FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
WOMAN IN GREEN, the eleventh film to star the Rathbone-Bruce team as Holmes and Watson, pits the Great Detective's mind against the subtleties of hypnotic manipulation. It's not as solid a script as most of the Universal features, but it's never dull and projects a haunting quality throughout.
The title "Woman in Green" may have puzzled some audiences, given that it seems to concern a male antagonist at the outset. The film opens by informing the audience that three young women have been murdered in London; women who have nothing in common except the way their killer mutilates them, removing one finger from each victim's hand. This surgical procedure seems designed to remind audiences of the depredations of Jack the Ripper, whom Doctor Watson mentions, though the Victorian serial killer no longer occupies the same time-frame as Universal's Holmes. The detective, having studied the case, believes that there's some rational plot behind these repetitive acts of violence, though he has no clues as such and fails to prevent a fourth victim from being killed. While Holmes is in a bar with a Scotland Yard contact-- Inspector Gregson, standing in for the more familiar Inspector Lestrade (who would return for one more appearance in TERROR BY NIGHT)-- the detective happens to notice a "woman in green" drinking with an aristocrat named Sir George Fenwick. Holmes calls Gregson "naive" when Gregson wonders if the young woman might be Fenwick's daughter, and makes the casual observation that the woman is "not born to the purple, but giving an excellent imitation." When Fenwick leaves with the woman, Holmes idly wonders where they're going, and Gregson gets the chance to return Holmes' "naive" barb.
This exchange manages to suggest a incipient sexual liaison in the most indirect manner possible. But as indirect as it is, it's one of a very few such references in the Universal series, which in contrast to the Doyle stories tended to avoid references to sexual acts of any questionable nature. The audience follows Fenwick and his date Lydia (Hillary Brooke) to her quarters, where without his cognizance she places him under a hypnotic trance. He wakes up elsewhere, hearing the morning papers announce a new "finger murder"-- and soon the audience sees what Sherlock will learn later: that Fenwick is one of several men who has placed in circumstances that make them look culpable of the murders, for purposes of blackmail. In fact, the head of the blackmail ring is none other than Sherlock's old foe Moriarty (Henry Daniell), whom Sherlock believes to have been hanged in another country.
Fenwick pays off the blackmailers, but the aristocrat's erratic behavior causes his concerned daughter to consult London's foremost detective. Moriarty has apparently kept tabs on his victim, for once the villain knows that Sherlock's been brought in, he has the aristocrat killed. Yet Moriarty isn't the least bit concerned about covering his trail, for somewhat later he shows up at Holmes' quarters, making a futile effort to warn the detective not to meddle. The far-sighted fiend sets things up so that Holmes must release him, since one of Moriarty's henchmen stands ready to execute Watson-- though the dimwitted doctor is utterly unaware of his danger.
There follows an attempt by Moriarty on Holmes' life, patterned roughly after a sequence from Doyle's "Adventure of the Empty House," but with a major change-up: the man who tries to assassinate Holmes is not a Moriarty henchman, but an innocent enthralled by Lydia's hypnotism. Holmes and Watson seek out a society of hypnotists in order to get close to Lydia and garner evidence to convict both her and Moriarty. The scene at the hypnotists' society leads to considerable humor at the expense of Watson, while Holmes' interaction with Lydia leads her to attempt putting his intellect under her control. Moriarty's plot is exposed, but in escaping the police he falls to his apparent death-- one of the few times that there would seem to be no way to mistake the fact of his demise. As far as the Universal series was concerned, it did take, since Moriarty made no appearances in the last three films of the series.
The greatest logical objection to the script is that if Moriarty and Lydia's real concern was to reap hefty amounts of blackmail-loot, then one would think that the last place they would have showed up would have been London, where Holmes would automatically be called in to consult. Nor does Moriarty seem to have planned his newest criminal exploit with an eye to attracting Holmes' attention, though some of the villain's dialogue suggests that he looks forward to another tilt with his eternal foe. Lydia's role consequently diminishes once the Professor comes into the tale, though the script is careful to lay out the boundaries of her mesmeric art in quasi-naturalistic terms.
Though the criminal motivations are not very logical, the script is strong in its use of inverted symbolism. I don't know the precise state of "Ripperology" in 1945, but I suspect that by that time someone had advanced the theory that the Ripper was an aristocrat who went out at night and murdered prostitutes at the behest of a demented psyche. WOMAN IN GREEN takes that Ripper-trope and inverts it; women are being killed, not out of sexual perversion, but to make money.
Holmes has an odd, not entirely satisfying homily at the film's conclusion:
I'm thinking of all the women who can come and go in safety in the streets of London tonight. The stars watch in the heavens, and in our own little way, we too, old friend, are privileged to watch over our city.
The phrasing reminds me of Browning's line: "God's in his heaven / All's right with the world." But more than many Holmes films, one may wonder if all is right in London, even with Holmes and Watson watching over things. Moriarty's plot hinges upon the idea that single, wealthy British aristocrats will fear having the "finger" of psychotic criminal activity pointed their way. for no better reason than that they are single and wealthy, and thus may be given to killing off the women of lower classes out of demented impulses.
In addition, though Moriarty is behind the plot as such, the innocents' deaths only come about because of another woman, who uses both her beauty and her persuasive arts to beguile men, and convince them that they too might be Rippers in disguise. WOMAN IN GREEN, then, may not concern Jack the Ripper directly, but it suggests how often the legend of the infamous serial killer influenced ideas about the nature of British society, and how those "born to the purple" fare in comparison with those of lesser station.