Sherlock Holmes - The Definitive Collection Review
Sherlock Holmes holds the distinction for being the most filmed literary character ever. Even by 1939, the year Basil Rathbone first donned the deerstalker, he had appeared on screen over sixty times, starting in 1903 with the brief oddity Sherlock Holmes Baffled. Before Rathbone, the most prolific Holmes was the now all-but-forgotten Ellie Norwood who starred forty-seven times as the detective in a series of silent shorts between 1921 and 1923, most of which are now sadly lost. Norwood was a slightly odd choice as Holmes, being over sixty when he was cast, but as he had the approval of none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who said of the actor “His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me,” who are we mere mortals to quibble? In 1929 Sherlock entered the talkie era with Clive Brook taking the role in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, an American film produced by one David O Selznick. Brook played Holmes a total of three times, but the best Holmes of the 1930s is generally considered to have been Arthur Wontner, who, like Norwood, was also considerably older than the literary character but managed to carry the part off with distinction in four popular films, ranging from 1932-7, all of which were British productions. (Wontner later also played the detective in a series of famous BBC plays, as well as once on television in 1951).
In 1939 Selznick picked up the mantle again and in doing so set an indelible mark on Holmes the Screen Star from thereon in. There are a couple of stories of how Basil Rathbone was cast in the role: one has the legendary producer meeting the actor at a dinner party and remarking that he would make a perfect Holmes, another that Gene Markey, another producer at the time, mentioned that Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would make an ideal pairing to Zanuck, who thought it a splendid idea. However he came to the part, there could be little doubt that, physically at any rate, Rathbone was an ideal choice, his aquiline features a pretty close match to the original illustrations by Sidney Paget which had accompanied the first short stories in the Strand Magazine. Up until that point Rathbone had been busy making a name for himself with increasingly large parts in movies throughout the 1930s, most notably as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (for which he was Oscar-nominated in 1936) and as Guy of Gisbourne in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). As can be seen from these two credits he was no stranger to playing icons of literature already, but from the moment he first appears in dressing gown and slippers smoking the famous pipe, there was only one role for him as far as audiences were concerned. He simply was Sherlock Holmes, in a way that no one before him had been, and, whether he liked it or not, he was fated to remain with the character for the remainder of his life (and beyond: his voice is used as the detective’s in Disney’s Basil, The Great Mouse Detective, released in 1986, nineteen years after his death). As for any actor, being typecast in one role was both blessing and a curse to Rathbone; it cemented his reputation for all time but at the same time ensured that audiences would never again see him in any other light. He left the film series after making fourteen films (a decision that surprised Bruce) and moved to New York, but met with only limited success. Finally giving into public demand, he returned to the role in a Broadway production simply called Sherlock Holmes which his wife Ouida wrote (which surprisingly flopped) and thereafter seemed reconciled with his fate, even occasionally taking the mickey of his alter-ego by appearing on things like The Bob Hope Show on television. He wrote in his autobiography that he had grown tired by being asked for an autograph not as himself but as Sherlock Holmes, but when he died, in 1967, he had come to terms with what his legacy was to be – the definitive cinematic Holmes.
But no one was to know that at the time Selznick first cast him for Fox and indeed, there was some doubt at the studio about the potential for the film. The story chosen for the first outing (for the ever-ambitious Selznick already had plans to make a series, if the first was a hit) was that most recorded of all Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had already been adapted a number of times for the screen. However, despite that title's undoubted popularity, as well as the high regard for Holmes in general among the public, executives were still wary and felt that it needed an extra selling point to bolster up its chances of success at the box office. Their secret weapon was to bring in Richard Greene, a popular matinee idol, and cast him in the pivotal role of Sir Henry Baskerville, giving him top billing in the film’s credits. (Even now, given our knowledge of the resulting popularity of the Rathbone/Bruce films, it is possible to read this first instalment as not their film at all but Greene’s, his character having a complete arc, complete with wedding bells at the end). The Fox board needn’t have worried – in the year of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, The Hound of the Baskervilles was one of the studio’s biggest successes, so much so that a second adventure was speedily rushed into production, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This time Rathbone and Bruce didn’t need any extra support and received top billing, while screenwriters Edwin Blum and William A Drake ensured Sherlockians were well satisfied by adding into the mix the detective’s arch-enemy, the villainous Professor Moriarty, played here by George Zucco.
