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Rancid Popcorn » 2009 » March

Great Punches In Cinema History #6

The Legend of Frenchie King aka Les Petroleuses (Christian-Jacque, 1971)

Claudia Cardinale lays out Brigitte Bardot. It happens around the 1:20 mark. There’s more punching later in the clip, but the first one is the killer.

Please To Enjoy… #6

The Face of Another (Teshigahara, 1966)

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It’s one thing to blog about underappreciated films, or poorly remembered ones, culty things or beloved garbage. Writing about things you find to be real classics, canon-worthy stuff, is altogether different. It’s daunting. I’m far too much the middlebrow to think that I’m going to observe anything particularly new in Face of Another, or even reasonably comprehend/interpret everything it has to offer. All the same, it’s got so many stunner images and ideas that I can’t imagine passing up the chance to play with it a little. And of course, to recommend it.

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To put it as straightforwardly as possible, this is the story of a professional man, an engineer, whose face has been obliterated in an industrial accident. His face is wrapped, Claude Rains/Invisible Man style. His struggle is one of identity, and anger at what has been taken from him – how now does he relate to a world in which he is a monster, how to relate in a marriage when he believes his wife also sees him as a monster? How or whether to have a career, to make accomodation or demand it from others. A path to a different future is offered by a doctor (tellingly a psychiatrist) who has developed methods by which to create a fully-lifelike prosthetic face.

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This is about as existential as narrative film is likely to get, along with Solaris and the similarly themed if spectacularly less successful Vanilla Sky/Close My Eyes. The problem of the mask is whether it’s effect is to allow the wearer to reintegrate into society, or anonymously withdraw from it, and if in fact that’s a choice. The engineer, Okuyama, feels freer with the mask, but it’s simply made him look normal – he had that before, and chose entirely different behaviors. What does a face, false or real, signify about the identity and humanity behind it? Is having a face, any face, our real face, already the perfect disguise?

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Heady stuff. What I respond to firstly in the film is it’s sympathy to and connections with Victorian (and earlier) horror – Picture of Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein, even Invisible Man (no not just for the bandages). Duality, self-image, and internal battles of ids and egos were so much a part of these stories, and no less here. The doctor, who enables so much, becomes reminiscent of the Dr. Frankenstein of certain film versions of the story – although he’s not actively evil, he’s unhealthily fascinated by the nihlist possibilities available to his indentity-free creation, and is hungry to live through his patient – one gets the feeling it may be a trial run for creating a new face/identity for himself.

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Okuyama’s immediate concern is the alienation he feels from his wife. Despite her protestations and unfailing consideration, he is certain she is repulsed by him; she declines his advances in the nicest possible way, so he’s probably right. She’s played by Machiko Kyo, one the key leading ladies of 50s Japan, having been the center of the story of Rashomon for Kurosawa, a handful of big parts for Mizoguchi, including the ghostly Lady Wakasa in Ugetsu, and the actress in Ozu’s Floating Weeds. This is a late non-matronly leading role for her.

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A second, parallel story is introduced regarding a girl with her own facial problems. Teshigahara introduces with a brief use of a scope ratio:
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A gaggle of young men catcall at her and harass her to turn back to them – how this sort of thing could seem anything but horrifying to women I don’t know, but it seems rather common in Japanese cinema, moreso than in American or European films. She does turn and they get more than they bargained for.

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A monster of a different kind. Her counterpointing story of deformity and alienation takes up no more than 10-15% of screentime, yet it does much for the whole film, keeping the subject grounded in reality while the more science-fictional journey and madness of Okuyama plays out.

This girl’s story, told in just a few short periodic strokes, is the real tragedy of the piece, charting her own withdrawal from hurtful society. As we meet her, she works in an insane asylum – perhaps not the most nurturing environment. Although she seems to be practiced in trying not to be hurt by the revulsion of others, her world is one of inherent rejection. She retreats to the relative safety of assisting her brother in his labors. They seem to be family-less young people, with only each other in the world. This isolation also proves unhealthy.

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Having taken his case, the Doctor and Okuyama go in search of a face donor – trolling for poor young men who might be able to listen to a pitch like “We only wish to reproduce your pores and sweat glands” without freaking. Objectively it’s not really that bad, as copying his face will produce a non-lookalike on a different skull, and it’s not like they said, “We’d like to cut your nose off.” Yet somehow “reproduce your pores and sweat glands” manages to sound infinitely creepier. This poor random kid takes their money and they’ve got their gland swag.

