The game is afoot!
The stories of Sherlock Holmes, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, have been adapted to the silver screen more than nearly any other fictional character, excepting only Dracula perhaps. From 1939 to 1946 the role was played by Basil Rathbone. I remember Saturday afternoons seeing some of the 14 Holmes films he did with Nigel Bruce in the role of his chronicler Dr. Watson. In all the 2 played the roles more than 200 times, most of them for radio broadcasts. Focusfilms has created a four-disc box set of four of these films and included 15 hours of original radio broadcasts, with a few other extras.
To me, Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes; he is widely thought to have defined the role. Having started his career mainly playing villains in such early classics as Captain Blood, he was known to be a fine swordsman and a cultured gentleman. During those wartime years he surely made the role of Holmes his own, leaving hard-to-fill shoes behind. Universal milked him for all he was worth during those years, until finally in 1946 he refused to renew his contract, stunning everyone. He vowed to return to the stage and had a full career until his death in 1967.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was quite the Renaissance man himself, created the character and his many stories. Among his listed occupations were physician, whaler, land speculator, and spiritualist. He knew a Dr. Bell who could diagnose patients and tell them all about themselves by mere observation. Bell was the man who would become adapted into Sherlock Holmes. Combining Bell's keen powers of logic and observation with Doyle's varied and many talents, Holmes was born. Many stories followed, published monthly in magazines from the 1870s on. Perhaps the single best thing about this box set is a rare interview with Doyle, in the only time he was ever put on film with sound. In it he relates how Holmes was created, and talks more about the passion of his life, spiritualism. By the 1920s when this was filmed, this belief was widespread and all the rage. He spent over 40 years of his life pursuing every lead and medium he could find, and was completely convinced that spirits lived beyond death and could be spoken to by the proper psychic. At any rate, this rare footage was restored and pieced together and perhaps the only place it can be seen today is with this set of discs.
Perhaps the best known Sherlock Holmes story is The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alas, this fine movie is not among those in the set. I am not disappointed in the four films that are included however; each gives a little different look at Holmes and his villains. Two have him facing off against he nemesis Dr. Moriarty, one against a femme fatale, and one against Colonel Sebastian Moran, the fiendish henchman of Moriarty who took over after Moriarty met his deserved end.
The first of these included films, chronologically speaking, is Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. Filmed in 1942, England was in the very thick of the war, and Holmes leaves his usual role of solving crimes to one of foiling Nazi spies, led by Dr. Moriarty. This was the second of the Holmes films Rathbone did for Universal. This was also the first performance by Dennis Hoey as the ineffectual but well-meaning Inspector Lastrade. The same could be said for Nigel Bruce's Watson; his character was often used for comic relief and he was often bumbling and stumbling into clues. At any rate, Holmes uses disguise and intrigues to escort Dr. Tobin, a renowned scientist, from Switzerland to England. Tobin has developed a bombsight which is believed will make the difference in the war, and could cause untold damage to England should it fall into Nazi hands. With Dr. Moriarty involved, though, you know the bombsight isn't safe. Of course we will ultimately have a confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, to a not-completely successful end. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was an entertaining film but perhaps the least effective. Holmes does better as the criminal detective than as a spy. Still, I enjoyed it very much, especially the malevolence of Moriarty and the civilized discourse between the two adversaries.
Next on the chronological list is The Woman in Green, an adaptation of the Doyle story "The Empty House." Here Holmes is back on familiar turf as he investigates a series of murders, seemingly linked only by a missing finger on each corpse. Holmes works his way from clue to clue and ultimately finds out this too is the work of Dr. Moriarty, and this will be their final confrontation. This film was done in 1945 and the series had lost a bit of steam by then, but this was still an effective mystery. Working with Moriarty is another femme fatale, which was all the rage in this era of noirish films. Lucky Moriarty was also there, as the femmes were not truly great adversaries of Holmes because of his lack of sexual interest. He was capable of feigning attraction when the time came, but his attentions were always on the case. Henry Daniell played Moriarty in this film and was said to be the best Moriarty of them all. I'm not sure I agree, but certainly he played the part of the criminal genius well. One comic scene where Watson gets hypnotized while proclaiming only the feebleminded are capable of being put under is a high point as well.