Unfortunately, despite this second film being given the thumbs up by audiences, it was to be the last Rathbone that Fox produced. The studio felt, in view of the worsening international situation, that Sherlock Holmes was a bit of a relic, a leftover from a simpler time that didn’t really have much relevance to an audience who were now faced with the reality of a world war. However, Rathbone and Bruce were not kept out of work – during the three years that passed until Universal decided to give them another on-screen outing, they starred as the duo forty-three times on the radio, to much acclaim (even if the episodes themselves take some extreme liberties with their source material). In 1942 Universal decided that maybe Holmes did have a part to play in the continuing conflict, and brought him out of retirement and bang up to date in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. In a radical departure from the two Fox productions (which had both been set in the correct time frame of the 1890s) this was an adventure set squarely in what was then the present day, Holmes trying to track down a Lord Haw-Haw like character who made taunting broadcasts to the people of Britain about their impending downfall to the Nazis. This anachronistic use of Holmes was explained away by an opening caption which read: “Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving the significant problems of the present day he remains – as ever – the supreme master of deductive reasoning.” (Poppycock, as Bruce’s Watson is often heard to exclaim). This was a pretty rotten film but was extremely well received at the time (at the box office if not by the critics) and set in stone the future for the franchise. Universal made a deal with the Conan Doyle estate to produce three Holmes films a year, a caveat being that two out of those three must be based on one of the original stories (something which was only adhered to very loosely indeed). Over the next four years Rathbone and Bruce starred in a total of twelve films, the majority of them directed by Roy William Neill, and in the process cemented their reputations as the cinematic Holmes and Watson, something that remains pretty much unchallenged to this day.
But what is it about their interpretation of the dynamic duo that merits such praise? Paradoxically, what may lurk at the heart of their popularity is that they are by no means the most faithful adaptation of the literary characters brought to the screen, instead playing much more cinema-friendly versions. Rathbone may look the part but his Holmes is a far warmer man than the cold intellectual of Conan Doyle’s stories. His affection of Dr Watson in particular, not demonstrated often in the books, is manifest here in almost every scene the two appear in. Whether it be a simple smile on the part of Rathbone when Bruce’s Watson has put his foot in it again, or their discussing their fears and concerns about what is happening, these are obviously two men with a very special bond indeed, kinsmen who would be incomplete if one or the other was lost. Their dynamic is set up as early as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in a nice little scene that shows perfectly both their relationship and Holmes’ deep affection for his friend. Once again Watson has made a mess of an assignment Sherlock has sent him out on, much to the detective’s frustration, which he vents on the hapless medic. Watson is crestfallen and Holmes, seeing this, relents and says, “Watson, you are the most incorrigible bungler,” before patting him affectionately on the back, showing him that he forgives him, a gesture that cheers Watson up no end. It’s a warm moment of real friendship, and a million miles away from the Holmes in the books who, at one point, rails against Watson for publishing his lurid accounts of the detective’s cases. (In a comparable scene in the film series, Holmes is much more laid back about his chronicler’s activities). This platonic love, and the deep emotion behind it, produces a rare moment of genuine menace from Rathbone when, in The Woman in Green, he warns Professor Moriarty against hurting his friend – perhaps the only time in the entire run when we see the steel that lies at the heart of this detective. Without his Watson, this Holmes is incomplete.
This deep affection on the part of the detective spreads to other people too, notably women. In the books, Holmes finds women if not exactly detestable, then very difficult creatures (with the exception of Irene Adler, of course), relying on Watson to be the human face of 221B Baker Street. In contrast, during these films, women regularly find Holmes a reassuring figure, whether they are coming to him directly for help or caught up indirectly in one of his adventures. In a moment from Pursuit to Algiers that no doubt makes purists everywhere blanch, a girl Holmes has just helped gives him a kiss on the cheek in front of Watson, who is a bit put out by it and asks what happened. Holmes, who appears to be trying hard not to break into a big grin, replies “It was elementary my dear fellow... and very pleasant!” He also has a sense of humour and wit about him which, if rather dry and sardonic at times, is certainly a step up from the clinically analytical frame of mind Conan Doyle shows on the printed page.
This more human interpretation of Holmes is no doubt one of the reasons people responded so well to Rathbone, but not all the changes from the books work so well in the detective’s favour. This version is also, sad to say, apt to put his foot in it. Numerous times during the fourteen films he makes a hash of things, allowing things to be stolen or failing to protect those who have asked for his help. The most notable example of this is in The Scarlet Claw, not the detective’s most shining hour, when all but one of those he is trying to help ends up dead. In The Pearl of Death he allows the villain to make away with the titular pearl while, similarly in Terror by Night, the client who employs him to protect another jewel swiftly ends up dead, almost under the detective’s very nose. Worst of all, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes he falls almost completely for Moriarty’s scheme, with only good fortune saving his face. There are other examples too, and it can be argued this can all be put down to lazy plotting in an attempt to generate suspense on the part of the screenwriters, but it is still a long way from the literary Holmes. There are some cosmetic changes too – for example, at Rathbone’s request, Holmes no longer wears a deerstalker (there’s even a self-referential scene in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror in which Holmes picks one up before being admonished by Watson who says, “Now, Holmes, you promised,” although why Watson should take offence to Holmes’ wearing of that particular article of clothing isn’t made clear). This wouldn’t be so bad (often films incorrectly have Holmes wearing the deerstalker in town, when in actuality he would only have worn it in the countryside) but in the first three Universal films it was evident no one knew how to style Holmes’ hair, with the result he has an odd coiffure completely at odds with how Paget drew him, a silly style that is most distracting until one gets used to it. Thankfully by the fourth in the series he returns to a more sensible swept-back cut.
