"You have a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it pickled to the London Medical Society."
So says the world's greatest consulting detective to the Napoleon of Crime in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the second of two Holmes movies made at 20th Century-Fox before the series moved lock, stock, and barrel to Universal a few years later. Nominally based on William Gillette's play Sherlock Holmes, the movie is mostly an original work, a highly entertaining entry in the series, due in no small part by the terrific performance by George Zucco as Holmes's arch-rival, Professor Moriarty.
The clever script by Edwin Blum and William A. Drake is, as audio commentator Richard Valley describes it, a How Done It. The story opens with Moriarty newly acquitted of a murder after Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) arrives too late to present new evidence that would have condemned the master criminal. Tiring of Holmes's meddling, Moriarty plans "the crime of the century," which will not only enable the fiend to retire in peace (he wants to devote his twilight years to the study of "abstract science") but utterly disgrace Holmes in the process.
It would be unfair to reveal much more, suffice to say Moriarty sets two crimes into motion simultaneously, one so strange as to distract Holmes from the primary caper, which somehow involves a rare jewel -- the Star of Delhi.
The film is a delight, much of it due to Zucco's masterful Moriarty. The actor remains a cult favorite for his villainous parts in myriad B-movies (and worse), including such films as The Mummy's Hand (1940), Topper Returns (1941), The Mad Ghoul (1943), and Scared to Death (1947). But where most of those parts shuttered him to the background or were cheap no-budget pictures cashing in on his familiar persona, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes affords the actor with a substantial, well-written part.
With his piercing eyes and subtle manner (the opposite of Lionel Atwill's flamboyant Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, or Henry Daniell's acerbic one in The Woman in Green) Zucco projects a man of cold, calculating intelligence, with great dialog that has him unhesitatingly putting far greater value on his carefully cultivated houseplants than a human life.
Zucco's Moriarty also has some of the best dialogue in the entire series. Speaking to one of his underlings about a dead henchman who had met some extreme, violent end:
"Ah, poor Higgins. They found nothing but his boots," Moriarty says wistfully.
"One boot," the underling corrects him.
The script makes smart little counterpoints between Moriarty and Holmes. Part of Moriarty's scheme involves the use of a club-footed South American flutist, who plays a dirge-like tune full of minor key dread, which is heard through much of the picture. Holmes, conversely, is first seen plucking scales on his violin, determined to find a pitch that will control houseflies.
As with Hound of the Baskervilles, Fox has given the film a high-B / low-A treatment that was somewhat usual for mysteries at this time. Backlot streets are lavishly atmospheric with numerous costumed extras, gas lamps and thick fog. Rathbone's performance still has a freshness that would become world-weary within a few years, and is convincing in what is unquestionably Holmes's best disguise ever, a real surprise. Nigel Bruce's Watson is agreeably comical but not yet criminally stupid, though the screenwriters still don't know quite what to do with him. Watson here is alternately sweet, surly, assertive and bungling. Ida Lupino (her long, penciled eyebrows jutting out like a Romulan) is fine in a conventional ingenue part, while character favorite E.E. Clive has a good, Inspector Lestrade-type role. Mary Gordon's Mrs. Hudson is present, along with child star Terry Kilburn (fifth billed, embarrassingly one notch up on the billing from Zucco) as a houseboy in Holmes's much too opulent Baker Street residence.
Video & Audio
MPI's full frame transfer is solidly good, which rich blacks and good detail throughout, although at least one later reel seems marginal softer than the rest. The DVD offers optional English subtitles, but as with the other titles in this series, the text frequently lag several well behind the dialogue, creating an irritating effect for those who use it. The mono audio is about par for its age.
The primary extra is its Audio Commentary with Richard Valley, publisher and editor of Scarlet Street Magazine. Valley offers a witty, fact-crammed commentary full of information about the film's production, the play, and of particular note references deleted scenes that cover plot holes that turn up in the finished cut of the picture. Valley keeps it all consistently interesting, and deserves credit for generously crediting the sources for the various interviews and articles he quotes. In short it's one of the best commentary tracks this year.
Selected Theatrical Trailers offers trailers for three of the best of the later films: The Scarlet Claw (1944), Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944), and Terror by Night (1946), in mediocre to poor condition. All are reissue trailers from Associated Artists Productions (AAP).
A Photo Gallery / Original Theatrical Poster is just that, though like Hound of the Baskervilles some of the images appear to be well-chosen frame-grabs rather than publicity stills.
Though undermined by a conventional climax, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is one of the series' best, a clever, intriguing mystery with one of the screen's greatest Moriartys.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.