There are a lot of people who have played Sherlock Holmes through the years. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Christopher Plummer, even Michael Caine in a satirical performance. But the person who most forcefully imprinted his image on the public consciousness in that role is Basil Rathbone. His fourteen outings in the late thirties and early forties, along with Nigel Bruce as the faithful Watson, became the iconic representation of the brilliant detective. MPI Home Video has released a nice looking double feature of the Rathbone / Bruce pairing with The Spider Woman and The Voice of Terror.
In The Spider Woman, London is in the grip of fear as seven men have recently killed themselves in what are known as the "pajama suicides", so called because the men have all done themselves in from locked rooms while alone and dressed for bed. Meanwhile, Holmes and Watson take a fishing holiday, much to the chagrin of the British populace, who think they ought to be doing something about it. As he is wont to do, Holmes fakes his death in order to better investigate the case, and soon enough he and Watson are hip deep in devious femmes fatale, poisonous spiders, killer pygmies and sly imposters.
As with many of these films, the logic doesn't necessarily follow through. For instance, when Holmes discovers that a pygmy is probably involved in the deaths, how is it that the only place he might be hiding is a circus? Regardless, the joy of these films lies not in the perfectly constructed plot, but in the humor and bravado of these beloved characters, the beautiful women and the ingenious methods of murder. The Spider Woman has all of these ingredients in abundance.
The other film in the double feature is The Voice of Terror. Anachronistically set in the midst of World War Two, in this film Holmes is called in to help stop the eponymous Voice of Terror, a German radio broadcast that mocks England, and announces various terrorist acts, all with the aim to sap the will of the British people. The Inner Circle, a sort of senior security council, employs Holmes in the hopes that he will find the source of the transmissions, though over the objections of some of the members of the Circle.
Immediately upon accepting the case, Holmes and Watson are the victims of attempted murder at the hands of German agents, and one of Holmes' informants is killed, stumbling through his door with a knife jutting from his back. He manages only to utter the word "Christopher" before he dies. Holmes and Watson plunge themselves into the seedy underworld of the Limehouse district, calling upon the patriotism of the city's criminal class, to aid in their investigation. With the help of the thieves and sharpers, and Kitty (Evelyn Ankers), the wife of Holmes' slain informant, they manage to unmask the identity of the highly placed traitor who is the Voice of Terror.
Neither of these films represent the absolute best of the Rathbone / Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, but they are both a lot of fun. They are light entertainment, served with a few laughs, a few thrills, and several buckets of nostalgia. The transfer is excellent, and both films look and sound great. For those who want to add some classic Holmes to their collections, this MPI double feature is a good bet. Recommended.
The video is presented in 4:3 standard, and looks good. There are video artifacts present, but they are few and negligible. The contrast is good, and the action is always visible. These look much better than many films from the forties currently on DVD.
Sound is Dolby 2 channel, and is also good. Little or no hiss is detectible, and the dialogue is always audible. English subtitles are available, but no alternate language track.
There are no extras available on the disc.
The Rathbone / Bruce pairings are not cinematic giants, but they are certainly classics in the detective genre, and plenty of fun to watch. Both are short in duration as well, making the double feature only slightly over two hours in total length. MPI has done a good job in presenting these two, and they look and sound very good. For fans of the black and white mysteries, and of Sherlock Holmes in particular, it would be hard to go wrong here.