The most notable deviation from the books, though, is what Sherlock scholars have described as “The Bruce problem.” Nigel Bruce’s Watson is, not to put too fine a point on it, a messer, a nitwit and a fool who can hardly seem to tie his own shoelaces together without making some faux pas, a doctor so dozy it’s a miracle any of his patients ever survived (although we do see him treating several during the series, and Holmes never hesitates to call on his medical knowledge when needed). In general, Holmesians find the portrayal vexing and a nuisance, the literary character by association becoming tarred with the same brush when, of course, he is anything but that fool. While it is true that screen Watsons since Bruce have only slowly lost this bumbling persona, to completely dismiss the actor and his performance does Bruce a great injustice. If nothing else, the very fact that his Watson gets equal billing with Holmes is a great step forward – before the Rathbone series the Watson character was very much relegated to the background of screen Holmes adaptations, what little persona he was allowed to have eclipsed by the dynamo of Holmes’ character. Bruce made him much more of an equal, in screen time if nothing else, and never again after him was Watson to be an inconsequential detail, a legacy some of the more snooty fans seem to forget. Equally, the point behind this particular characterisation is sometimes missed. Of course, his Watson is nothing like the books’ version, but he isn’t meant to be, he is purposefully designed to be the light relief for the films. Some of the stories here are rather grim, and Watson is there to liven the mood somewhat - in many ways, he’s one of the first examples of the comedy sidekick that are now standard for any populist blockbuster, the only difference being that he is actually amusing. Bruce is never less than excellent in the role and, for me at least, never fails to raise a smile, whether he’s putting Holmes’ deductive reasoning to locating a lost piece of paper, trying to interview a suspect who turns the tables on him or, best of all, mistaking a genuine client of Holmes’ for Holmes himself in disguise. These three scenes, and many more, are often highlights of the entire series, highly entertaining moments played to the hilt by Bruce’s skilled, and yet somehow instinctual, playing.
Together, it’s easy to see why Rathbone and Bruce made such a popular pairing. Both are superb in their roles, and compliment each other superbly, the chemistry between them both genuine and heartfelt. Visually they compliment well too, Rathbone’s lean figure against Bruce’s corpulent rotundity. Rathbone is a dynamic lead, and focuses attention absolutely on him, no matter what he is doing. Even in the rare moments when we see him silently contemplating we know he will soon leap into action, jumping up to grab his hat and coat before heading out to save the day with Watson, usually oblivious to whatever’s going on, following in his wake, mumbling something totally inconsequential. No other pair of actors have ever quite managed to have the same level of chemistry between them that these too do. While the ITV Jeremy Brett series, the other screen version most often cited as a “definitive” version of the Conan Doyle stories, may be more accurate in their representation of the two, they just don’t have the same relationship as these two do.
Of course, the other main gripe most people have with the films is that, with the exception of the first two Fox films, all the movies are set in, what was then the modern day, wartime Britain in the early 1940s. Once again this ignores historical precedent - all Holmes films released up to that point had been set in the year of the film’s release rather than the traditional Victorian England of the early stories and it was, in fact, the Fox films that had broken the mould by being set in the “correct” time period. That said, the first three Universal pictures - Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and Sherlock Holmes in Washington - do come across as horribly anachronistic, the great detective’s chasing of Nazis and referencing Churchill feeling utterly wrong. As a propaganda tool, Holmes might have been a good idea in theory, but in practise these three films are among the weakest of all fourteen and, perhaps recognising this (and following the poor response Sherlock Holmes in Washington received) the emphasis was switched with the fourth Universal release, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death to a more traditional story (although Holmes’ habit of making an inspiring patriotic speech at the end of each film would remain a couple of films longer). Although all the remaining films were still ostensibly set in the same time, it is very easy to ignore this fact, the occasional car or modern reference notwithstanding. (Although even this is questionable, as in the literary story His Last Bow Watson drives a car). Stories such as The Scarlet Claw, The House of Death or even Terror by Night, with their isolated settings, could just as easily be taking place in the 1890s as the 1940s. The fact that, by their nature, the Universals were B-pictures helps and not hinders this suspension of disbelief. Because the films were being churned out so quickly and had a relatively low budget, the limited number of sets and scenery (often lots re-used from the horror movies Universal was making around the same time) ensures that most of the action is self-contained, creating a bubble in which period is not important. While the two Fox films are more ambitious with their scale (The Hound of the Baskervilles’ moor set being especially impressive) the small scale of much of the other films give them an intimate, almost theatrical feel.
