back to London and enlists the help of his old friend Sherlock Holmes, who jumps at the chance to help.

As soon as they arrive at Hurlston, Holmes discovers the body of Geoffrey Musgrave beneath a pile of dead leaves outside the greenhouse. Inspector Lestrade is already at Hurlston and when Holmes tells him of the murder, he goes to examine the body while Watson introduces Holmes to some of the peculiar residents convalescing at Hurlston; Lt Clavering, Capt. MacIntosh and Major Langford.

Lestrade interrogates another resident, Capt. Vickery, the current beau of Sally Musgrave and there's flimsy evidence against him but Lestrade arrests him anyway. Vickery is led of to the cells, leaving a very distraught Sally Musgrave. Her elder brother Phillip is the new head of the household, and now that Sally is second in line, she has to perform the Musgrave Ritual; she's to recite an ancient, seemingly meaningless bit of verseThe Musgrave Ritual:

Who first shall find it, were better dead
Who next shall find it, perils his head
The last to find it defies dark powers
And brings good fortune to Hurlston Towers.
Where was the light?
On the face of the messenger
Where did he speed?
To guard the queen's page
What fell and advanced?
The bishop's page, rashly
And who to repel?
The king's cautious page
What then the disaster?
Page slaughters page
Who came then to slay him?
The bloodthirsty bishop
Where shall he go?
Deep down below.
Away from the thunder, let him dig under.
in front of the entire household.

The butler, Alfred Brunton, prompts Sally Musgrave when she gets a line wrong during the speech so Holmes questions him soon after to find out what he knows of the ritual's meaning. The resulting scene with Holmes and Brunton is one of the best in the film, and at the end, the inebriated Brunton is sacked by Phillip Musgrave.

Brunton goes missing during the night and so Holmes and Watson go in search of him, making their way to the village pub. Sally Musgrave comes in looking for Holmes as her brother Phillip has also gone missing. Charlie, the pub's tame raven, pecks at Sally's car as they leave and Holmes realises that there's a body inside; Phillip Musgrave is no longer missing, he's been murdered and hidden in the boot.

Holmes and Watson return to Hurlston where they discover footprints that show someone has gone through a secret panel in the wall. Lestrade assumes it was Brunton and goes into the secret passages behind the panel to look for him. Holmes leaves him to it and goes up to Sally's room where he finds a copy of the Hurlston ritual. He deduces that the verse refers to a game of chess.

A reception hall in the house has a life size chess board laid out on the floor and so Holmes sets up a chess match using the staff and residents of Hurlston as the various pieces. The square of the last move of the game has the secret hidden below it, in an old forgotten crypt that's been sealed up for centuries after a Musgrave murdered his own brother in there.

Holmes returns to the crypt and using Lt. Clavering's audio equipment, he locates the spot directly below the chess square in the hall above, as a maid stamps her shoe upon it. He discovers the body of Brunton and also a 12th century Crown Grant, which would make the owner extremely wealthy. Holmes sets a trap for the killer by pretending that Brunton has left a message in the dirt on the floor of the crypt.

Holmes makes out that he will return later to the crypt with some chemicals with which to treat the message and make it legible. Holmes goes back down to the crypt later that night, the killer falls into his trap and is there to confront him.

Although Holmes is held at gunpoint, he manages to get a confession from the killer; Dr Sexton. Sexton shots at Holmes but he feigns death as the gun is loaded with blanks. Lestrade and Watson then appear and arrest Dr Sexton as he tries to make his escape. The Crown grant would have made Sally Musgrave the largest land owner in England, but she throws the grant into the fire, rather than turf hundreds of people out of their homes. Bless her.

The film closes with Watson and Holmes driving home in an open car, Holmes speaks of “a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out.” Lamentably, that was one of those uncommon occasions when Holmes was wrong. At least for now.

Quotes

Quotes
Watson: Hurlston? Grim old pile. Very spooky.
Holmes: Don't tell me that you met a ghost?
Watson: No, not so spooky as that. Ghosts don't stab people in the neck, do they? Or do they?
Holmes: Not well-bred ghosts, Watson.
Holmes: These egomaniacs are always so much more chatty when they feel they have the upper hand.
Brunton: But here's to them anyway, all the Musgraves past and present. Some of them were murderers, and some of them worse. But they all knew how to keep a secret. And so do I.
Pub raven: I'm a devil, I'm a kettle.
Clavering: Birds of prey aren't they?
Holmes: Yes, in a way, scavengers rather. They can smell a carcass half a mile off.
Gracie: Eee, that they can an' all. You should see Charlie here when there's a tasty bit outside n'street.
Director: Roy William Neill
Running Time: 78 minutes
Basil RathboneNigel BruceRathbone and Bruce
Favourite Quote
I've no wish to be a sweet old soul.
– Geoffrey Musgrave
Favourite Character
Alfred Brunton
Miscellaneous
Hillary Brooke, an American, always spoke in a British accent throughout her film career.
Look Out For
A young Peter Lawford playing the young sailor in the opening scene.

Holmes shooting bullet holes into Mrs Hudson's wall plaster, just as in the original story, The Musgrave Ritual

Hillary Brooke's impeccable English accent.

The pub landlord's ominous warning to the sailors about Hurlston.