Wednesday 2 February 2011

On Basil Rathbone and Sherlock Holmes

The Universal Pictures (plus an initial two made by 20th Century Fox, yes, yes) version of Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone in the lead role and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson are the greatest accounts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most celebrated literary creation ever committed to film.

Having laid my cards down early, I'm hoping to allow any of you who feel particularly outraged by this view to abort whilst the going's good. There's probably not a lot for you here, bar a stress migraine. For everyone else, allow me to explain why.

Think about Sherlock Holmes. Think about Doctor Watson. Chances are you will have a very clear picture in your mind of a be-deerstalkered Basil Rathbone followed by an tubby and amiable, if blundering, Nigel Bruce. It's a trick that the Universal Studios perfected during the 1930s and 40s - Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein's monster are similarly entrenched in the global consciousness.

But it goes beyond that. I'm a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, particularly the short stories which made up the bread-and-butter of the series. As an adaptation of those stories as they are presented, I'd suggest looking no further than the excellent ITV adaptations of the 1980s and 1990s starring Jeremy Brett. But books and films are different things and should be treated as such. What makes a good book and what makes a good film can diverge wildly. Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps had its genus in the director's love of John Buchan's novel, but he was clear in his mind from the start that it was not a cinematically friendly work. His film version of it, therefore, used the characters and situations as a jumping off point to make something new.

And therein lies the secret of the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes films. They take some of the characteristics and some of the stories and weave them into something recognisably Sherlock Holmes but not beholden to it. The result is not particularly accurate to the book in terms of content, but in its excitement and bluster nevertheless capture the joy that kept you going back to the original stories. A true adaptation of Sherlock Holmes would likely feature our hero slumped in a chair for an hour or so, in a cloud of tobacco smoke and a veil of silence, before coming up with a brilliant solution. This can be made into a riveting piece of literature, by an entirely sedentary John Watson, but in the motion picture world we're much better served by Rathbone's all-action swashbuckling Holmes being pushed from a train by an unseen antagonist. Or Watson bungling into a hole.

In the next few days, I'm going to reduce my love of the Universal Holmes films to a series of lists - a sure sign of my truest devotion. If you've never seen any of them, or have seen bits and pieces, I hope that it may inspire you to complete the set. And to anyone who still profoundly disagrees with me but has gamefully continued to read this far, I salute you.

The Rathbone-Bruce series of Holmes-Holmeserie began in 1939, at 20th Century Fox. This produced two features, both based on the Victorian Holmes of the original text - The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - although only the former had any notable basis in plot to the Doyle stories. Once Fox passed on the Holmes films, they were picked up in 1942 by the Universal Studios, then particularly famous for their hugely successful and influential horror canon. Twelve B-pictures, none longer than an hour and a quarter in duration, followed in the next 4 years, the lion's share directed by Roy William Neill, one of a welter of Brits abroad whose name would be indelibly interwoven with these films forever.

The initial Universal films moved the detective to a modern setting. London was still his home but now his enemies were Nazi spies. I remain a great fan of these conceptual frenzies, but I'm by no means in a majority. Indeed, after just a handful of war-themed outings, Holmes' life returned more to normal Doylian fare, though still with the action set in the present day. Today's list is my rundown of the fourteen films, in reverse order of how much I enjoy them.

14. PURSUIT TO ALGIERS (film 12, 1945)

It's widely thought of as the weakest film of the bunch, but Pursuit to Algiers still has its moments. Certainly, the story is fairly thin - even padded out with 4 songs it runs to only just over an hour in length - but there's enough here to make it an hour pleasantly wasted.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are, by delightfully hammy and circuitous means, commissioned to guard the safe return of a Crown Prince to their war-torn country. A subterfuge involving a fake nephew on an ocean voyage is a natural leap, our antagonists comprising an odd gang of mutes and circus knife-throwers and whose leader bears quite the resemblance to Uncle Monty in Withnail and I.

Best bit: The opening scene, with Holmes drawn into the game via the means of a series of improbably stupid clues, takes some beating.


