Everyone loves a good mystery and in the annals of superior sleuthing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries easily rank among the all-time greats. Holmes' brilliant powers of deduction coupled with his superior intellect and Doyle’s clever craftiness for concocting mind-boggling crimes for Holmes to solve became wildly popular reading around the turn of the last century. In truth, Conan Doyle only wrote the novels to amuse himself while attending school to become a physician. But the books took on a life of their own that eventually established Doyle’s reputation as a literary figure - something the author never quite accepted.
As his readership began to clamor for more Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle became increasingly insecure about his ability to maintain the series. In fact, in 1893 the author murdered Holmes in his novel, The Final Problem, but was so besieged by angry outcries from fans that he was forced to resurrect the character anew in 1901's The Hounds of the Baskerville - arguably Holmes' most enduring and fondly remembered mystery. In 1918 Conan Doyle died of pneumonia, putting a period to the Sherlock Holmes series though not to the character's continued popularity. In fact, with the advent of the movies, Sherlock Holmes was to find an even more enduring legacy.
The rights to Conan Doyle's novels were first secured by Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox. Zanuck intended making a series based on famed detective and quickly launched into The Hounds of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the two most intricately produced and fondly remembered movies in the series. Both films religiously adhere to the character traits of the master sleuth as described by Conan Doyle and, more importantly, are set at the turn of the last century.
In the first film, Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce) receive a cryptic visit from Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) who is gravely concerned that the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry (Richard Greene) will suffer the same murderous fate as his ancestors because of the curse of the hounds. After an attempt is made on Sir Henry's life in the streets of London Holmes sends Watson and Sir Henry ahead to the Baskerville estate where strange goings on and an ominous glow in the fog lead to more attempts on Henry's life among the craggy rocks of Dartmoor.
Holmes shadows Watson and Sir Henry in the disguise of an old peddler. While exploring the moors, Sir Henry becomes smitten with one of his neighbors, Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), whose brother John (Morton Lowry) is keeping secrets. A flock of red herrings round out this deceptive journey; the Baskerville estate's brooding butler, Barryman (John Carridine) – who seems to be skulking about to some deep diabolical purpose, his odd wife (Eily Malyon) – peaking around corners and through keyholes, and Mrs. Mortimer (Beryl Mercer) - the self-professed clairvoyant who attempts to hold a séance to learn the real identity of the murderous assailant.
Darryl F. Zanuck did not consider The Hounds of the Baskervilles as one of the studio's major releases. However, it was so wildly popular in the U.S. that Zanuck immediately recast Rathbone and Bruce in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939); a valiant follow up intended to mark the real start of what would become a future series for 20th Century Fox. On this second outing, Holmes arrives too late at the Old Bailey to expose some evidence that would have convicted his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) of the crime of murder. Moriarty goads Holmes with the prospect that he will concoct a crime so vial and perfectly executed that it will leave Holmes' reputation for deducing crime in tatters. In point of fact, Moriarty is setting up Holmes for a wild goose chase that will deflect his suspicions from his real – and much more straight forward - plan to steal the Crown Jewels.
Holmes and Watson are visited by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) who worries that her beloved brother, Lloyd (Peter Willes) will be murdered as their father was some ten years earlier. When Lloyd is discovered bludgeoned to death in the park one foggy eve the prophecy seems to have come true. Holmes pursues the case, believing that Ann is next to die. After hearing her screams, Holmes captures Gabriel Mateo (George Regas) an intruder who confesses to Holmes that it was Moriarty who put him up to this revenge in order to settle an old score against Ann and Lloyd's late father. Racing to the Tower of London, Holmes finds Moriarty in the middle of his thievery and, in the resulting chase, sends Moriarty to his presumed death.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was a resounding hit for Fox. But for reasons never fully explained, Zanuck discarded the series after these two films. Universal Studios acquired the rights to the rest of Conan Doyle's novels and immediately set about cannibalizing their literary past, frequently combining several of the novels’ plots into a single film or writing new scenarios for Holmes and Watson to pursue. Gone were the Victorian trappings – too expensive to reproduce. Holmes was given a new, and wholly bizarre haircut, and plunged into the depths of contemporary espionage – a crime fighter battling the Nazi threat on his home front and globetrotting to America to unravel clues to one of Washington’s most baffling mysteries. It didn’t work – not for the series or for diehard fans of the series.
Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon (1943) and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) are the least fondly remembered installments in the franchise. The first is loosely inspired by Conan Doyle's 'His Last Bow' and finds Holmes determined to unearth an organization of Nazi saboteurs using radio broadcasts to instill fear in Britain's population. In 'The Secret Weapon', Holmes smuggles a scientist to the West whose bombsight is much sought after by the Hitler's armies. 'In Washington' has Holmes and Watson on the trail of an abducted British secret agent smuggling microfilm with vital war information out of the country.
At the end of this trilogy Universal finally realized their error in judgment. The series had lost fans, but more importantly – money. Today, such debacles would be enough to tank a film franchise for all time. But in Sherlock Holmes’ case the series had only just begun. Based on Conan Doyle's 'The Adventures of the Musgrave Ritual', Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) mercifully returned Britain's most amiable sleuth back to his own country and in more familiar territory. Although the Victorian trappings remained absent (too expensive), there is a decided gothic mood permeating the film from start to finish. Holmes helps Watson learn the truth about a hospital where military men recovering from shell shock are reportedly being plagued by ghosts. Although set in the present ‘Faces Death’ contains trademark touches from the first two films - ominous glowing fog banks and a brooding gothic manor - that helped make this movie one of the better offerings from the Universal period.
In The Spider Woman (1944) Holmes fakes his own death to expose a series of supposed suicides as genuine acts of murder perpetrated by Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard); a vial socialite using mind control to achieve the grisly demise of her victims. With its ever-clever shifting plot written by Bertrand Millhauser and a climactic race against time inside a carnival shooting gallery, The Spider Woman ranks as a truly fascinating entry in the franchise. Arguably, the best film from the Universal lot is 1944's The Scarlet Claw. Holmes and Watson find themselves in Quebec in the tiny hamlet of La Mort Rouge where murders are being committed presumably by a hideous monster that haunts a nearby bog. More than any other film from the Universal tenure, The Scarlet Claw resurrects the spookiness and sense of foreboding that had been the backbone of Conan Doyle’s novels.
Evidently, Universal took the hint from The Scarlet Claw’s success. The Pearl of Death (1944) has plenty of fog and craggy back lot moors to mask its rather threadbare plot involving a stolen sacred gem known as The Borgia Pearl. Holmes impersonates a clergyman aboard an ocean liner to retrieve the pearl from jewels thief, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) and Giles Conover (Miles Manders) – both in service of ‘The Creeper’ (Rondo Hatton); a murderous, subhuman who has the strength of ten men and enjoys killing anyone who gets near the pearl by breaking their backs with his bare hands.
In retrospect, Universal was never a very forward-thinking studio when it came to movie franchises. Unlike MGM’s carefully spacing of at least a year between installments of their Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, Thin Man and Tarzan serials, Universal simply abused the good graces of its audience with a bombardment of like-minded product. Although this greed for profit did not seem to hurt the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes series at first it inevitably did little for its overall integrity. The Holmes movies were ground out at an assembly line pace. The two subsequent films in the series bear out this exhaustive regularity. The House of Fear (1945) has Holmes and Watson investigating seven men living in a remote Scottish castle being picked off by a mysterious murderer one at a time. In The Woman in Green (1945) bodies turn up all over London with their fingers missing. In this latter effort, the diabolical Professor Moriarty made his unwelcome return for the last time.