This is emphasised by the fact that the production team made use of Universal’s repertory company, resulting in the same actors popping up several times in different roles in the films. While this every so often feels a little repetitive, especially when a murder victim in one turns out to be the killer in the next or so on, it certainly underlines the fact these films were all made close together. Those actors who stand out are the ones who have one notable characteristic that crosses over whichever character they are playing – Frederick Worlock’s irascibility, for example, or Gerald Hamer’s nervousness – but the eagle eyed viewer shouldn’t have too much trouble in spotting any who appear time and again. Even Professor Moriarty himself is not immune: Lionel Atwill, the second incarnation of Holmes’ archnemesis in the series, had previously played Dr Mortimer in Hound of the Baskervilles, while George Zucco, the first version, pops up again later on as another villain entirely. Watched close together, the number of recurring actors is much more noticeable, but by no means detracts from the individual films (although you have to wonder why Holmes, always such a keen observer of such things, doesn’t wonder why he keeps bumping into such strikingly similar people). It’s also true to say that no actor, with the exception of the regulars of course, appears more than four times in the entire series, so the repetition isn’t that much of a big deal. (Dennis Hoey, on the other hand, pops up six times as an Inspector Lestrade who makes Watson look quick on the uptake, the two often making an amusing double act, left floundering around in the dark as Holmes surges ahead solving the case – it’s always an added bonus when Hoey’s baffled Scotland Yard man appears). While the acting quality in general is never first class (the femme fatales, in particular, are either overplayed and tiresome or too winsome) there’s not a lot to complain about, and even Mary Gordon’s Mrs Hudson, Holmes’ long suffering housekeeper, has enough character to make her brief scenes enjoyable (she also played the character in the Rathbone radio episodes).
The B-movie nature extends to writing and directing. The director most associated with the series is Roy William Neill, who joined the series on the fourth instalment, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and ended up directing the remaining ten films. The Holmes films were the highlight of his otherwise unremarkable (if prolific) career (unless you count the fan-boy pleasing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), a career mainly made up of studio quickies (in 1938 alone he brought out seven pictures). His style is unfussy but functional, and he had a particular fondness for shooting Rathbone in profile, enamoured no doubt with the likeness to Holmes’ traditional silhouetted features. Sadly, he died of a heart attack just two years after making the last, Dressed to Kill, during which time he only directed one more film. The three helmers who came before him all have their own odd little quirks, with Sidney Lanfield in The Hound of the Baskervilles not seeming to like music (the various chases across the moors are completely silent) Alfred L Werker on The Adventures of cutting bits out of the screenplay which made the resultant film unsatisfactory and John Rawlins’ Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror being shot with a lot of high contrast.
In comparison the screenplays are very even in tone. Again, they have a pulpy feeling about them, with some very blunt expositional dialogue, while Holmes’ deductions are usually of a much more trivial nature than in Conan Doyle’s work (and are usually helped by the fact he is surrounded by such a bunch of thickos) but there’s enough action and adventure in them to satisfy all lovers of Saturday morning thrillers. With the exception of Hound, none of them bear much resemblance to the original stories, even in spite of the deal Universal agreed to. The way the studio was able to get around this clause was by taking a couple of vague elements from the books - Voice of Terror, for example, takes the name of the villain from His Last Bow, as well as some lines of dialogue - and weaving an entirely new plot around them. (These changes are never to the films’ disadvantage, though). Only a couple work as proper whodunits, with most choosing to reveal the villain early on and instead focusing on the battle between them and Holmes, but there is also some plot element or twist left to the final reel to reveal, ensuring interest is maintained. There is also the occasional experimentation in style – one film opens with a Scotland Yard detective narrating events (something which is abandoned about half way through the film), while another has a couple who follow Holmes’ exploits on the radio, the husband being quick to criticise the detective’s every move (even when he has apparently died), amongst other examples. These are fun little quirks that lend variety to the movies, which, in conception if not execution, do have several similar themes running through them (as one character says to Watson: “This fellow Holmes is always chasing after missing jewels or mysterious females”). As most of the films were written by different writers this continuity might seem slightly surprising (although one writer, Bertram Millhauser, had a hand in five of them) but even with similar themes cropping up several times there's enough variation in how they play out to ensure the films are never boring.
And that, when all's said and done, is why the films are still so popular - they are fun, enjoyable runarounds that pass the time in an extremely pleasant way. I grew up watching Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and much of my enduring adoration of the character can be put down to this series. Coming back to them now after not having seen them for a lengthy period of time, I am glad to say that, for me at least, my love for them has not been dimmed by the passing of time. Admittedly, I see them through highly nostalgic eyes, and there are plenty of flaws in the fourteen films – some trite dialogue, a couple of dodgy-looking sets, the occasionally bad acting – but they are so entertaining that these flaws become part of their charm, another factor to be enjoyed rather than frowned at. As examples of early 1940s pulp they are perfect, and with the superb central performances and love of atmosphere that abounds in every single one it would have to be a stony heart indeed that does not get some enjoyment from them.
The Individual Films
The Hound of the Baskervilles 1939
The series gets off to a cracking start with this fine adaptation of Conan Doyle’s most famous work. Although purists will complain about the deviations from the novel, it is probably the most faithful version filmed and does justice to the gothic qualities that have fascinated readers ever since its publication. The moors, while obviously studio-bound, are deep enough to convince and, while there isn’t quite the eerie quality about them that one might like, there is still something that curdles the blood when the hound’s mournful howl is heard.
