Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

July 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Basil Rathbone had played a lot of magnetic villains in the thirties, but in 1939 he was suddenly, immediately and for all time one of the great actors to play Sherlock Holmes in a couple of lavish productions with Fox studios: Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

If you’ve never seen them, these are terrific productions, with an increasingly bumbling Watson the only drawback (say what you want about him not being as smart as Holmes, he wasn’t a complete idiot, either).

Unfortunately, despite the success of these films, the studio decided times were changing (the Second World War had started, of course) and audiences wouldn’t be into historicals. Universal studios took over, and in Voice of Terror (1942) Sherlock gets an update — a slightly bizarre, wind-blown haircut that looks sharp enough to cut your hand, and he fights the Nazis.

The film involves an awful lot of talk, a certain amount of action happening offstage, and a certain amount of stock footage as well. There’s also just something fundamentally wrong about the whole thing, really. If Holmes must be brought into the forties, he should at least be in stories that resemble Conan Doyle, not globe trotting like some kind of early Bond. Universal made three Holmes vs. Nazi films before audiences began to request something more traditional — some wind, and maybe a mansion or two in the English countryside.

Universal began to get it right in later films, though in the twelve films made with Universal (yes, that’s a total of fourteen films with Rathbone as Holmes) the update to the forties remained, largely for budget reasons. Personally, I think it’s unfortunate he didn’t do more historicals, as an updated Holmes can be vaguely faithful to the spirit and style of the stories, but ultimately it just isn’t the same. A Holmes that quotes Winston Churchill as he drives to the airport may have been needed at the time, but the later films with Rathbone only hit occasional moments that feel like Sherlock Holmes.

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