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The transformation sequence begins. It is fascinating and quite the technical achievement – it’s a surprisingly convincing illusion, and Teshigahara doesn’t use many cuts – he keeps it right there in front of you.

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At around this time we get our first real view of the actor in the mask, Tatsuya Nakadai. A huge star, he’s a familiar face to anyone whose paid any particular attention to Japanese cinema in the last half-century. Westerners know him as the lead in Ran and Kagemusha for Kurosawa, the owner of the Sword of Doom, Human Condition, When a Woman Ascends The Stairs, Samurai Rebellion, the woodcutter in Kwaidan. He’s indelible for me from the first film I saw him in – Yojimbo, as Toshiro Mifune’s gun-toting nemesis. He’s an actor of great force yet great subtlety, and quite able to project charisma and cool when the part calls for it.

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Trying out various facial hair appliances. Searching for the personality to go with the face.

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Out for a test drive. Here is where the Doctor begins attempting to exact his real price – he wants the emotional details, all of them – what are you feeling, what are you thinking, what does this face make you want to do? Experimental observation, sure, but it’s quite nakedly beyond that. An unhealthy desire to live through his patient and his newfound freedom. For this mask, ostensibly made to allow him to participate freely in society, is also the means to societal freedom – no one knows him, he can go anywhere, do anything, not be identified. Normal social controls don’t apply. The Doctor encourages him to explore the possibilities, and report everything.

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Trying out a smile.

Our man begins to chart out a course – a double life. He rents not one but two apartments in the same building, posing as different people. He needs two because his mask has to come off for part of every day to avoid complications – this allows him to arrive bandaged, change into his mask and slip down the hall to apartment number two. This is the apartment he’s tricking out as his bachelor pad. It’s the multiple-dwellings version of the Mullet – business in the front, party in the back.

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Shopping at the department store for the accoutrements of a second identity. He’s having a great time. Is there any greater sign of independence than buying your own silverware?
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You could have done a version of this with the Doctor as the main character, with a different beginning/endpoint. He’s clearly a man with an agenda, flexible morality, and a lot of secrets (the affair with his nurse not particularly one of them).

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The first time they went to the bar together, Okuyama was sullen, pensive, ill-at-ease. The Doctor was gregarious. Okuyama has taken to his secret life, at a rate and depth that alarms even the ethically vague Doctor. Their moods have reversed as Okuyama’s confidence takes off. Seated at the table, they’ve literally changed places.

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Plan: Seduce own wife with second identity.

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Successful. Too successful. Fury at how quick she was to commit adultery.

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At the same time, a second encounter is occurring: while Okuyama’s alienation has generated anger with the world and a sense of being wronged, the scarred girl is enveloped by sadness and loneliness. She throws herself at her rather introverted brother. Both couplings beget tragedy and violence, one directed outward, one inward.

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Without identity, he feels immune from the controls of society, although if he were paying attention he’d notice that it really doesn’t make that much difference. The empowerment he feels is mostly psychological.

There’s so much to play with and chew on in this film. There are layers I can’t begin to analyze properly, so I won’t even try. Take some of these images presented apropos of nothing I understand:

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The Doctor’s office (always an artificial Brechtian-looking place anyway) with a door open showing a giant head of hair blowing.

And this. Before:

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After:

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Teshigahara’s most famous film is Woman In The Dunes, which, like Face of Another, is based on a novel by Kobo Abe and adapted by the author. For whatever reason, that film didn’t resonate with me as this one does. Perhaps it’s to do with a greater reliance on “in your face” symbology and allegory, perhaps it’s simply because Face tugs so insistently at my fondness for classic horror. Regardless, this gets a strong recommendation.

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Posters We Don’t Own #9

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Chuck Norris’ patriotism goes Missing In Action. Wring the tears out of your dress, Chuck.

Frank Miller’s Charlie Brown

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This isn’t all that film-related, except through a Sin City prism, but it’s too good to let go by. There’s another page of it as well, at Cinematical

Hat tip: Sullivan

Euro Stairs Of Horror! #3

Bloody Pit Of Horror (Pupillo, 1965)

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Records We Don’t Own #1

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I’m pretty sure he’s wearing his coat from Horror Express.