Both Rathbone and Bruce start as they mean to go on, Rathbone’s casual dominance of every scene he appears in helped by his booming delivery while, even at this early stage, Bruce’s bumbling Watson is in evidence, although he is not helped here by the fact that, in both the book and this film, Holmes makes a (necessary) fool out of him at a key point. They are ably supported by Richard Greene as the threatened heir to the Baskerville estate, although the villain of the piece (and no, for the three people who don’t know who it is I’m not giving anything away here!) is a little tame and unmemorable, even after his diabolical schemes are laid bare.
Although there are the occasional flaws – the séance scene is silly, while there is a slightly cheesy moment when the young lovers confess their amour that smacks of the period in which the film was made – they are more than compensated for by the good work of everything else. In particular, the hound itself is surprisingly aggressive, with its attack in the finale really rather savage. The ending is a little abrupt – the villain is not seen to get his comeuppance which is a bit of a disappointment – but is notable for the one time in the series that the film’s acknowledges the literary Holmes’ cocaine addiction, with the final line: “Quick, Watson, the needle!” being one of the most famous parts of the entire picture. Because it comes at the end and is almost completely a throwaway moment, it does not feel as out of place as it might otherwise have done, although goodness only knows what contemporary audiences made out of it. 8/10
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 1939
This second film has the detective’s first clash with his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty in the series, here played with suitable villainy by George Zucco. The Professor, tired of Sherlock’s meddling in his affairs, determines to commit one more crime, one which will be remembered both as the pinnacle of his criminal career and the moment Holmes met his downfall, And he very nearly succeeds as well, distracting the sleuth with a largely irrelevant side case while he plots to steal the crown jewels.
This isn’t nearly as good as Hound. Even regarding the fact that Sherlock is led up the garden path, the central mystery isn’t very thrilling, while the heroine is a typical damsel-in-distress. Supposedly based on William Gilette’s play Sherlock Holmes (the production that did almost as much to cement the public image of the detective as Conan Doyle’s stories) it actually bears very little resemblance to that text, although this is something to be thankful for – in Gilette’s play, Holmes ends up on the verge of getting married, which would be anathema even to Rathbone’s version.
Off-shooting the disappointing plot, we get another superb performance from Rathbone as Holmes (complete with one of his more convincing if eccentric disguises) while Bruce as Watson, although already the bumbling fool, is a marvellous foil for him. Zucco is good as Moriarty and director Albert Werker does a decent job, particularly in the climatic chase through the Tower of London. Plenty is made of the traditional London atmosphere of the stories, with nary a street appearing in the production that isn’t covered with fog and full of hansom carriages. Decent, but not the best. 6/10
The Voice of Terror 1942
The first Universal picture, and the first of the films to place Holmes in what was then modern-day England, 1942, this is both a boring spy thriller and a poor excuse for a Sherlock Holmes story, a standard war propaganda film (something its working title, Sherlock Holmes Saves London, makes even clearer) with little, other than Rathbone and Bruce’s presence, to recommend it.
The credits claim the plot, already mentioned in the main body of the review, is based in part on His Last Bow, but the only connection is that they both feature spies. In the film, Holmes is called in by the ministry to investigate radio broadcasts made by the self-proclaimed “Voice of Terror” who gleefully informs the British people of Nazi triumphs on their own soil, whether it be the bombing of a military area or the derailing of a train (a scene which uses footage from 1933’s The Invisible Man). I don’t think it’s giving the game away to reveal that Holmes both manages to track down the Voice and also avert a Nazi invasion.
This is really very poor stuff. Although there are some typical Holmes moments thrown in along the way including the old “Holmes astounds his clients with casual deductions about what they’re been up recently” at the beginning, the character is really there in name only. The plot, with the two dashing about various dubious locales in such of information from lowlifes, is more in the fashion of Sexton Blake, the “other” detective from Baker Street who, at the time of the film’s release, was extremely popular and who regularly encountered spies and derring-do. To make matters worse, this is the film in which Rathbone’s silly hair makes its debut while the denouncement is both obvious – the villain is the only distinguishable character amongst a bunch of bland fillers-in – and also flat, an opinion one feels the makers felt too as they feel the need to throw in a completely spurious death. 3/10
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon 1942
Dennis Hoey makes his welcome debut as Inspector Lestrade in this, easily the best of the WWII-set instalments. Once again, one of Conan Doyle’s stories gets a credit, this time “The Dancing Men” although, aside from that eponymous code, there is no connection with the source material. A Swiss inventor has come up with a new bombsight but nefarious agents, including Professor Moriarty himself, are in pursuit. When the scientist goes missing, Holmes is left with a mysterious cipher to crack that can stop his enemy seizing control of the weapon.
This is an action-packed episode, the first directed by Roy William Neill, and for once makes good use of Holmes’ many gifts. We see him employing both his detecting skills and his use of disguises, while the plot sweeps along, beginning in Switzerland before returning to a London obviously scarred by the bombing. Watson has a less auspicious outing, with less of the bumbling of other outings but also less to do – his only useful contribution being to inspire Holmes how to crack the code. The one disappointment is Lionel Atwill as Moriarty, who has none of the intellectual gravitas the part demands, although to be fair the actor is not helped by the script which makes the character out to be no more than any other enemy Holmes has faced – even the detective is driven, at one point, to describe him as just “an ordinary cut throat.”