Confined spaces helped to liven the suspense in Pursuit to Algiers (1945) and Terror By Night (1946). In the first, Holmes and Watson escort a royal heir (Leslie Vincent) safely home after his plane is downed by saboteurs. Masquerading as Watson’s nephew, Nikolas, the future king skulks around a cruise ship while secret agents plot his demise. In the latter, Holmes and Watson pitted their deductive prowess to solve a perilous jewel heist aboard a moving train. Both films movies are particularly clever at exploiting a sense of claustrophobia to heighten suspense and yet somehow neither distinguishes itself as a standout within the series. By now Universal had begun to realize that the series had run its course. Thus, Dressed to Kill (1946) marked a fond farewell to Holmes and Watson with a rather stylish and superbly crafted murder mystery involving kidnapping and the cracking of a secret code hidden inside a series of children’s music boxes being manufactured inside a prison.
It is important to note that the death of the Holmes series was only partly predicated on dwindling box office returns. At the end of the war, Hollywood turned a corner in film production with rising costs effectively killing off the B-movie and all serials by 1950. In retrospect, the most endearing aspect of the Holmes series is its utterly charming syncopation between the two leads. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce have exceptional on screen chemistry; a little bit Tracy and Hepburn and somewhat Abbott & Costello, yet with an intangible magic all their own. True, Bruce’s Watson has very little to do with Conan Doyle’s conception of the character; and truer still – Bruce’s bumbling comedic light touch infuriated many a Doyle purist. Yet, Bruce’s Watson remains the definitive interpretation today – the utterly hapless sidekick to Rathbone’s wily and stoic crime fighter. Whether plunged into the heart of the Victorian age or remade for the 20th century, as depicted by Rathbone and Bruce the duo remains timeless. Even in arguably their worst film, The Voice of Terror, these two old souls find something to amuse the audience with their repartee.
It was rare then and virtually nonexistent today to have a team so in rhythm that they could ostensibly recite the telephone book and still draw an audience. But Rathbone and Bruce were a smash on film and a main staple on the radio too. The character of Sherlock Holmes has since been played and replayed by many skilled thespians including Jeremy Brett and, most recently, Robert Downey Jr. But when the filmic chapter is finally closed on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle's super sleuth will have only one name synonymous with the character and that name is Basil Rathbone.
MPI Home Entertainment delves into its catalogue for this deluxe Blu-ray release of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, featuring all 14 original movies in the series. Regrettably, the first two made at 20th Century Fox have not been restored. Remarkably, the gray scale on both The Hounds of the Baskerville and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes holds up well. Age related artefacts plague both titles but none that will severely distract. Film preservationist Robert Gitt provides a bit of background on the valiant restoration efforts made by UCLA'S Film & Television Archive on the remaining 12 Universal titles. Frankly, some were in an appalling state of disrepair by the time Gitt and his team came upon them, particularly Dressed to Kill; missing both its 'title card' and end titles. All of the Universal titles were missing their trademark Universal 'globe' logo that preceded them as well as the 'Universal presents...' title card, after the studio allowed its rights on these films to lapse. With so few original camera negatives in existence it is a minor miracle that the films in this collection look as good as they do.
Although the gray scale balance on all of the titles in this set is somewhat brighter than on previously issued DVDs, the films do not appear to have had their contrast levels artificially boosted. I will not bore herein with a film by film critique of the image quality. Suffice it to state for the record that many of the films in this set look quite good. However, even the ones that are in rougher shape do not look so bad as to dissuade one from enjoying these movies as art.The most impressive in this set all exhibit a considerable amount of fine detail and film grain as grain and not digitally harsh grit. The most popular of the Universal titles, The Scarlet Claw, regrettably is also the only film in this collection for which no original elements exist. MPI has managed a minor coup by using digital wizardry to correct many of the inherent visual shortcomings.
The audio on all films is mono. Yes, there is hiss and pop present on many of the features - particularly The Hounds of the Baskerville, but you're not buying vintage titles like these for their pristine sonic clarity. With what they had to work from, MPI has done a marvelous job preserving these movies for future generations. Extras are a bit scant. The six audio commentaries that accompany the more time honored titles are all exceptionally informative, genuinely augmenting the viewer's appreciation for each film. Some very rough newsreel footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and theatrical trailers on seven titles - all in very rough shape - round out the extras. Highly Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Overall score 3.5
Overall score 3