Excuse me, have you seen Judge Clark Douglas' deerstalker?
Our reviews of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (published June 30th, 2004), Dressed to Kill (1980) (Blu-ray) (published September 15th, 2011), Dressed to Kill (1980) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published March 30th, 2016), The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939) (published July 1st, 2004), The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1958) (published September 10th, 2002), The Sherlock Holmes Collection: Volume One (published March 19th, 2004), Sherlock Holmes In Washington / Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (published September 22nd, 2010), Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (published April 20th, 2011), The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1983) (published November 18th, 2010), and Terror By Night (published October 7th, 2005) are also available.
"Elementary, my dear Watson."
One of the coolest Christmas gifts I ever received was a large hardbound book containing every single one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. I tore through the book over the course of the next few weeks; delighting in Doyle's well-spun little mysteries from start to finish. I still revisit some of my favorites from time to time, as the bite-sized stories are just the right length for a quick dose of reading relaxation. I imagine that almost everyone out there has had some exposure to the famous fictional detective—if not through the original stories, then at least through one of the many film, television, and radio versions of the character. For over a century, people all around the world have remained enamored with literature's master of observation.
Proclaiming a definitive cinematic Sherlock Holmes is a somewhat daunting task, as making such a pronouncement actually requires that one watch the countless cinematic incarnations which have existed. Even so, surely Basil Rathbone would be a strong contender on the basis of sheer effort alone. Starring in some 14 feature films (not to mention hundreds of radio programs), Rathbone was for many years (and perhaps still is) the face most associated with Doyle's legendary character. My own experience with Rathbone's Holmes was a little limited before digging into this set: I had heard a few of the radio shows and seen The Hound of the Baskervilles. The prospect of charging through all 14 of Rathbone's Holmes flicks was a little daunting, but I had hopes the endeavor would prove more rewarding than tiresome. Thankfully, that's more or less the case.
It's something of a wonder that Rathbone managed to stick with this series as long as he did. Prior to the series, Rathbone was a well-regarded actor of stage and screen; an esteemed figure largely associated with Shakespeare and lavish literary adaptations. His committed performance consistently allowed him to rise above the low-budget B-movie trappings of the series; bringing the sort of steely elegance the character demanded even when the movies fell into severely cheesy territory. Today, Rathbone is best-remembered for playing the character, though he complained towards the end of his run that Holmes was killing his career.
Of course, Rathbone wasn't alone in this 7-year marathon. Actor Nigel Bruce was faithfully by his side every step of the way, bringing an unusually humorous take to the beloved Dr. Watson. Bruce's portrayal has been sharply criticized by many Doyle fans; his sweetly goofy take on the character makes the good doctor seem like a rather dimwitted fool. While Bruce doesn't exactly capture Doyle's Watson the way Rathbone captures Doyle's Holmes, his charming take on the character works well enough onscreen. He brings a light comic touch to a series that occasionally becomes a bit dry and self-serious; his fumbling persona is never less than engaging.
The collection begins with the two films produced by 20th Century Fox: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In many ways, these Victorian-era flicks are the closest to Doyle's tales, partially due to the fact that they're actually Victorian-era. The Hound of the Baskervilles is just dripping in gothic atmosphere; a spooky and effective recreation of Doyle's famous novel. While some of the acting is a bit amusingly stiff (the supporting players seem keenly aware of the fact that they are in a mystery), the general tone of the film sets it apart as a highlight (Rathbone proclaimed it his favorite of the series). Meanwhile, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a more energetic and conventionally entertaining tale, spotlighting a confrontation between Holmes and his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. While it never quite lives up to the early scene in which Moriarty sneeringly informs Holmes that he's going to pull off the crime of the century right under his nose, it's a fun watch.
Things change dramatically when we arrive at the first Universal Studios entry, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Suddenly and startlingly, Holmes loses his deerstalker cap and is launched forward into the midst of WWII, where he's given the typical task of fighting Nazis (the film was made in 1942). It's a terribly silly installment in the series, as Holmes attempts to discover a mysterious German "voice of terror" who has devoted his life to frightening the English via radio broadcasts. The identity of the villain is painfully obvious from the beginning, and the film breaks into feverish fits of propaganda-style speechifying on a regular basis. On its own terms as a WWII mystery it's middle-of-the-road, but it's so oddly off-putting to see Sherlock Holmes trudging through this tale. Things improve a bit with the similar Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (which brings back the diabolical Moriarty—collaborating with the Nazis, naturally) and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (which is engaging despite awkward moments in which Holmes and Watson are forced to talk about how great America is). Even so, this trio of flicks represents the weakest period of the Rathbone/Bruce run, as the flag-waving patriotism plays very strangely against the more traditionally Holmesian elements.
