Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce first appeared as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the 1939 release 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.' A moderate success, the film was followed almost immediately by a sequel and by the end of the year Rathbone and Bruce had established themselves as the definitive Holmes and Watson. Though the films were popular, Columbia was a financially troubled studio and the Holmes property was sold lock, stock and barrel to Universal where it was taken in an entirely new direction. Universal kept Doyle's characters but abandoned his plots and changed the setting to contemporary (1940s) London. Hard core Doyle fans may not have thought much of Universal's strategy but the general movie going public loved the films and with their devotion made Rathbone and Bruce enduring legends.
I grew up watching the Universal Holmes films on TV and was very excited when FOCUSfilm announced the imminent release of An Evening with Sherlock Holmes. The collection is a four DVD set including 'Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon', 'Woman in Green', 'Terror by Night' and 'Dressed to Kill.'
The back of the attractive box that this set comes in states: 'The enclosed four DVD titles were miraculously restored from the only known surviving prints, which were extremely damaged.' Based on that statement I was looking forward to seeing crisp clear presentations of these classics but I was bitterly disappointed. The footage varies in quality from title to title, the middle films ('Woman in Green' and 'Terror by Night') are in the best condition. They exhibit barely passable shadow detail and contrast but suffer from soft edges, streaking and any number of source flaws including rough splices, pinholes and the like. 'Dressed to Kill' is in nearly unwatchable condition with over blown whites, an almost complete lack of shadow detail and generally bothersome lack of focus throughout. 'Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon' is a little better but the print used for the transfer is battered and beaten. There are holes, scratches, bad splices, jump cuts and just about every other flaw imaginable.
The sound tracks on these four films are in equally bad condition. The dynamic range is so thin as to be virtually non existent. Dialogue is masked by persistent hiss and the musical score is buried beneath pops and distortion. I had a hard time understanding the actors on more than one occasion and the overall experience was much more frustrating than enjoyable. If you want to get a feel for what a wonderful job Universal is doing restoring their Classic Monster films just play Frankenstein alongside one of these Holmes discs.
If An Evening with Sherlock Holmes has one redeeming feature it's the inclusion of over 15 hours of the original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio drama staring Rathbone and Bruce. Each of the four discs includes several half-hour installments, each of which is crisp, clear and very enjoyable. The radio drama stayed closer to the original Doyle plots, which should please mystery fans and devotees of old time radio will be happy to learn that the original commercial breaks have been preserved here as well.
No matter how you slice it, An Evening with Sherlock Holmes is a disappointment. These films are classics and deserve complete restoration. FOCUSfilm's lame attempt to soften the blow by calling the movies 'miraculously restored' is patently insulting and borders on false advertising. Be that as it may, some fans may find this presentation worth owning until such time as better versions are released. The radio dramas are worth owning but at a retail price of over $60 even hard core fans will have to think twice. I suggest renting the set and making your own judgment before buying