That aside, this is an enjoyable film. Although analysis shows the plot as little more than a giant runabout, it is also fast moving, with fine performances from all concerned, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. 7/10
Sherlock Holmes in Washington 1943
Thankfully, this was the last of the three films focusing on WWII. Holmes and Watson are despatched to America’s Capital to track down a microfilm, one of those macguffins that could affect the entire course of the war if it falls into the wrong hands. As with the other two films, the film has an Important Patriotic Message to impart (always underlined by a speech Holmes makes at the end), this film’s being America is great and our trusted allies in the war. The first half is better than the second, which spends too much time at a fairly trivial party, and the villain is unmemorable, but there is fun to be had watching the microfilm pass from one unsuspecting person to another. Rathbone has the silly hair again, but Watson gets some good lines – on looking at an American newspaper’s sports section, he mutters “Those Brooklyn fellows are arguing with the umpire, extraordinary thing.” Critics dismiss this as one of the two weakest of the series, but I still think it’s better than The Voice of Terror. 5/10
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death 1943
A snooping butler, an ancient family ritual and a clock that strikes thirteen all hold clues to solving the mysterious murder of Geoffrey Musgrave in this fine entry in the series. Although ostensibly still set during WWII the period trappings that filled the last three films are all missing here while the main setting, a creaky old mansion house filled with convalescing soldiers, means it’s very easy to believe that this is set in the proper timeframe (as long as one ignores the talk of Germans in tanks that is). Rathbone, too, looks more the part, ditching the silly hairstyle in favour of a Pagetian look that is every inch Conan Doyle’s detective.
The story, taking parts of The Musgrave Ritual as its source, is, surprisingly, the first real whodunit of the series (Hound, although it works too, has a smaller collection of who the villain could be). It’s not in Agatha Christie’s league – I had the murderer pinpointed by the halfway mark – but it’s still more of a traditional mystery than the others thus far. There’s great pleasure to be had from watching Sherlock slowly unravelling the clues and getting to the bottom of the mystery, all the time watched by a little-used Lestrade and the usual useless Watson. There are also a couple of stand out scenes – the dramatic reading of the Ritual itself and Holmes’ encounter with the tipsy Brunson – while keep an eye out for a young Peter Lawford in his first speaking role, as a sailor. Although the title is a misnomer – at no point does Holmes face death – this is in every other way a highly enjoyable film. 7/10
The Spider Woman 1944
Taking elements from The Sign of Four, The Speckled Band, The Final Problem, and The Devil’s Foot, this is one of the best of the series and, in Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard), has one of its best villains. Engaging in a battle of wits with Holmes, she proves far more formidable an opponent than Moriarty has in his two appearances thus far, even at one point all but thumbing her nose at the detective in one of the more quietly gripping scenes of the entire series. This is the best example of the series’ general philosophy that the battle of wills between Holmes and the villain is all important, Spedding and her motive exposed early on so that it is the clash between the two that is important, Holmes unravelling her modus operandi slowly but surely. Rathbone gives his most relaxed performance so far, the role now fitting him as easily as a glove, while Watson gets another highly amusing comic scene that Bruce takes full advantage of. Although once again there is the distressing sight of Holmes having rings run around him, and his early decision to fake his death is questionable, this is still great fun, with plenty of suspense and excitement. Sondergaard made such an impression that she returned, without Holmes, in The Spider Woman Strikes Back three years later, although the character she played in that had a different name. 8/10
The Scarlet Claw 1944
Although the titular weapon isn’t in itself much to look at, this atmospheric film has the most striking image of the entire series, the ghostly figure of the killer running through the bogs coated in phosphorous, made all the more memorable when compared to the otherwise generally uniform look of the films. This tale, with its gothic overtones, would no doubt have received approval from the spiritualist Conan Doyle, even if its solution turns out to be more down-to-earth than some of his more esoteric beliefs.
Holmes and Watson find themselves in the remote Canadian village of La Morte Rouge (why anyone would want to call a village The Red Death is never explained), investigating the tale of a mysterious demon that haunts the surrounding moors and has struck down one of the village’s wealthiest residents. If it sounds like a retold Hound of the Baskervilles that’s because it is (the film’s moor scenes even re-use the sets from that earlier film) but the telling of the story is sufficiently different to prevent a complete sense of déjà vu. It scores more for atmosphere than the actual tale, which is a bit thin with little to tax either the viewer or, indeed, Holmes himself, although his failure to protect some of the killer’s intended victims makes this one of his less impressive efforts. This probably shouldn’t score as highly as it does, but it is sufficiently atmospheric to ensure it gets a solid seven. 7/10
The Pearl of Death 1944
Taking as its inspiration the basic premise of The Six Napoleons, this is one of the best films, coming complete with its most unnerving villain. Like all the best “monsters”, the Oxton Creeper lurks in the shadows for the majority of the film, only revealing himself during the climax. Played by Rondo Hatton, a real life sufferer of acromegaly, he has a hulking, formidable presence which hangs over the entire film, haunting both our heroes, as they try and figure out the reason behind his reappearance, and one of his fellow conspirators, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers), the woman he loves. The plot centres around the Borgia Pearl, an item of rare beauty that “has the blood of twenty men on it,” according to Holmes. Giles Conniver (Miles Mander), who Holmes seems to rate as highly as Moriarty in the criminal stakes, has his eye on it but, following a bungled robbery, finds himself in a race with Holmes to be the first to track it down.
