Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection
14 films on 5 Blu-ray discs
Try this experiment: ask most people who they think of when they hear the words “Sherlock Holmes actors” and they’ll likely say Benedict Cumberbatch. You might get a few Robert Downey Jr.s here and there, but more than likely, it’ll be Cumberbatch, and understandably so: the BBC’s Sherlock is an excellent series. But if you could go back in time and conduct your experiment between 1940 and 1985, there would be only one answer: Basil Rathbone.
Rathbone reigned supreme as Holmes beginning with his first film, The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939. With Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, Rathbone made 14 Sherlock Holmes films, all of which I recently watched in The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection Blu-ray from MPI.
What about Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson? Well, that’s another story… Many Sherlock Holmes purists simply can’t stand Bruce’s bumbling comedic portrayal of Watson, and having read several of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and novels, I can understand why. But I want to defend Bruce as an essential part of the film series. Yes, he’s a bumbling goofball, but there’s something genuine about how Bruce plays the role, something that’s perhaps inconsistent with the character in the Holmes stories and novels, but comes across onscreen as strangely comforting. It’s not that the combination of Rathbone/Bruce is an “odd couple” sort of pairing, which I suppose it is, but rather a familiarity that somehow seems legitimate. Rathbone and Bruce were very close friends in real life and you can sense that in every film. Frequently it’s almost as if we’re dropping in on the two friends; they’re comfortable with each other and we’re comfortable with them. Regardless of the varying quality of the films in the series, that bond never changes.
Another element of the films that I found steadfast is their pure entertainment value. Yes, some of the films are clearly better than others and everyone will claim their favorites. Yet they all entertain, regardless of weaknesses in some of the stories or the flaws in execution by the directors. Even with the worst of the films (and I don’t even consider any of them bad), you’re bound to have a pretty good time.
The one thing that initially frustrated me about the series is the supporting cast. I don’t mean the actors themselves, but the way they’re recycled throughout the series. For instance, I saw Henry Daniell as a member of the British war council in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, then saw the actor on a train in Sherlock Holmes in Washington, wondering, “What’s he doing here?” (Daniell gives perhaps the best Moriarty performance in the series in The Woman in Green.) Other actors were used in a variety of roles, none more so than Harry Cording, who played seven different characters in seven of the films. (One of my favorites, Ian Wolfe, appeared in four.) Once you get used to this game of musical chairs, all is well.
If you’re a fan of classic films or Sherlock Holmes (or both), you can’t go wrong with this Blu-ray collection, very reasonably priced right now for $39.99 (which comes out to less than $3 per movie). (Update: the set on Amazon just jumped to $65.99. But keep an eye on it; it could go back down. Even at $66, it’s still a very good deal.) I could go into the history of the films, the casting decisions, the disdain the Sherlock Holmes purists still have for Nigel Bruce, and more, but I’d rather simply focus on the films themselves. (But if you’re interested, Adam has done your homework for you: the episode “The Game Is Afoot” of the excellent Attaboy Clarence podcast is superb.)
If you’d like to know about the extras, check out the review at Blu-ray.com. I’ve actually sampled just a few of the supplements, most of which appear in the form of audio commentaries.
Let’s take a brief look at each individual film:
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) Sidney Lanfield
Previously reviewed here.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) Alfred L. Werker
This second Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce pairing introduces us to Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), before giving us another mystery, that of Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) who comes to Holmes with a mysterious, disturbing drawing sent to her brother. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes isn’t as well-constructed as The Hound of the Baskervilles, but is still great fun and shows that the success of the first film was no fluke.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) John Rawlins
Holmes and Watson are catapulted into the 20th century to assist the “Inner Council” of British Intelligence in outwitting Nazi forces who announce their crimes against the Brits in advance through a radio program. The film includes some nice scenes and a good performance by Thomas Gomez, but this installment is certainly a notch or two below the first Rathbone/Bruce films.
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) Roy William Neill
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon bounces back in quality to stand as a solid entry in series. The film concerns Holmes attempting to protect scientist Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post Jr.) from the Nazis. Tobel has invented new technology for dropping bombs with pinpoint accuracy and the Nazis want to grab him before he can make good on his new invention. The film also features Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill), up to his usual shenanigans. Director Roy William Neill would remain at the helm for the rest of the series.
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) Roy William Neill
Previously reviewed here.