 

Mere Television #3

The Dean Martin Show

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Most inappropriate episode ever.

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Destructible Crocodile

Destructible Man, that formidable blog devoted to cinematic dummy violence, has initiated a blogathon for March focused on identifying animal dummy deaths. The proprietors there, the Flying Maciste Brothers, have invited others to make their own posting contributions, with the rule that comedies should be avoided (comedy pet dummy shenanigans being too easy a target I suspect – otherwise it might end up nothing but Ace Ventura caps).

I’ll confess it was a bit of a conundrum at first – all the possibilites I thought of didn’t seem to involve the dummy actually “dying”. I finally hit on a sentimental favorite – Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan was wont to carve up a fair few rubber animals in his day, none so happy-smile producing for me as his epic tumble with a crocodile in Tarzan and His Mate. It’s an oldie but a goodie, and I hope not too obvious to make mention of.

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Maureen O’Sullivan, aka Jane Parker, has jumped into the water to avoid a menacing snake in a tree. Pretty much instantly, this croc slips into the water to have a heart-to-heart with her. I lost count of how many jungle critters took a run at Jane in this flick, and that is no small part of its appeal. This may be the only shot of a real croc in the whole sequence.
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She calls up to Johnny, and we get The Yell. He’s on his way!
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Jane tries to swim away but is intercepted by Wally Gator..er.. Wally Crocodile. This is, as every giddy consumer of the complete That’s Entertainment! DVD set knows, the same MGM tank that Esther Williams cavorted in a decade or so later, totally sans crocs. The first dummy, a full scale one, makes it’s appearance.
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Now we go to double exposure, Jane swimming alone in her tank overlaid with a second exposure of a miniature model croc flitting about.
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Full scale model again, and its a mechanical one – it spins and spins and spins like a self-basting chicken on the world’s fastest rotisserie.
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Johnny hits the water. He really does show off those Olympic champion swimming skills, he gets a few seconds of screen time just to show how fast he can motor across the water surface.
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Boy meets dummy. Fill in your own joke.
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Jane, hearing over the loudspeaker that Adult Swim is over, gets out of the pool. Tarzan stays behind for protracted dummy wrasslin’.
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I imagine this is all meant to be thrilling, but I suspect that then as now it just looks like fun. Wild Waves park should consider installing a wicked-fast rotating croc dummy feature, the kids’d dig it.
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More double exposure, as the mini-puppet croc appears to attack real life Johnny.
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Full on puppet action! Ride ‘im, naked GI Joe doll! Or is “action figure” the politically correct term?
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Dummy death time. The full scale model takes a stabbing.
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Blood packs! We have blood packs! The blood cloud eventually expands to encompass both actor and dummy. Tarzan emerges from the water unscathed.

 
OK, that’s my dummy death contribution. Macistes can stop here, because I’m about to break their two rules: A dummy death from a comedy, and a dummy that has no violence perpetrated on it at all.
 

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There is no way I’m letting this topic go by without basking in the reflected glory of the greatest rubber shark evah.
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Who would want to repel this shark? Love it, take it to your bosom. Stop punching it in the snout Batman. It’s adorable, damn it!
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Who were those redneck talk show characters John Candy and Joe Flaherty did on SCTV? They’d always end by blowing up their guest and declaring that they “Blowed up good!” Well this shark doesn’t blow up good – it blows up great.

Lastly, a dummy that suffers no dummy violence at all, unless you count being dumped on a table in front of Claude Rains violent. This is virtually a throwaway, but its always been one of my favorite cinematic animal dummys, from The Adventures of Robin Hood:

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There’s no violence against the deer, seeing as how it’s already dead and all, but that doesn’t mean it can’t dole out the violence! Robin casually lays out a couple of guards just by swinging that bad boy around. As Joe Bob Briggs might call it, Deer Fu!
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Sure, it’s all jaunty smiles and dummy deers now, but it’ll all come to bloodshed soon enough. Thankfully, this proud animal carcass is not desecrated.

