Universal Studios released a dozen Sherlock Holmes films between 1942 and 1946 to cash in on the success of 1939's The Hound Of The Baskervilles which fairly instantly immortalized Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively. The copyrights went out of date on these pictures, however, and they fell into the public domain only to be released and re-released over the years in editions of drastically varying quality. The good people at the UCLA, however, have properly restored the pictures and it is from these restorations that MPI has taken their transfers which are of much better quality than many of the budget offerings of these titles.
Here's a look at the two pictures that make up this Sherlock Holmes Double Feature:
Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1942):
When this first film begins, a British secret serviceman named Alfred Pettibone (Gerald Hamer) goes missing while carrying out his mission of transporting some top secret microfilm from London to Washington. This agent was savvy enough to know that he was in danger, however, and so he secretly slipped the microfilm to a female passenger on a train without her realizing it. When the agent turns up missing, the powers that be call in Sherlock Holmes to try and figure out what happened to him and where the microfilm has gone before it falls into enemy hands.
Fans of the series already know that Rathbone and Bruce are excellent in their respective roles and they do a typically fine job here. Their dialogue and back and forth banter is well scripted and the film contains a couple of genuinely suspenseful moments, a couple of which are remarkably well put together. The scene in which our secret agent passes off the aforementioned microfilm on the train has a fantastic rhythm to it and so too does a party scene where that same microfilm is passed from one player to the next. This ensures that the audience will always be paying attention and it reaches some impressively Hitchcockian levels of suspense before Holmes and is incredible deductive powers wrap it all up.
Directed by Roy William Neill, the film stumbles a few times by not including as much of Holmes and Watson as some fans might want. Much of the film runs by without the two heroes in it, simply cutting to clips of them in a cab or whatnot so that we're reminded they exist while the film concerns itself more with the various supporting characters. This does take away from the picture a bit but not enough to ruin it. It's nicely shot and while it relies a bit too heavily on stock footage in some scenes, Sherlock Holmes In Washington turns out to be quite an enjoyable picture. The influence of the war which was raging at the time is obvious and it works its way into the storyline without much in the way of subtlety, but that doesn't diminish the picture's entertainment value.
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943):
Directed by Roy William Neill the same year as the first film on the disc, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death benefits from a more interesting plot than the other film, but has a few flaws as well. The story is a good one as it follows Dr. Watson as he attends to some wounded British soldiers at stately Musgrave Manor. Watson soon notices some strange occurrences on the grounds, however, and when a dead body appears, he figures it's time to call in his good friend, Sherlock Holmes. Watson explains that he believes all of the men in his care are good people but, given their history, they may not be the most stable of people while Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) of Scotland Yard is quick to arrive on the scene and start pointing fingers at various characters. Holmes, of course, plays it cool and uses his brains to try and find the real killer before he strikes again.
If you're even halfway paying attention to this picture you won't have too much difficulty figuring out who the real killer is, so the suspense factor is fairly limited in this outing but the cinematography is very good and it does a fine job of exploiting as much mood and atmosphere from the locations as possible. There are some interesting supporting characters here, given that most of the men under Watson's charge are suffering from mental problems due to their activity in the war, and so this makes the film a little more interesting than it would have been otherwise and gives some of the supporting players a chance to make their characters their own.
This picture doesn't work the war angle as much as the first film does, though obviously given that it deals with soldiers, it's not completely devoid of it either. Holmes, here, is less a champion of the Allied cause as he is an actual detective so on that level it feels a bit truer to the books (it does, after tall, take its inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Musgrave Ritual). The film also works some fun macabre elements into the story thanks to the manor's gothic appearance, though a few of the red herrings thrown into the story are rather obvious.
Overall, these are not the best of the Universal Holmes films, but they're definitely worth seeing and completely entertaining. Both are well made and well acted and while certainly products of their time, that's not a flaw (in fact it adds to their charm). Rathbone and Bruce would make better films together in the years to come, but these are solid entries.
Both of the films on this disc are presented in their original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. The black and white picture quality is strong from start to finish here, both films having been restored from 35mm elements and benefitting from new transfers. Contrast fluctuates a bit from scene to scene as is sometimes common with older black and white pictures and there are some specks here and there but for the most part there's no heavy print damage to complain about. Black levels are nice and strong and there are no problems with compression artifacts to complain about. There's a bit of shimmering here and there but this is a minor complain as overall both films look very good on this DVD, particularly when you consider the fact that they're both well over sixty years old.
Both pictures are presented in English language Dolby Digital Mono and considering their age, they generally sound pretty good. There's a bit of background hiss here and there but it's never overpowering or anything more than a minor issue. You can't expect the quality of the audio here to be on par with more modern films but for their age, both pictures sound just fine. English subtitles are provided for both films.
Sherlock Holmes In Washington contains only a static menu and chapter selection but Sherlock Holmes Faces Death includes a commentary track with the David Stuart Davies, the editor of Sherlock Magazine. He introduces the film by touching on some of the earlier Rathbone/Bruce films made for Universal, and then goes on to detail the score, the cast, and the locations seen in the picture. He points out some of the different characters who appear in the picture and details their backgrounds and makes some interesting comments about how these films differ from some of Arthur Conan Doyle's original source material. There's a bit of dead air here and there but this is a pretty solid commentary that provides some welcome background and contextual information. It's mostly a scene specific discussion but it does periodically detour here and there to fill in the blanks on certain aspects of the movie. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death also features a static menu and chapter stops. The packaging advertises a still gallery but there isn't one include don the DVD.
Two very strong entries in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series are given very nice representations on DVD with this release. While the disc is light on extra content the commentary will be of interest to fans and the films themselves hold up really well. There are better films in the series than these two, but both Sherlock Holmes In Washington and Sherlock Holmes Faces Death are quite good and this release comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.