Our reviews of Sherlock Holmes In Washington / Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (published September 22nd, 2010), Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (published April 20th, 2011), and Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection (Blu-Ray) (published March 29th, 2011) are also available.
Elementary, my dear Watson!
Between 1942 and 1946, Universal Pictures produced and distributed 12 Sherlock Holmes features, based on the popular detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although the Holmes pictures enjoyed considerable success at the box office, the studio allowed the copyrights to lapse in the mid-1950s. Since falling into the public domain, the films have been released in prints of varying quality.
In 1993, Robert Gitt, head of UCLA's Film and Television Archive, began a 10-year restoration effort of the classic Sherlock Holmes films. Now, at long last, we finally see the fruits of Gitt's decade of labor—the DVD debuts of all 12 features, available as single-disc releases or in three boxed sets, courtesy of MPI.
Facts of the Case
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), directed by John
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), directed by Roy William
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), directed by Roy William
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), directed by Roy William Neill
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's vast collection of stories and novels involving detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend/companion Dr. John Watson have provided fodder for the film industry since its earliest days. There were silent films and early talkies, most of them unspectacular. Then, in early 1939, Twentieth Century Fox filmed Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. British character actor Basil Rathbone was cast as Holmes, and Nigel Bruce played Watson. The result was the best Holmes on screen to that point, and a colossal box office smash. Immediately Fox rushed another film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, into production. Adventures turned out to be even more successful than its predecessor, both creatively and financially. Both pictures were faithful to the period and flavor of Doyle's material, and are still exciting to watch today. So with two huge hits on the studio's hands, you would think a franchise was born, right?
Well, in Twentieth Century Fox's case, no. Studio head Darryl Zanuck decided to drop the Holmes series. At the time, the official reason was the misguided belief that a Victorian-era mystery would have no box office potential while a world war was raging. (This reasoning doesn't make much sense, since the United States would not get involved in World War II until December 1941.) Three years after Adventures was released, Universal Pictures decided to pick up the series. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce signed on to reprise their famous roles, which they had continued playing on a syndicated radio program in the years between films. On May 5, 1942, production began on the debut film of the new Universal series, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.
There were some noticeable changes from the two Fox films. Aside from the different hairstyles of both lead actors, the most startling departure was a change from the Victorian setting to modern times (then, WWII-era England). Reviews for the new films were mixed at best, scathing at worst. But audiences remained true to form, ignoring critics and making the 12 films among Universal's most profitable at the time.
The Universal programmers are, for the most part, fine efforts. Some are excellent, while others are merely good. All are based on Doyle's stories, albeit very loosely. The lead performances of Rathbone and Bruce carry the films. Despite many good recent portrayals, Basil Rathbone remains the definitive Sherlock Holmes. (Jeremy Brett came close, in a series of 1980s BBC telefilms. Also worth mentioning is Robert Stephens, who portrayed the detective in Billy Wilder's forgotten masterpiece The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.) Few actors have the command and ease Rathbone showed on screen in the role. He always portrays Holmes with both dignity and class, never compromising the character in order to stand out personally. Rathbone, an unselfish actor by nature, understood that by giving in to the temptation to ham it up, he would be doing an injustice to Doyle's great detective. It is often said that the best acting is the type that makes it look easy—Rathbone makes being Holmes look like child's play. Some critics have complained that Bruce dumbed down the character of Watson. I think his work was a brilliant acting choice. While it is true that Watson is a great deal more serious in Doyle's stories and novels, the film Watson's sweet naïvete lends each mystery more weight by giving Holmes's deductions more impact on the audience. Plus, the role allows Bruce to showcase his very dry British comedy skills.
Of the four films in Volume One of the DVD collection, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is the best. Many purists complain about the change of era. If you look back at the majority of the films made of Doyle's material, most take place at the time the original stories were written—the update gives the movies a fresher take. Besides, it's fun to see Holmes solving crimes in a more modern time period. It's a testament to the strength of Doyle's characters that the transition is successful. Voice of Terror is a flawless thriller, with an ending that will remain deep in your mind long after it is revealed. The weakest of the collection is Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. It is still a good film; however, it takes almost half the film's running time to get going. The pacing is snail-paced, especially after the brisk fun of the first three films. The second half of the movie is much better, with one great moment after another. It's just a shame there weren't more of these highlights.
The Universal Holmes series came to an end after Basil Rathbone decided enough was enough. The quality of the films was starting to slip, and Rathbone wanted to leave while still on top. Also, he did not want to be typecast as Holmes for the remainder of his career. So the series ended with Dressed to Kill in late 1946.
Universal sold the series to television in the mid-'50s. The pictures changed ownership several times before falling into the public domain in the '70s. MGM/CBS Home Video issued the 12 Universal and two Fox films on a series of seven VHS cassettes of reasonable quality in 1981. A plethora of public domain "cheapie" VHS releases hit the shelves at roughly the same time. As one could expect, the visual and aural quality of these bargain basement cassettes was questionable at best. When a title lapses out of copyright and becomes fair game, storage of the original negatives is no longer an issue. Fans of the Holmes series had to resort to finding copies of the earlier MGM/CBS tapes (issued as separate titles by Key Video in 1989) or waiting for a public television station to run one of the prints, usually in shoddy condition.
Luckily, Robert Gitt came to the rescue. Over the past 10 years, Gitt and the UCLA Film and Television Archive scoured the world looking for the best and most complete prints of the twelve Universal Holmes films. He managed to find all but a few in 35mm masters, and used a variety of sources to piece together the rest. The spectacular results are presented in MPI's new DVD issue of the series. The full frame transfers are all vastly superior to any earlier prints available to home viewers. The original Universal Pictures logo has been restored to its rightful place. Also, a war bonds advertisement has been restored at the conclusion of most of the films. Sherlock Holmes in Washington looks the most beautiful of the four included in Volume One, with few serious defects at hand. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death looks the worst of the four, due to the fact that the original negative was most likely unable to be located. All the films still retain some defects, such as scratches, specks and dirt. It is explained in the accompanying booklet that the near-constant duplicating of the public domain prints—known in the industry as "dry printing"—has resulted in these defects becoming permanent fixtures. There are also some transfer blemishes, most notably some flickering. Even with these minor problems, these are still the finest presentations available.
Audio is in Dolby Digital 2.0 monoaural sound as originally recorded. Gitt's team has done a marvelous job restoring the sound. Again, as a result of "dry printing," there are some slight defects, such as light hiss and some assorted crackling sounds. But most importantly, the score and dialogue sound clear and audible at all times. The sound quality is important, because the dialogue is crucial to understanding the mysteries, and the scores help create each film's mood.
Extras are limited to the fourth disc, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. In a full-length commentary, British author and Holmes authority David Stuart Davies talks about the production and gives insights into the characters themselves. The track is so entertaining that I wish Davies had recorded commentaries for the other three films as well. A decent photo gallery featuring the original movie posters is also included, and is worth a look.
Here's where my job becomes difficult. MPI is offering this set at a suggested retail price of $59.98. This is the first of three such sets, so if you want to own the entire series, it's going to run you around $180. The chance to own these wonderful films in the best shape they have ever been in since the original release will be too great for many fans to resist. If you are unsure about the cost, rent this set or one of the single volumes first. Once you see Gitt's stunning restoration work, you'll want to take the plunge and buy the whole series.
All charges are dismissed…at least until the next set!
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Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon
Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror
Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death
• Audio Commentary Featuring Author David Stuart Davies
Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes In Washington
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes In Washington
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes In Washington
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