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) Roy William Neill
Based on one of my SH favorite stories, “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” Sherlock Holmes Faces Death involves a stately manor in Northumberland which serves as a veteran’s hospital. Someone seems to be killing people connected with the hospital and the whole thing may have to do with a family secret that’s been guarded for centuries.
The Spider Woman (1944) Roy William Neill
This seventh film in the Rathbone/Bruce series marks the halfway point of the pairing, showing no signs of slowing down. As The Spider Woman opens, Holmes has successfully faked his own death in order to secretly investigate a series of “pajama suicides” that he thinks are not suicides at all, but rather murders. Disguised as a wealthy Indian named Rajni Singh, Holmes visits gambling houses (all of the victims were heavy gamblers) until he finds a woman who may be responsible for the murders, a beautiful woman named Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard). Spedding is as brilliant and deadly as Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty, making her capture both difficult and urgent.The Spider Woman contains an effective story throughout, but the best scenes involve a strange child and a fairground carnival.
The Scarlet Claw (1944) Roy William Neill
While in Canada attending a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, Holmes and Watson square off against Lord William Penrose (Paul Cavanagh), leader of the group. Lord Penrose is offended at Holmes’s disdain of the occult, preferring logical explanations over supernatural ones. When Penrose’s wife is found murdered in the village of La Mort Rouge (great name, right?), Holmes and Watson are intrigued. What’s even more intriguing is that Holmes receives a telegram from Lady Penrose, written just before her death, imploring the detective for help as she is terrified for her life.
With The Scarlet Claw, Roy William Neill delivers what is certainly one of the strongest films in the series, and some would argue it is the strongest. The mystery is taut, the acting good, the secondary characters colorful without being too over-the-top, and the pacing steady.
The Pearl of Death (1944) Roy William Neill
It’s not long after Holmes recovers the famous Borgia Pearl from a beautiful female thief before the treasure is stolen again, this time from the British Museum, right under the noses of Holmes and Watson. A string of murders connected with the pearl isn’t all that surprising, but why is each body discovered surrounded by huge amounts of broken china? A really nice entry in the series, made even more so by the appearance of “The Creeper.”
The House of Fear (1945) Roy William Neill
In Drearcliffe House, an old manor on the west coast of Scotland, seven elderly men begin dying off one by one, each member suspicious of the others. After each death, envelopes begin to arrive, each containing orange pips corresponding to the number of men left alive. Very much like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, The House of Fear has its own distinct manner and tone, a classic whodunit with Rathbone and Bruce in fine form.
The Woman in Green (1945) Roy William Neill
The Woman in Green is memorable for two primary reasons: Henry Daniell’s excellent performance as Professor Moriarty and its status as the darkest film in the series. When several women are found murdered, each with their forefingers severed, Holmes and Watson are called in and appear totally baffled. Hypnotism, blackmail and other shenanigans ensue, all with a noirish atmosphere that’s downright creepy.
Pursuit to Algiers (1945) Roy William Neill
Holmes and Watson have to go on vacation sometime, right? Ah, but they never get the chance to relax: Holmes is hired to protect Prince Nikolas, the young heir to the throne of Rovinia before the young man can be kidnapped or assassinated. While on a cruise ship, Dr. Watson attempts to pass the prince off as his nephew, but the killers are also on board and have other ideas. Pursuit to Algiers is one of the weaker films in terms of execution, but is still a fun venture, especially to hear Nigel Bruce singing “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.”
Terror by Night (1946) Roy William Neill
Substitute a train for a boat (from Pursuit to Algiers) and make the prize the Star of Rhodesia diamond instead of the Borgia Pearl (from The Pearl of Death), and it’s a case of Sherlock déjà vu. Even so, Terror by Night has more working parts than Pursuit to Algiers and comes across as more entertaining, thanks largely to tight pacing and a good supporting cast. (And besides, I like trains better than boats.)
Dressed to Kill (1946) Roy William Neill
Why in the world would anyone kill in order to steal three cheap music boxes? And what is it about the boxes’ song that Holmes can’t quite figure out? Patricia Morison (who at age 100 is still with us) is the woman you can’t take your eyes off of, certainly deserving of the title “dressed to kill.” While many fans cite this film as their least favorite in the series, Dressed to Kill holds up as a pretty good mystery and isn’t a bad way to end the Rathbone/Bruce film series.
I’d be pleased to know your favorites in the series. Please share…