“Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he’s ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day, he remains — as ever — the supreme master of deductive reasoning.”
In 1887, readers of the popular periodical Beeton’s Christmas Annual were to receive quite a special treat. There wasn’t much fanfare or hype to the event. Inside the pages of the magazine was a story called A Study In Scarlet. It was a detective story, perhaps like many published before, except for the detective himself, a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Together with his faithful companion and chronicler Dr. Watson, Holmes would win the hearts of those holiday readers. It might have been an ordinary day, but the world was about to change. Sherlock Holmes would become the most famous detective in the world. His stories would remain in print nearly 130 years later. Over 100 films would be made featuring the character. There would be television shows and cartoon spoofs. No other character has appeared in more productions. When his creator dared to kill the beloved detective in order to move on to newer stories, his very life was threatened. It would seem that Doyle was on the verge of becoming a victim much like those in his stories. There was only one man who could save him from such a grim fate, and he did just that. It was Sherlock Holmes himself.
Today, Holmes has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence. There’s been a stage production of Hounds Of The Baskervilles. Robert Downey, Jr. played a more modern action-figure version of Holmes in a very successful blockbuster film. A sequel is on the way. It seems that Holmes has more lives than a cat. One of the most memorable portrayals of Holmes was provided by Basil Rathbone in a series of thriller mystery films from Universal. Nigel Bruce would play his assistant Watson. It is from Bruce that we actually get the rather rotund and comical vision of Watson that has survived today. Watson provided the comic relief in these films. The first three films brought the detective into the modern world. For the first time, Holmes would interact with automobiles, telephones, and airplanes. It was during the years of World War II, so the studio pitted Holmes against Nazi spies and plots to sabotage the Allied war effort. One such film was:
Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1943):
A British courier has arrived in the United States carrying an important document for the war effort. If that information should fall into the wrong hands, it could spell disaster for the Allies. Traveling under the false name of John Grayson (Hamer) he is kidnapped on a train by William Easter (Daniell) and his thugs. But before he is taken, he manages to slip the document to Nancy Partridge (Lord) without her knowing it. The document is now a microfilm hidden in a pack of matches. Nancy is traveling to meet her fiancé Pete (Archer) so they can be married while he is on leave. When word reaches London that the agent is gone and the documents missing, they call in Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) to go to Washington and make sure that the pages don’t fall into the hands of dangerous spy ringmaster Heinrich Hinckel (Zucco). With deductive reasoning and outsmarting his foe, Holmes saves the day with the help of his friend Dr. Watson (Bruce) who is captivated by his visit to America.
While many argue about the use of Holmes in this World War II propaganda film, that doesn’t take away from some extraordinary performances here. Both Rathbone and Bruce have, by now, clearly defined their roles and have become them for millions of moviegoers who just couldn’t get enough of these films. There are some great performances by George Zucco and William Daniell here. Both make wonderful villains. Zucco was a veteran of many Universal horror films, and Daniell played the doctor against both Karloff and Lugosi in one of Val Lewton’s best films ever, The Body Snatcher. The music is also provided by Frank Skinner, who also provided the atmospheric melodies to Universal horror films, most notably The Wolf Man.
In the very next film, Universal would drop the Nazi angles and return Holmes to what he is best known for. Now he’s solving murders. The films still take place in the modern era, but the crime and the case take over importance here. Now Sherlock Holmes gets back to doing what he was created to do. The first of those films was…
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943):
Dr. Watson (Bruce) is working at a hospital where shell-shocked soldiers are sent to get some rest and relaxation. Suddenly, on a stormy night, the quiet is broken by a man who claims to have been accosted on his way to the house. The event leads to murder, and soon Watson realizes that he’s in over his head. Afraid that the crime will be pinned to one of his patients, he fetches his old friend Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) to solve the case.
This is not only a good Sherlock Holmes mystery that involves a family riddle and a hidden fortune. This is also a great Old Dark House film. It has all of the standard elements, including: a clock that strikes 13, a family curse, secret passageways, and, of course, a murderer among the inhabitants. Holmes must puzzle the meaning from an old family riddle that must be recited by each member of the family, next in line, when one of them dies. The personalities might not be as cleverly cast here. There are no famous villains, but the mystery is the game now. And the game truly is afoot.
Each film is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The movies are in black & white and certainly show some of their age. There are plenty of scars on the print. Still, the contrast is in good shape, which allows for good shadow definition. The blacks look rather solid. The print isn’t all that bad, considering the prints that I’ve seen of these films before. You have to take the good and the bad here for what it’s worth.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 does contain some hiss at times. You can hear everything without distortion. It’s the best you can hope for without a complete restoration of these films.
Just an Audio Commentary by a Holmes expert who is incorrect on some of his Universal facts.
The films share plenty in common with the Universal horror films which were still going strong when the Holmes films began. Rathbone himself played a member of the Frankenstein family in Son Of Frankenstein. His Washington nemesis would play in House Of Frankenstein. It’s that old Universal atmospheric magic that is very much alive in its Holmes series. Certainly, the material is quite dated today. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be terribly entertaining. You gotta love this stuff. Why, that’s “elementary, my dear Watson”.