Sherlock Holmes: “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it; I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”
Professor Moriarty: “It would make an impressive exhibit.”
The success of 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles prompted 20th Century-Fox to schedule a second Sherlock Holmes film, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce reprising their roles as Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively. Rather than use one of Conan Doyle’s other Holmes stories as source material, the studio decided to adapt an old stage play on the Holmes character by William Gillette. The completed film would be called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but as so often happened in Hollywood, would bear little resemblance to its official source material. The film would prove to be another great success, partly because of its authentic period feel, but mainly due to Rathbone’s Holmes portrayal. It is perhaps his best rendering of the character in any of the 14 Holmes films in which he would eventually appear (12 of which originated with Universal, which took up the Holmes films after Fox decided that the character was out of step with modern European events in 1940).
Completing its release of all the Rathbone Holmes films, MPI has now made available a very nice-looking version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on DVD.
Sherlock Holmes’ perennial nemesis, Professor Moriarty, has managed to avoid conviction on a murder charge, much to the chagrin of Holmes, who has just unearthed proof of his guilt. Moriarty decides to carry out a major crime in London, but realizes that he must divert Holmes’s attention in order to be successful. He engages Holmes in a mysterious threat to the life of the brother of Ann Brandon, a mining fortune heiress. Completely mesmerized by the threat, which involves a puzzle concerning a picture of a man with an albatross hung around his neck, Holmes almost forgets his prior promise to help guard the Star of Delhi emerald, which is to be delivered to the Tower of London. The great detective sends Dr. Watson in his place at the last moment. This gives Moriarty free reign to carry out his plans, which apparently involve the theft of that valuable gem.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most satisfying of the films in which Basil Rathbone portrayed Sherlock Holmes. It provides Holmes with his traditional setting of Victorian England, and focuses the story on Holmes, unlike its predecessor, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes and Watson played second fiddle to the nominal stars, Richard Greene and Wendy Barrie. With Fox putting its major studio resources to work, the film successfully evokes the fog-enshrouded London of the 19th century, especially in its depiction of hansom cabs dashing along the cobblestone streets.
Basil Rathbone looks even more comfortable as Holmes than in the previous film. He received top billing this time, and looks every bit the part in Inverness cape and deerstalker hat. It’s clear that Rathbone still really enjoyed the role at this time, although he would later come to regard it as a mixed blessing due to its typecasting effect on his career. Nigel Bruce, despite some people’s unhappiness with his bumbling, silly-ass approach to the role of Dr. Watson, is an effective partner for Holmes for that very reason. He provides some relief from the air of superiority and perfection that Holmes often conveys.
One of the film’s great strengths is its use of the Professor Moriarty character as Holmes’s chief antagonist. Although Holmes would face Moriarty again in two later Universal films (played by Lionel Atwill and Henry Daniell in those instances), the portrayal by George Zucco in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is spot-on. Zucco looks good both with and without beard, and conveys the intelligence to be a worthy adversary for Holmes. He has the versatility to conduct the planning of his crime believably as well as carry out its physical actions with authority. The film also benefits from a good roster of supporting players, including Ida Lupino as Ann Brandon, Henry Stephenson as Sir Ronald Ramsgate (who enlists Holmes’s help in guarding the emerald), Terry Kilburn (he of the memorable face from Goodbye Mr. Chips) as the young boy Billy who hopes to follow in Holmes’s footsteps someday, and the reliable Mary Gordon as Holmes’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson.
The whole effort is well orchestrated by seasoned house director Alfred Werker, who moves the complex story along briskly and generates some real suspense in at least three key sequences of the film (the stalking of Ann Brandon in the garden by the man with the club foot, for one example). This manages to compensate for the film’s one drawback — a script that loses steam somewhat towards the end. The part of the plot concerning the threats on Ann Brandon and her brother is so well done that turning to Moriarty’s real crime thereafter seems almost like an afterthought.
MPI presents the film on DVD full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio. Consistent with its presentation of the other Rathbone Holmes films, the image is very good. It is remarkably sharp and clear in the early going, although the crispness seems less pronounced in the second half. Blacks are deep and pure, and shadow detail is very good. Edge effects are very minor to non-existent. The source material does betray speckling and some scratches, but they do not really detract from the overall positive impact. The mono sound is quite adequate, although it is characterized by noticeable hiss and crackle. The supplements include production notes and an entertaining audio commentary by Richard Valley (publisher of Scarlet Street magazine — he obviously knows his Holmes), a short photo gallery, and three rather beaten-up re-release trailers for later Universal Holmes films (The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and Terror by Night).
MPI concludes its Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes releases with one of the best in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Should there be anyone unfamiliar with these films, this is as good a one to start with as any. MPI’s presentation is all one could hope for.