The second and final of the 20th Century Fox outings was based on a popular stage play of the time written by William Gillette. In it, bassoon-wielding maniac Professor Moriarty (played, in his first of three appearances in the series by three different actors, by George Zucco) hatches a scheme to distract Sherlock Holmes with a trifling matter of murder whilst he makes off with the crown jewels.

This is a film which seems burdened by its Victorian period trappings, and its rather slow pace - again padded out with a song, this time sung by master of disguise Holmes himself - is a persuasive argument for the updated and modernised Universal films to follow. However, Zucco is a fine Moriarty, probably the best of the lot.

Best bit: The all-action denoument, featuring the first of what became a series of demises for the antagonist.


The first Universal film to dispense with the overt premise of Holmes fighting the Nazis, Faces Death retains a cutting edge theme as Holmes investigates murder at a convalescent home for shell-shocked servicemen. It is also one two Universal outings to follow a single original source reasonably closely, in this instance The Musgrave Ritual.

Best bit: There's any number of things to recommend this film: a bloodthirsty pet raven, any number of reasonably dubious attempted regional accents and an explosive thunderstorm scene. The way you can at times hear the giant fan making the wind is also an unexpected bonus. However, the real winner is a deliciously played breakfast scene at 221B Baker Street, full of humour, cameraderie and taut plot building.


Holmes saves the world from Moriarty and his Nazi paymasters, a double coup. A triple or quadruple coup, in fact, as he also helps rescue a noted scientist and inventor whose revolutionary bomb sighting device could help win the war for the Allies. Moriarty this time is portrayed by a series regular, Lionel Atwill, with a fully stocked operating theatre by all accounts.

Best bit: Sherlock Holmes, ever a master of disguise, distresses his face (complete with fake scar) to blend in to a bar frequented by dock rats and undesirables and gain information as to Moriarty's whereabouts.


Another war entry. Here, Holmes flies to Washington DC to track down a King's Messenger who'd gone missing in possession of a vital secret document. This film is particularly notable for the appearance, once again, of George Zucco as the Moriarty-alike leader of a German spy ring. Peppered throughout with overt Allied propaganda and wonderfully stilted dialogue, this film is a little treat.

Best bit: Watson's perennial bumbling in these films can occasionally grate, or serve to undermine Holmes' peculiar brilliance. Here, he's a perpetual berk and it's a joy to watch.


The first, and I think the best, of the Nazi-fighting early Universal era. A mocking Lord Haw-Haw style broadcaster is taking to the British airwaves, accurately predicting death and disaster to befall the beleaguered British populace. Holmes is called in by the British government to root out the culprits.

Best bit: Every scene with the British security council. The half-dozen actors have, honest to god, each always been given a line to speak, one after another. It's magnificent.

8. THE WOMAN IN GREEN (film 11, 1945)

A madman is going round the streets of London, killing women and removing their little finger. This is definitely a case for Sherlock Holmes... and invariably the work of Moriarty and a team of hypnotists and curiously fey doll repairmen. Henry Daniell takes up the role of Moriarty here. Basil Rathbone wrote later in his autobiography that he considered Daniell to be the best of the bunch.

Best bit: The tense-yet-urbane Baker Street conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, based on The Final Problem, is hard to top.

7. THE HOUSE OF FEAR (film 10, 1945)

Bad things are happening at a remote Scottish mansion house, as the members of a perplexing tontine are being bumped off in any number of gruesomely disfiguring ways... having been forewarned of their plight by the arrival of orange pips. It's classic Holmes territory this, and Watson always enjoys a trip up to Scotland, land of his ancestors.

Best bit: The bit where the dour housekeeper Mrs. Montieth grimly intones "Aye, you'll find him all right, like the others... a corpse".


The film which started the series, the longest of the series and also the truest of any to the source text. Baskervilles' effectiveness can't help but have been undermined by the slew of imitations and alternate versions of this most famous of the Holmes stories which have followed in the intervening 70 years. However, this still stands up to any of them. Storywise, I'm pretty sure you know the drill. Big dog, ancestral curse, moors.