Although it has huge plot holes (why on earth don’t they just steal the statues instead of the rigmarole they go through?) this is one of the finest of the stories, an intriguing tale that develops naturally and has a bit more to it than the usual linear strands we’re used to. It also has Holmes facing a backlash following the robbery, and another comic highlight for Doctor Watson as he uses his own deductive reasoning to track down a missing newspaper clipping. Excellent. 9/10
The House of Fear 1945
And, following the superb Pearl of Death comes the equally good House of Fear, another Rathbone set in an old gothic mansion. Combining The Five Orange Pips with two of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels to great effect (one being And Then There Were None: to reveal the other would be to give the solution away) this tale of a gentlemen’s club slowly being killed off one by one is one of my two personal favourites of the series. Neill really lets rip here, lashing the house with a suitably atmospheric thunder and lightning storm while Watson hunts, and is hunted, by the villains. Although Rathbone seems to be a little on auto-pilot this time around, and Lestrade is notably even more useless than usual (his entrance, punctuated by increasingly exasperated cries of “What is going on here?” being rather overdone) this is still top class stuff, the only shame of it being it isn’t a little longer. 8/10
The Woman in Green 1945
Moriarty rises from the dead yet again for a third (and final in this series) tussle with Holmes in this lacklustre adventure. Starting off more like a film noir than a Holmes, complete with narration from a Scotland Yard Inspector doing his best Philip Marlowe impression, this is a tired, ordinary case for the Baker Street Duo, with only the modus operandi of hypnotism to spice things up. Neill uses some bizarre slanted camera angles to try and make the piece visually interesting, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this episode has a thin plot that struggles to fill in an hour, only making up its running time with lengthy and unnecessary scenes early on showing the eponymous woman working her dastardly schemes. Although it borrows moments from both The Final Problem and The Empty House (as in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle’s famous encounter between Holmes and Moriarty is paraphrased in the dialogue) it has the drama of neither story. The one highlight is Henry Daniell as Moriarty, the actor bringing a sinister suaveness to the character that, while not having the aristocratic bearing of Zucco in The Adventures certainly beats into a cocked hat Atwill’s interpretation. That said, the Professor’s final demise is not terribly dignified and this is, overall, a disappointment. 5/10
Pursuit to Algiers 1945
Together with Sherlock Holmes in Washington, this is considered one of the weakest entries in the series, but I view it with a great deal of affection, tempered no doubt by the fact it was one of the first of the Rathbones I remember seeing as a child. One of the films that doesn’t claim to be based on anything Conan Doyle wrote, it follows Holmes and Watson’s attempts to safely escort a newly-crowned King of an Eastern European country back to his homeland aboard a cruise ship, pursued by those who want to usurp his throne and take over the country themselves. The first scenes, set in a fog-bound London, are the most traditional version of Holmes’ environs we’ve seen since the Fox films while the rest of the film’s setting on the ship works fine, despite the obviously limiting constraints of the budget. The trio of villains (the film changes from a whodunit to a straight thriller about half way through) are effective without being memorable (although one of the assassins is vaguely reminiscent of Peter Lorre at times) while the final twist is pretty well telegraphed from the off. Fun without much substance, then, although at one point we are teased when we hear Dr Watson recounting part of the famous tale of The Giant Rat of Sumatra, one of the stories referred to in the Canon without ever being described. If only the camera didn’t cut away! 6/10
Terror by Night 1946
Having always had a penchant for films set on trains, it’s not hard to see why this is my other favourite of the series. Holmes and Watson are hired to guide another jewel, The Star of Rhodesia, as it makes its journey north of the border onboard a sleeper. Naturally the jewel is stolen, and Holmes has an entire carriage-load of suspects to sort through, helped and hindered in equal measure by Watson and Lestrade. This makes a good case for being the funniest of the series, with several highly amusing moments, but there are also some good dramatic bits, like the point when Holmes is nearly pushed off the train and the first murder, which is for some reason more unsettling than most in the series. Probably the purest detective story of the entire series, this rattles through its running time too quickly for my liking, evidence that, even at this late stage in the series’ run, there was still life left in it. 8/10
Dressed to Kill 1946
Known in the UK as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code (a more apt title) this was the final film of the series and one which fittingly manages to sum up a lot of the motifs of the series. At the heart of the film is another femme fatale, who manages to run rings around Holmes while Watson, in his usual inimitable style, nearly manages to blow the whole thing when, being left to guard a music box at the heart of the mystery, manages to let it be stolen from right under his nose. Holmes bungles too by walking straight into a trap set by the villains but also on display is his keen deductive reasoning, managing to crack a code sent by a prison inmate to his accomplices on the outside. It is also noticeable as the only film in the series with a metatextual reference: at the beginning, Watson is proudly studying the latest copy of The Strand, in which his account of A Scandal in Bohemia has just been published (which, oddly given the cars seen throughout, would date this particular adventure, strictly speaking, to July 1891) while later the villainess uses Holmes’ trick from the same story to expose the hiding place of the music box.
