Old School Sherlock Holmes on High-Def Home Video
All 14 films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in a Blu-ray Box Set
Basil Rathbone, with his hawk-like aqualine features and piercing eyes, and Nigel Bruce are, to many, the quintessential big screen Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
This 5-disc collection offers the Blu-ray debut of all of their 14 films in one efficient package. The first two films, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939), the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries, and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939), are period pieces set in Victorian England, just as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The relationship between Bruce's somewhat slow Watson and Rathbone’s sharp, at time playful and always devoted colleague Holmes creates the dynamic that sustains the stories.
They debut as Holmes and Watson in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939), the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries, and though top billing is accorded the blandly handsome Richard Greene, who plays the young Baskerville heir, it’s the chemistry between their Holmes and Watson that makes the film as they look into the supernatural “curse” that has claimed all the previous Baskerville Lords. The moors of the film may merely be elaborate sets festooned with stone monoliths and craggy hills, but the swirls of fog do wonders for the mood and the rustic manor makes for a gothic setting. Horror stalwart Lionel Atwill adds character as a seemingly dedicated doctor and John Carradine is marvelously suspicious as a straight-backed butler whose nocturnal activities raise their own suspicions. An assured debut marred only by an unsatisfying epilogue; the conclusion seems artificially truncated.
"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939), which is not based on any of Conan Doyle's original stories, pits Holmes against his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (played with cool cunning and obsessive drive by frequent screen heavy George Zucco), who escapes a murder charge in the opening scene and proceeds to bait Holmes with a challenge. Ida Lupino co-stars as the terrified young heiress worried that her brother has been marked for death, a case that Holmes takes up despite his promise to oversee the transfer of the jewel to the Tower of London. Needless to say, Moriarty's fingerprints are all over these seemingly disparate cases, but the mystery is just exactly how and why. The elaborate scheme is more convoluted than Conan Doyle's elegantly constructed stories and Lupino's aggressively suspicious fiancée (Alan Marshal) is more narrative contrivance than logical storytelling. But they are minor issues in an eventful script and a handsomely mounted film, from the hansom cabs clopping down cobblestone streets and gaslight flickering in street lamps to the fog creeping into the nocturnal gloom as if on cue, blanketing the film in an ominous tension.
20th Century Fox gave up on the series after these two productions but Universal revived the series, with Rathbone and Bruce back in their roles, in a new incarnation that brought the characters up to the present to solve mysteries in World War II-era England, beginning with "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" (1942). Loosely adapted from the Doyle story “His Last Bow,” it is directed by John Rawlins, but the rest of the series is produced and directed by Roy William Neill, who gives an old-fashioned flavor to 1940s settings with cluttered sets, musty furnishings, and a London fog licking every night scene.
Lionel Atwill co-stars as a Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1942), loosely based on “The Dancing Men.” In this version Moriarty is selling his services to the Nazis, who want an experimental bomb site from a Swiss inventor, and Dennis Hoey makes his first appearance as the competitive Scotland Yard detective Inspector Lestrade. "Sherlock Holmes in Washington" (1943), which is also loosely based on “The Dancing Men,” sends Holmes and Watson across the Atlantic to recover stolen documents.
"Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" (1943), based on “The Musgrave Ritual,” sends Holmes to a hospital where recuperating soldiers back from the front are being mysteriously murdered. "The Pearl of Death" (1944), updated from "The Six Napoleons," sends Holmes after a rare pearl stolen from a London museum, and stumbles onto a series of murders linked to the treasure. "The Scarlet Claw" (1944), is an original screenplay, a mystery that sends a skeptical Holmes and Watson to Canada to attend a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society where he’s faced with a reign of terror blamed on a mythical swamp monster. Gale Sondergaard is "The Spider Woman" (1944), a “female Moriarty” in a murder mystery loosely adapted from the short stories "The Final Problem" and "The Adventure of the Empty House." "The House of Fear" (1945), adapted from the story "The Adventures of the Five Pips," finds Holmes investigating the grisly murders of the members of an elite club, the Good Comrades. Professor Moriarty returns in "The Woman in Green" (1945), this time played by Henry Daniell (the third and last actor to play the criminal mastermind in this series), a Jack the Ripper-inspired murder mystery about a killer who cuts off a finger of all of his victims. It also includes elements of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House.”
Holmes takes a vacation in "Pursuit to Algiers" (1945), sort of. He and Watson board a transatlantic ocean liner to protect the soon-to-be crowned monarch of a small (fictional) kingdom from an assassination plot. He has his hands full with an eccentric collection of shipboard characters. Holmes and Watson leave the sea and travel by train in "Terror By Night" (1946), where they have been called to protect a priceless treasure while a new nemesis has taken over Moriarty's gang and sets his sights on the jewel. Running under 60 minutes, it is the shortest film of the series. The fourteenth and final film in the series, "Dressed to Kill" (1946), is also one of the most memorable. Loosely adapted from “The Dancing Men” and “The Six Napoleons,” Holmes and Watson investigate the murder of one of Watson’s old pals and discover a secret revolving around three music boxes sought by a woman (Patricia Morison) who will stop at nothing to acquire them.
The 12 "modern" Holmes films are mastered from prints preserved and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (complete with the original studio logo, credits, and war bonds tag) and they are lovely looking discs. The set also includes commentary on six of the films—"The Hound of the Baskervilles," "The Scarlet Claw," "The Woman in Green" and "Sherlock Holmes Faces Death" by author David Stuart Davies, "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" by Richard Valley and (new for this release) "Dressed to Kill" by actress Patricia Morison—plus an interview with Robert Gitt (Preservation Officer at UCLA), archival footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and galleries of stills and original theatrical posters. And (taking a cue from Criterion?) MPI releases this set, efficiently packed in a standard Blu-ray case with hinged trays, at the same price point as the previously-released DVD set.