Best bit: Sherlock Holmes, master of disguise, annoying Watson to the point of him pulling a gun on an unlikely cave-dwelling zither salesman.

5. DRESSED TO KILL (film 14, 1946)

The final entry in the Rathbone-Bruce series is an enjoyable yarn about musical boxes being used to reveal the whereabouts of stolen banknote printing plates. The overall plot of murder and intrigue in pursuit of pieces of a puzzle is not dissimilar to the one used in the series' 5th film, Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon, but here is freed of the propagandist tone and imbued new life by a sinister gang led by the beautiful and distinctly hard-boiled Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morrison).

Best bit: Holmes' escape from an attempt to kill him, pure comic book extravagance.

4. THE PEARL OF DEATH (film 9, 1944)

A magnificent film, based closely on The Six Napoleons by Conan Doyle. Again, the antagonist is Moriarty in everything but name, Giles Connover masterfully portayed as a true intellectual rival to Holmes by Miles Mander. Sherlock Holmes contrives to lose a valuable pearl at the British Museum, and, in his efforts to get it back is confronted by a spree of brutal murders perpetrated by the horrific Hoxton Creeper. The Creeper, played by Rondo Hatton, was launched into a series of Universal horror films on the back of this introduction.

Best bit: Holmes leading Watson through a practical demonstration of pearl hiding in a London pottery workshop.

3. TERROR BY NIGHT (film 13, 1946)

Another day, another trinket. This time it's the Star of Rhodesia, and Holmes has been retained to guard it on an overnight train between London and Glasgow. This proves useful with the noted henchman of Moriarty and celebrated jewel thief Colonel Sebastian Moran about. The train setting is a classic for the murder mystery genre, and Terror By Night never disappoints, presenting just the right balance of shady suspects and dramatic set pieces. The real gem, though, is Renee Godfrey. Portraying the recently-bereaved Vivian Vedder, she exhibits a British accent which must allow Dick Van Dyke to rest easy each and every night.

Best bit: The final scene, with a lunch car shuffle and the final reveal. Most satisfying.

2. THE SPIDER WOMAN (film 7, 1944)

In many of the very best entries in this series, Holmes comes face to face with a brilliant female antagonist. None more so than in The Spider Woman, where Adrea Spedding wins Holmes' endless respect by almost killing him frequently. The title refers to the tropical method being employed to drive wealthy men to nighttime suicides. Holmes steps back - playing dead, indeed, before returning to the case dressed as a down-on-his-luck, lame, Indian gambling addict called Rajneh Singh. No, really. This film is by turns hammy and tense, silly and gripping. There is never a moment's let up.

Best bit: They're almost too numerous to just pick one, but Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson's eventful visit to the home of the eccentric tropical expert Matthew Ordway probably tops the bill.

1. THE SCARLET CLAW (film 8, 1944)

Made in the middle of a run of magnificent entries, The Scarlet Claw stands out as the very finest Rathbone-Bruce Holmes adventure. Set entirely in Canada, Holmes is retained by letter, sent by a woman who not 12 hours before had been brutally murdered. With its moorland setting and glowing, phosporescent antagonist, The Scarlet Claw is almost closer to The Hound of the Baskervilles' original text than the film bearing the same name in the Rathbone-Bruce film canon. However, it's the use of psychological thriller-style elements which sets The Scarlet Claw apart, as Holmes battles against a distinguished but psychotic actor set on revenge, who is an even greater master of disguise perhaps than our hero. Watson falls in a bog. Twice.

Best bit: Again, it's hard to choose. But I'll plump for Holmes coming face to face with the silhouetted killer, and his delightfully staccato explanations of his crimes thus far.

All of the original artwork in this post is available to buy! Email me (details in the sidebar to the right of the page) for details. Next up in this mini-series, a look at the Sherlock Holmes film's unofficial repertory company.

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