At long last, the series finally found its identity with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. Though still set in the modern era, it dispenses with all of the Nazi-fighting propaganda film nonsense and blends the horror-movie atmosphere of The Hound of the Baskervilles with the fast-paced mystery of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It's a solid entry in the series and sets the tone for the remainder of the run. Thank heavens the awkward Sherlock Holmes in Washington flopped at the box office, or Rathbone's Holmes might have primarily been regarded as an unintentionally campy predecessor of James Bond.
The Universal era arguably hit its peak with the next two films, The Spider Woman and The Scarlet Claw. The former is a cheerfully wild 62 minutes (one of the shortest entries in the series, though the longest is only 81 minutes) pieced together from no less than five of Doyle's original stories (numerous films are based on parts of his works, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only direct adaptation). Offering a memorable villain with a strange gimmick (she uses spiders to inspire people to commit suicide) and concluding with a memorably loony final reel in which Holmes is forced to dress up like Hitler, the film offers one bizarre delight after another. The latter is considered by many to be the finest Rathbone/Bruce film; a tense and atmospheric tale of suspense that's easily one of the most well-crafted of the run. Though some of the twists are fairly obvious, they're so skillfully presented that it's hard to complain.
As the series dutifully marches on, one begins to notice signs of fatigue setting in. While Bruce's comic timing only seems to sharpen with time, Rathbone begins to seem slightly less interested in the role. While he could never be accused of phoning it in, he often seems a good deal less involved than in the earlier entries. Playing the same character in 14 films over the course of 8 years would be an exhausting task for any actor; it was inevitable that the overwhelming nature of it would begin to show (take a look at Rathbone's filmography on IMDb and notice the way the series eventually prevented him from doing anything else).
To the credit of everyone involved, the later films are still reasonably enjoyable (and none of them hit the cringe-inducing low points of the WWII entries). The House of Fear offers another dose of effective horror-movie atmosphere, The Woman in Green delivers a final battle of wits between Holmes and Professor Moriarty, The Pearl of Death, and Terror by Night are solid, traditional entries and Dressed to Kill serves as a perfectly respectable conclusion to the run. The only later film that really disappoints is Pursuit to Algiers, which spends too much time on musical interludes and lacks the basic tension that marked the entire series.
The later films might have made a greater impression on me had I watched them first, but by somewhere around The Pearl of Death I couldn't escape the feeling that the series had just about used up its entire bag of tricks. Holmes dresses up in some obvious disguises which we're supposed to accept as very clever, villains boast of their superiority to Holmes, Watson has a few scenes of bumbling along with surprising moments of triumph, red herrings are thrown around and the whole thing wraps up with proudly-delivered answers from Holmes that most of us discovered quite a while earlier. I realize that these elements are beloved traditions of this series, but the lack of diversity in this set suggests that these films play better as stand-alone experiences than as part of a Holmes-a-thon. Now that I've seen the entire series, I can say that I'm a fan, but I suspect I'll grow to like these movies better when I visit them in smaller chunks in the future.
Twelve of the 14 Holmes films have been remastered (all but The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), but the level of video quality varies a good deal. For the most part, the Universal films look sharp and offer superb detail, but there are occasional instances of flecks, flickering and excessive grain. Still, most of what's here is as strong as one could hope for given the age of these low-budget flicks. The aforementioned 20th Century Fox films look pretty rough much of the time—detail is respectable, but there are scratches and flecks galore. Audio is even more hit-and-miss, with a good deal of hissing, popping and crackling present in many of the films. There are lines of dialogue which sound muffled on occasion, but very little is incomprehensible. Nothing sounds awful, but don't expect greatness, either.
All of the supplements were offered on the previous DVD set, despite claims of new material on the box set's packaging. You get six commentaries from Holmes experts (David Stuart Davies on The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Woman in Green and The Scarlet Claw, Richard Valley on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, plus Valley, Davies and actress Patricia Morison on Dressed to Kill), an interview with Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, some archival footage of Doyle himself, photo galleries and theatrical trailers.
While the series isn't exactly faithful to Doyle's original works and hits a few noteworthy low points, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection is nonetheless an enjoyable (if slightly exhausting) experience. Fans may find little incentive to upgrade, but the Blu-ray set is certainly the way to go if you don't own it.
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• IMDb: The Hound of the Baskervilles
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