All that aside, this is a rather ordinary ending to the series. The central mystery isn’t very thrilling and the villainess, who has potential as an actress who utilises disguises not unlike Holmes himself, isn’t that fiendish compared to The Spider Woman or even The Woman in Green. It passes the time pleasantly enough, and while Rathbone doesn’t give one of his magnetic performances he doesn’t drift either, while Bruce is his usual avuncular self, especially in an opening scene when he runs into an old school friend called Stinky. Not bad, but not great either. 5/10
The films come on seven single-sided dual-layered disks, two films per disk. The arrangement is odd in that the films are not presented in strict chronological order: Disk One has Hound and The Voice of Terror, for example, the first and third films in the series, Disk Two The Adventures and The Secret Weapon and so on. Only Disks Three (…in Washington and Faces Death) and Disk Seven (Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill) have the right films in the right place.
The menus open with an option to go to either film’s main menu, and the two menus can be accessed at any time from one another. All the menus have the same template, with a black-and-white image of the film over which the menu options are arranged down the centre of the screen. All the films have Production Notes by Richard Valley, a Photo Gallery and the same Restoring Sherlock Holmes Featurette. Five come with commentaries (one of which, the track for The Adventures, is incorrectly attributed to David Stuart Davies instead of Richard Valley) and six have trailers.
Frustratingly there are no subtitles at all, a very annoying omission in an otherwise excellent package.
The print quality differs on each film, depending on how much restoration work had to be done on them. All films suffer from near-constant pinpricks of damage, although the amount of these lessens on the last couple of films. The worst off in regards to damage is Hound which has a couple of full-screen artefacts, something that occurs only very rarely through the rest of the films. That said, the films in general look much better than I’ve seen them in the past, the general images having a finer contrast and a cleaner look. The picture isn’t pin-sharp, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. The transfer to DVD has been mainly successful, although close examination does reveal some digital artefacting has crept through, in particular with faces that are at a distance from the camera, as well as occasional aliasing difficulties. Overall, though, none of this ruins the viewing experience.
There’s the usual muffling most films from this period have, with the occasional splutter or pop as well. That said, dialogue is never lost and overall these sound exactly as you would expect film from this era to sound like.
The five films that have commentaries are The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Scarlet Claw and The Woman in Green. With the exception of Adventures, these are all by David Stuart Davies, the editor of Sherlock Magazine and the author of a number of books on Holmes, including one focusing on his screen appearances. His comments vary from giving biographical notes on the various actors and people involved in the making of the films, through to comparing the films to the stories themselves and, occasionally, giving some background history to the productions. He sometimes suffers from that affliction a lot of commentators have of describing what’s happening on screen, but the tracks are generally informative and worth listening to.
The Adventures track is by Richard Valley, the editor of Scarlet Street Magazine, another Holmes journal, who also wrote all the Production Notes for these disks. This inevitably has some repetition of material from Davies’ Hound commentary, but other than that this is pretty similar in informative content, and Valley has the same strengths and weaknesses as commentator as Davies. Neither have particularly exciting voices to listen to, but there’s enough of interest to merit a listen.
Restoring Sherlock Holmes
Robert Gitt talks us through some of the problems the UCLA had in restoring the twelve films. This is an interesting four and a half minute featurette and it would have been nice to have had it expanded a little bit, to go through the processes a little bit more.
All fourteen films have excellent short essays on their production, written by Valley. Combining magazine interviews with the various people with background notes on the productions themselves, their sources and any other trivia you can imagine, these are a superb supplement to the films themselves, and a highlight of the disks.
There are trailers for six of the films - The Scarlet Claw, The Spider Woman,The Pearl of Death, The House of Fear, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill. These are all suitably melodramatic and emphasis the shocking moments of the films, complete with lurid on-screen captions, and all do a good job of making the films look good. The quality, of course, is much worse than for the films themselves.
A handful of pictures are featured for each movie, the majority of which appear to be just stills from the films themselves with the odd publicity shot thrown in for good measure. On three disks the galleries are repeated for both films, while on the remaining four each film gets its own.
To paraphrase Conan Doyle himself: “To audiences, he is always the detective.” This was a marvellous series that gave cinema one of its most recognisable characters a definitive face, Rathbone indelibly leaving his mark on Conan Doyle’s detective. Although Jeremy Brett’s may be a more accurate portrayal, his series just isn’t as much fun as this melodramatic, sometimes overblown, almost never dull series. The films themselves have scrubbed up well, and the box set is generally very good, aside from a couple of odd menu flaws and the great annoyance that there are no subtitles at all, something that immediately loses it a point. Other than that, this is a fine collection for a fine series.