Mouse On Cat Violence #4

Polka-Dot Puss, 1949

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When Basil Met Nigel #6

The Scarlet Claw (Neill, 1944)

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The eighth outing for Bas n’ Nige as Sherlock and his friend the Human Bumble Machine. It is not at all unusual to find folk who hold it as their favorite of the whole set of 14. As corroborative evidence, I offer that perrrrfect barometer of public taste, IMDB ratings: Scarlet Claw is tied for the highest score there (7.9) with Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

That’s right about where I fall – my favorite is one of the two, and I guess I side with the Claw. They’re very different animals – Adventures Of is one of the two Fox-produced “A” pictures in the series, with attendant increase in scale and ambition. It also pointedly falls in line with it’s title, as adventure is emphasized. There’s lots of running around and jumping and fighting and attempts on people’s lives, and frequently no small amount of speed. It has atmosphere to be sure, but it is perhaps secondary to the narrative thrust.

Claw on the other hand, is one of the 12 Universal productions, thoroughly a “B” picture, probably shot in three weeks. It has few sets and a single-strand plot. Mystery and atmosphere is very much at the fore, not adventure. Even though it’s set in Canada in the present (1944) day, it’s extremely effective at capturing the feeling of foggy dread that made Conan Doyle’s rural Holmes stories so popular.

74 snappy minutes. In so well fulfilling its narrower ambitions, it makes great virtues of execution and simplicity and leaves me wanting more.
 

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Although the series wasn’t very consistent in terms of typeface for its title cards, this is the only example of decoration I’ve seen on one – little spots, no doubt intended to be spattered blood. A couple of interesting crew credits here as well. Paul Landres went on direct just a ton of television, including things like Bonanza and Maverick and quite a few episodes of Daktari, a series I can just vaguely recall. He also directed a few features, one of which is the quite underrated Return of Dracula from 1957. It has real atmosphere and a nice take on updating the vampire story=xenophobia stuff to 50s disney america. And that “Dialogue Director” there, that’s Stacey Keach Sr., dad of James and Stacey “Mike Hammer” Keach.

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In the small Canadian town of La Morte Rouge, the evening’s customers in Journet’s Inn sit funereally as a church bell rings solemnly in the night. Potts the postman says what many are thinking, that maybe its the Phantom, the local monster story from decades past, whom they suspect of being responsible for a rash of animal throat-slashings of late. The priest gets the gumption to go back to the church to check it out. Notice this now, because its fairly consistent: this is a world of carriages, not cars, and frequently of candle or gaslight, not the electricity that should be common. If this begins to remind you of Universal Monsterland, that misty dreamworld that was a mishmash of 1870s and 1940s, of indeterminate country, that contained so many of the Universal Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolf Man stories, then I am right there with you. I’ll bet it has sets reused from those series, although I’ve yet to spot one.

And this film is dark – dark dark. No day shots ’til the tag scene at the end, and people are usually in the shadows of whatever poor light there is.

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The bellrope is held by a dead woman, who died trying to summon help. Her throat is torn open.

Holmes & Watson are in Quebec, having a spirited discussion on the supernatural and the scientific, with the Royal Canadian Occult Society. Let’s say that again: Royal Canadian Occult Society. Royal? Royal??? Is this just marketing, like Royal Crown Cola, or do they actually have a commission? “The King is concerned with the state of seances in Canada. Please get a bunch of stuffy old landed gentry together to smoke pipes and sit in comfy armchairs discussing it.”

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This is probably what wealthy boys who like camping and telling ghost stories around the fire do when they grow up – they’d look like fools camping, so they form a Royal Society so they can turn out the lights and shine flashlights up their faces while still getting served Bombay and tonics. While at this meeting, a message comes for the occult standard bearer, Lord Penrose. His wife (the bellrope puller) has been murdered in La Morte Rouge. Played by series stalwart Paul Cavanagh, he hustles back home, certain the Phantom has done it and that Holmes wouldn’t understand such things.

Our heroes find they must follow him – they find him in his house, holding almost mesmeric vigil over his wife. Director Roy William Neill does a great job on this film, but I wish he’d held this setup with Lord Penrose longer than the instant he does – its quite creepy and might have pressed the occult point harder.

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Nigel with a rifle. Now I feel safe. The girl is Marie Journet, daughter of the Innkeeper. She lets slip to Holmes her father’s fears and plans to go away. She’s played by Kay Harding, a contract Universal player who only did a handful of other things for them, this by far her biggest break. I think she did a very nice job, but apparently forlorn and doomed isn’t that hard to pull off. Hollywood was soon done with her.

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Slap! Her father Journet is unhappy with secrets getting out. The poor actor is obviously trying not to let her have it too hard. You don’t see a lot of man on girl slaps in old movies, or else I’m just not noticing. Even halfhearted, it’s startling.