Up next is Terror By Night, a murder mystery set within the claustrophobic confines of a passenger train. Holmes has been retained to guard the movement of the Star of Rhodesia, a diamond of over 400 carats. When the gem is stolen and murders mount, Holmes must deduce who among several suspects is responsible. Making a larger appearance is Hoey as Lastrade, in what would be his last appearance. You just know when Lastrade demands to hold the gem, it won't be in good hands long. The villain this time is Colonel Sebastian Moran, who has taken over Moriarty's gang. Moran proves to be a worthy foe as he pulls a genuine surprise or two. The pace is quick and the closed in sets bring a sense of real suspense. This was the shortest of all the Holmes films, running only 54 minutes.
The last of the Universal Holmes films is Dressed to Kill. Filmed in 1946, it was the swan song for Basil Rathbone in the role. Though four more films were in pre-production, Rathbone declared he was "immensely tired" of the role. You couldn't tell that from the film; he was still a professional very familiar with his character. Here a trio of music boxes holds the clues to finding the plates to print very real bank notes, with a group of criminals willing to kill for them. When the first of these victims is a friend of Dr. Watson, who had conveniently visited the night before, Holmes was on the case. Here his keen ear for music plays a vital role. The criminals here are led by another femme fatale, Hilda Courtney. She does make a somewhat worthy adversary as she depends on her wits and her accomplices' muscle to accomplish her goals. She only uses her feminine wiles to turn the heads of Watson and other victims rather than Holmes himself. She is smart enough to respect Holmes but falls for the "I'm going to leave you here in this deadly trap" downfall of all master criminals and evil overlords.
I genuinely enjoyed this trip down memory lane, though certainly there are at times gaping holes in the plots, and in the genius of Holmes. First and foremost, Holmes is a master of logic and deduction, but continually trusts Watson to accomplish some task that he inevitably fails at. You can just groan when Holmes leaves Watson to stand guard all night in Secret Weapon. Of course he is going to fall asleep. Don't take them too seriously, and the films are fun.
I absolutely love some of the extra content with this set of discs. A total of 15 hours of recordings of live radio broadcasts are included. In many ways I enjoyed these 31 mini-mysteries more than the films! I admit I heard more than I wanted about the winery that sponsored the shows, but at least for a while it's nostalgic to see the type of advertising in vogue back then. The narrator who sells the wine also converses with Dr. Watson, who tells the story as Rathbone fills in his lines, along with any other players. These are 31 chronological broadcasts, so there is continuity between them, though each stands alone. Of course, the interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, about 14 minutes worth, is golden. You can find it on the Terror By Night disc. Each disc contains radio broadcasts, a trailer, and a short photo gallery. Each radio broadcast has stills of movie art and from the films during the show as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Here is where the good news ends. Though an insert by the National Film Museum, which claims to have restored the films, prefaces each disc, they aren't in very good shape. Usually the picture is watchable, but barely. The picture alternates between being very grainy, showing extensive nicks and blips, shifts in contrast, and motion artifacts all through the films. Often, the image becomes very soft or the contrast level goes so high that faces become deathly white and there is a fair amount of blooming. If these films were restored, I can only imagine what shape they were in to begin with. I realize the films are more than 50 years old, but I've seen even older films look far better after restoration. The bitrate is extremely high, so I know the engineers did all they could trying to make it watchable. From what it says on the case the only remaining prints were extremely damaged, so this might in fact be the best you'll ever be able to see them. There are times when the picture does clear up quite a bit, to be fair.
The sound fares just as badly as the video. All the films are in the original mono and the sound quality ranges from adequate to extremely poor. Hiss creeps up occasionally; the sound is distorted and often muffled. Music sounds so harsh and shrill that it nearly hurts the ears. Ironically the radio broadcasts sound far better, with no troubles understanding dialogue. Music is still harsh but not nearly so badly as in the films. No subtitles are offered which might have made a big difference in understanding dialogue at times.
The biggest sadness here is that the prints weren't stored better. Now Focusfilms ends up in the role of preserving history that otherwise might be gone forever. Despite poor picture and sound quality, fans of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films should purchase the set. The films are worth seeing and the radio broadcasts and interview are wonderful. Those expecting anything close to the wonderful restorations of the Capra films and such will be left wanting though I fear. The box set is only $49 online for four discs with the extras, so isn't as expensive as some such sets.
The Universal Sherlock Holmes films remain the definitive representations of the character, and I'm happy to see them on disc. I can't pass judgment on the studio or the film restorers because I have no way to tell how bad the film prints were to begin with. They are released for lack of evidence.
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