The Films (4.5, 4, 3, 2.5 /5)
Since his creation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the greatest known fiction detectives. His move to the movies was an easy one, and since the early days of the silent screen, Holmes has been a huge part of the movie goers diet. Of all the various actors who played Holmes, one has easily caught the hearts of millions and left a huge legacy. Basil Rathbone just is Sherlock Holmes. From 1939 to 1946, Rathbone starred in 14 movies as the famous detective.
Of equal importance is the role of Dr. Watson. Nigel Bruce was soon cast as the lovable Doctor Instead of dismissing the character, like many earlier versions, the good Doctor was turned into a comic relief character. This series was so popular and influential in fact, that the Disney movie THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986), used its formula to make one of the studio’s most underrated entries into animation. The first films in the series were made at 20th century Fox, using a Victorian setting. Starting with SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR, the series was made at Universal studios. The setting was changed to the present day, the 1940’s, with the duo now solving cases in world war 2 and being involved with spies. Now on to the movies:
HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) 4.5
The first film in the series, drips with atmosphere and lives up to its source material. While the Hammer version is the best known, this version is a great little thriller. In this version, the hound is an actual dog, and the lighting used on it is worthy of a Val Lewton thriller.
ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939) 4.5
Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) is determined to pull off the crime of the century, steal the Crown Jewels! To distract Holmes from his caper, he targets a family with a baffling note of an albatross. The sister in the family (Ida Lupino) comes to Holmes to crack the case. For the second film in the series, ADVENTURES out classes HOUND in many ways. Basil Rathbone is officially married to the role as Holmes, and in this film, gives a more natural performance. Ida Lupino (HIGH SIRREA) has an underwritten role, but does well with the material. George Zucco makes a lively Moriarty, and it’s a shame he wasn’t brought back in future entries as the rival madman.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942) 4
In the first of the Universal series, Holmes is called in to aid in a man hunt for a mysterious Nazi, who goes by the name of voice of terror. He has hijacked the BBC radio broadcast. VOICE OF TERROR is a fantastic entry in the set. The first of the series to be an hour in length. From on the set, you can tell this is a Universal movie. Evelyn Ankers turns in a good performance as the wife of one of Holmes’s operatives. Viewers who are used to her horror roles in THE WOLF MAN or GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, will be surprised by her studied role with a seamless British accent. The movie is a B production, with lots of stock footage from previous Universal movies, but the overall film is so well made and filled with atmosphere, you’ll hardly notice.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943) 4
Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill), is working with the Nazis on a doomsday weapon. From its eerily opening to the fast-paced ending, SECRET WEAPON is a blast to watch. It’s a mini spy adventure with some impressive production design for a B picture. The opening third in Switzerland is one of the more well-made starts, with Rathbone in old man makeup.
SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943) 4
After a British secret agent is murdered and the microfilm he was carrying was stolen, Holmes and Watson is put on the case. Their journey takes them to the United States, with the destination being Washington. Once there, Holmes discovers a mysterious international spy ring. By far one of the furthest way from the source material IN WASHINGTON, is a fun adventure film. The stakes are low after the previous two entries. This film also adds more comedy and one liners to mix. While not necessarily a good movie, it’s entertaining enough to be forgiven. George Zucco returns as an art dealing villain.
SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943) 4
Dr. Watson is severing as a on call doctor for the family at Hulstone Towers. A mysterious murder leads to a hot bed of sinister figures and spooky suspense. After the light and breezy WASHINGTON, SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH is a classy return to form. The set design and lighting give the film a horror vibe. One highlight are the storm effects and animated lightening. The writing is still clever, but lacks some of the goofier excesses of the previous film. A perfect rainy afternoon movie.
SPIDER WOMAN (1944) 4.5
England is in a web of terror over a series of bizarre suicides. To get closer to the person responsible, Holmes fakes his death. It turns out that the deaths are connected to a deadly spider, called lycosa Carnivora. The spiders are owned by the sinister and deadly Spider Woman (Gale Sondergaard). Universal out did themselves with this brief and thrilling adventure. Inspired by movie serials, SPIDER WOMAN is a witty and fantastic addition to the series. Sondergaad (1940’s THE LETTER) makes for a cunning and over the top villain. While all the Universal movie share connection to World War 2 and pro American involvement, SPIDER WOMAN takes the cake with its patriotism. The climax has Holmes trapped in a shooting gallery behind a Hitler mock up.