Throats ripped by an animal? Or your garden variety (literally) weeder?

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I love maps in movies. Okay, this is a good moment to deal with the name of this town: La Morte Rouge. Yes, it’s The Red Death. What names did the town founders have to reject to think that was a good one? The Green Castration? The Orange Leprosy? The funny thing is, it turns out that several characters actually chose to move there in the last two years.

Let’s address another thing at this point: it’s Canada, yes? Near Quebec. So why is it that virtually everyone has an English accent? Journet is a little more American sounding, his daughter takes a stab at French Canadian, but everyone else – the priest, the postman, the judge, Lord Penrose, his butler, practically all the other speaking parts – Englishmen. The town cop goes for a Scottish accent. Where are we again exactly? Canada Schmanada, we’re in Generic Foggy English Village, a suburb of Universal Monsterland.

In the next cap, a nice drunk act going on. When one guy is playing drunk in a scene, it could go either way. When two or more are playing drunk, it’s almost always good value. Nigel and Gerald Hamer as Potts the postman ham it up. I like how Potts looks like he’s toking up. Gerald Hamer appeared in five Holmes films, and is the father of Robert Hamer, who directed several interesting features in England, not least Kind Hearts and Coronets.

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Holmes out prowling for the Phantom. Now if it hadn’t been clear before that this is a gloss on the plot of Hound of the Baskervilles, it should be so by this point. One of the things that makes this a better film for me than Hound is that that film is hamstrung by Conan Doyle’s tendency to drop Holmes for large sections of his novel-length stories. It’s alright on paper but not so much for cinema. In this streamlined knockoff, Holmes’ withdrawal from the Baskerville story has it’s equal in just this one scene out on the marshes – which of course he’s actually front and center in, so’s he’s never absent at all. Cinematic problem solved, and this film is better than Hound.

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This effect of The Phantom running through the marshes is terrific, much better than the glowing dog in the ’39 Hound of the Baskervilles, or indeed any filming of that story I can think of.

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Of course Watson’s gotta fall in a bog running off to help Holmes, because like the kids say, that’s how he rolls. He does have a genuinely nice line to Holmes, upbraiding him quietly for secretly going on the hunt alone: “I have a right to share your adventures.”

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A new suspect emerges, an itinerant fisherman. Love the scar. He’s tracked to his hideout, but escapes by crashing through an window and jumping into the river below, the police blasting away as he swims.

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A Psycho/Dressed To Kill moment. The old judge, hiding in his home with an odd sense of foreboding, calls to his housekeeper for assistance. All the while, Holmes is outside pounding on the door. Great stuff, could have been played out even longer.

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Holmes finds the real housekeeper stuffed undressed in a closet. He ungags her, and snaps at her to tell him who did it. The destroyed, weeping woman huffs out that she doesn’t know. Rathbone gives us absolutely true to character Holmes – he immediately dismisses her as being useless and goes on his way. The police are on their way, but he’s not going to bother hanging around comforting this abused creature, he’s going to leave her crying in a dark house with a corpse and get on to business. Dude is stone cold.

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Cornered by the still-mystery killer, Holmes is saved by Watson’s brave and totally planned distraction of tumbling down the stairs. Nigel, I trust, was enjoying tea while his stuntman got on with it.

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The Inn was like a morgue at the beginning, now it’s all hootin’ and hollerin’ – they’ve gotten the idea the Phantom is gone. Our heroes know better, and in the back room find his latest work – Marie Journet. What’s interesting about this is how the boys play it. It’s kind of horrible, not just one of the simple good guys n’ bad guys whodunit murders that have as much emotional impact as Daffy Duck getting his beak comically shot off. A true innocent was murdered, and Nigel drops the doofus act for a minute and speaks reasonably about what must have happened. Basil, for his part, looks genuinely hurt. He doesn’t seem to have the heart to “ratiocinate” about it.

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A trap is sprung, and the killer is unmasked in the foggy marshes. Holmes/Watson and a couple dozen townsmen are there to close off the escapes, along with…a Bobby? Again – WHERE THE HELL ARE WE?

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All wrapped up, and Holmes, again true to character, is more than content to see cowboy rather than courtroom justice administered. Watson, seeing a bog, feels compelled to fall in one more time. Just doin’ how he do.

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