All right now! The game is afoot!
Four more entertaining films from the 1942-46 Universal Pictures series of Sherlock Holmes adaptations are presented in another satisfying four-disc set from MPI. All four films have been restored by Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive to splendor unknown since their theatrical releases.
Facts of the Case
Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman
The Scarlet Claw
The Pearl of Death
Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear
Since I discussed the background of the series in my review of the first collection, I thought I'd go into a different direction for this review of the second set. I'm going to discuss how I became a Holmes fan in the first place. It all began in the fourth grade when a Troll Book Club order form was distributed. The Troll Book Club was an organization from which children could order recent and classic literature at discount prices. I loved to purchase their classic literature titles. One month, Troll offered The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles for one dollar each. Of course, I immediately ordered the books. As soon as they arrived, I dove in and spent an entire weekend in the company of Sherlock Holmes. Never before had I read a mystery so involving, yet intelligent (years later, I would discover Lawrence Sanders's work). Needless to say, I was hooked. I spent the remainder of my elementary school life borrowing every Holmes book I could get my hands on.
It wasn't until more recently that I finally saw the classic Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films. Most of the local video stores did not carry the films for rental. One small mom-and-pop outlet had a tape with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes backed with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. My family was bored to tears watching them, but I adored the production values and inventiveness the films displayed. I eventually caught the rest of the series on public television, all in prints that looked pretty awful.
A noticeable shift in the films appear as the series progresses. Despite the modern setting, the films are Victorian in tone and atmosphere. This was not accidental, but rather a decision made by producer/director Roy William Neill, who felt the topical use of Nazis hindered the series. Neill may have had a point, since the four films in this second boxed set are superior to the previous "Let's get the Nazis" attitude of the previous four entries. This quartet of pictures retains the ingredients that marked the previous four; Nigel Bruce's Watson is still a lovable fool, and Basil Rathbone's hairstyle is decidedly modern. But by concentrating on atmosphere and mood, this batch holds up better than their predecessors.
Of the four features, The Scarlet Claw is considered the best entry of the series, and rightly so. It is the longest film in the series, with a 74-minute running time. The extra time allows for a more deliberate pace, which serves the mystery particularly well. It has a neat twist ending and is the best acted of the series. My personal favorite of the four is The House of Fear, based on Doyle's short story The Five Orange Pips. It's the kind of mystery that keeps one guessing all the way to the final moments. You're not likely to figure out the ending right away, and you'll be satisfied with the solution when it's revealed. The weakest entry in this collection is The Pearl of Death, which is a bit too clever for its own good. This film also suffers from an unnecessary character, the Hoxton Creeper. The Creeper seems to be on hand for no better reason than to showcase the grotesque features of Rondo Hatton, a victim of chronic acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland that severely distorts the facial features, hands and feet. It is suspected that the disease manifested itself after Hatton was exposed to mustard gas during warfare.
As I discussed in my review of the first collection, the Holmes films were suffering from the ravages of time until Robert Gitt, head of UCLA's Film and Television Archive, undertook a massive restoration effort. The two 20th Century Fox films that began the series (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) were not part of this project, as they remain under Fox's control, but the entire Universal series of 12 Holmes films came under Gitt's loving ministrations. Gitt has done fine restorations before, with top-notch work on The Guns of Navarone, My Darling Clementine, and The Big Sleep, and he has again done a fine job with the Universal Holmes films. In his five-minute introduction for this box set, he admits that some of the films came dangerously close to disappearing for good, in particular The Scarlet Claw and Pursuit to Algiers (which will be appearing in the upcoming third DVD collection).
It may have taken Gitt 10 years to restore these films, but it was time well spent. The full frame transfers are all miles better than the truly horrific public domain prints that often air on PBS stations on lonely Saturday nights. The Scarlet Claw and The Pearl of Death look the weakest of the quartet, mainly due to the fact that the original 35mm prints no longer existed, and Gitt had to rely on duplicates of varying formats and quality. Still, even these two movies show a crispness not seen since their theatrical debuts. The best looking of the four is easily Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman—nearly flawless except for a few minor blemishes. House of Fear isn't too far behind, but some flickering and haloing prevent me from giving it higher marks than Spider Woman.
Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is all you get from this collection aurally, but they are tremendously satisfying tracks. Even in the more seriously flawed examples, like The Scarlet Claw, you'll hear clarity that has been missing in action for over sixty years. Dialogue is always well-defined and strong. The sound has been mixed just right so the score doesn't overwhelm the dialogue (and vice versa). The worst of the lot is the aforementioned The Scarlet Claw, which is riddled with imperfections (again due to the fact that the original negative is lost forever). The best is Spider Woman, which suffers from only a few minor, sparse crackling sounds.
Extras are limited only to one film, The Scarlet Claw. British author and Holmes buff David Stuart Davies returns for another commentary track; this one is even better than his previous effort on Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. As I mentioned in my previous review, it is a shame Davies did not record commentaries for all the Holmes films.
The five-minute introduction by Robert Gitt is short, but loaded with information and insights into the lengthy restoration effort undertaken by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
A photo gallery featuring the original theatrical movie posters rounds out this collection. It's worth a look at least once.
Retail price is $59.98. As I had recommended with the first set, fans of the films and Holmes in particular should definitely pick it up, no questions asked. The remainder should rent these films. Even rent the old VHS tapes if those are all you can find. I'm positive that after you watch one Holmes film, you will want to own these incredible sets.
As with the first set, all charges are dismissed. That is, until the third set!
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Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes And The Spider Woman
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes And The Spider Woman
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes And The Spider Woman
Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes In The Pearl Of Death
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes In The Pearl Of Death
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes In The Pearl Of Death
Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes In The Scarlet Claw
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes In The Scarlet Claw
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes In The Scarlet Claw
• Audio Commentary Featuring Author and Holmes Authority David Stuart Davies
Scales of Justice, Sherlock Holmes In The House Of Fear
Perp Profile, Sherlock Holmes In The House Of Fear
Distinguishing Marks, Sherlock Holmes In The House Of Fear
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Treadway; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.