SCARLET CLAW (1944) 4.5
Set in Canada, Holmes and Watson are attending a conference on the supernatural and occult, when there called in on a series of murders by a claw like dagger. Out of the whole series, this film is the closest to the other Universal horrors. From the start to last, SCARLET CLAW is one of the most enjoyable.
PEARL OF DEATH (1944) 4
The Borgia Pearl has gone missing, and master criminal Giles Conover (Miles Mander) is the only suspect. The only catch is Holmes can’t prove he is the criminal. PEARL has the bonus of starring Rondo Hatton as the Hoxton Creeper, the villain’s right hand man. Rondo suffered from acromegaly, which gave him mysterious macabre facial figures and build.
HOUSE OF FEAR (1945) 3
The Good Comrades is a special social group in Scotland. When the members are slowly being killed off, Sherlock Holmes and Watson are called in to guard the house and its members. If this series of films was a TV series, HOUSE would be an average but effective filler episode. The whole production seems like a low rent reboot of James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) with added comic bits. Lots of fog, rain storms, and moody candle lit bed rooms make this forgettable entry worth the time.
WOMAN IN GREEN (1945) 4
Holmes and Watson are called in to solve a strange case of a serial killer that is cutting off the forefingers of his victims. A strange hypnotist (Hillary Brooke) and the sinister Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell) are behind the crimes, but what is their goal? Universal’s in house style and horror style is shown off to great effect in this haunting and highly entertaining entry of the franchise. Every scene is dripping with style.
PURSUIT TO ALGIERS (1945) 2.5
Holmes and Watson are finally ready for a vacation. But fate comes in between them and there much needed rest, when a case finds its way to them. An assassination attempt on Prince Nikolas (Leslie Vincent) must be stopped, as the duo go on a course ship to Algiers. By far one of the laziest in the series. While enjoyable, PURSUIT suffers from filler and padding. There’s three musical numbers and lots of dead air. The atmosphere and another good performance by Rathbone save this entry.
TERROR BY NIGHT (1946) 4
Holmes and Dr. Watson are trapped on a train, with a diamond and a murderer looking for it. TERROR is one of the more enjoyable films in the series. While in debt to Agatha Christie, this movie proves that mysteries and trains go together like peanut butter and jelly. Surprisingly well made for this type of film. Alan Mowbray (MY MAN GODFREY) turns in an excellent performance as one of the suspects.
DRESSED TO KILL (1946) 3
A series of music boxes contain the location of missing printing plates from a recently robbed bank. Holmes must solve the case before the criminals go free. Rathbone is noticeably tired and bored in this final entry in the series. Not a bad movie in any stretch of those means, but too by the numbers to stand out on its own.
Audio/ Video (5/5)
Each film comes with an English 2.0 Channel Dolby Digital soundtrack. The sound levels are smooth and crisp with no noticeable errors. No Hiss or pops. The soundtracks too sound natural and clear.
The transfers on all the films are also top notch. The new restorations show the movies in a new light. Aside from film burns and scratches, each film is a marvel to look at. The black levels are smooth and well defined. The film noir lighting and Universal house style make them lovely eye candy. An overall amazing treatment of these classic movies.
The good folks at Umbrella entertainment have given these wonderful 40’s classics a wealth of extras. First up is audio commentaries on HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, SCARLET CLAW, WOMAN IN GREEN, and SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH. Each Commentary is loaded with trivia and insight into the productions. Every aspect is covered, including the source novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the hand over from Fox to Universal.
The main featurette is Restoring Sherlock Holmes, which details the films new restorations and the troubles of finding source film elements. Richard Valley also provides on screen production notes on each film. Rounding out the DVD set is photo galleries and trailers.
While the series had its peaks and valleys, Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series is one of the most enjoyable and well-made of black and white Mystery films. The Universal years are especially impressive. Dripping with all the style of their horror films like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Hands down an essential addition to every classic film library. Highly Recommended!