Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Henry Daniell, Thomas Gomez and Reginald Denny
Director: John Rawlins
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
As Hitler's armies devour mainland Europe, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Rathbone and Bruce) are retained by British Intelligence to stop the activities of Nazi saboteurs being coordinated by the mysterious Voice of Terror in radio broadcasts that hijack the British airwaves once a week. Holmes soon comes to suspect that the broadcasts portent something far more sinister and dangerous than the horrific acts of terrorist... and that the enemy within England itself is more powerful than dreamed of in the worst nightmares.
Loosely based on Conan Doyle's "His Final Bow" (where Holmes came out of retirement to catch a German spy at the beginning of WW1) and the real-life Nazi propaganda broadcasts that overrode BBC signals during the early 1940s, "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" is the first of a dozen Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce that transports the Great Detective and his loyal sidekick to modern day England. (Modern-day being the 1940s.)
Holmes' methods receive a slight upgrade--the key to unlocking the mystery behind how the Voice of Terror is able to coordinate the broadcasts and the sabotage involves analyzing different types of broadcast with cutting edge audio equipment--he trades in his deerstalking cap and tweed cape for an fedora and overcoat, and the speed of modern travel and communication also impacts the story, but overall the character of Holmes is as it's found in the pages of Doyle.
Although partly a war-time propaganda movie--the kind that I've lamented aren't made anymore, what with American filmmakers preferring to glorify those who would take away their freedom rather than those who defend it--with the patriotic speeches and dastardly Nazi villains that encompasses, the film sets the tone for most of the Universal efforts that will follow. Holmes is a renegade genius, Watson is a doddering moron that seems like he is going senile (even if he isn't quite as dimwitted here as he seems in later pictures), and the villains are of a stripe that would make even the worst of the worst that inhabited the pages of pulp fiction magazines in the 1930s give them a wide berth. But the stories are exciting and fun, so the bad treatment of Watson can be overlooked... as well as the absolutely rediculous hair style that Holmes sports in these early Universal films. (Transporting Holmes to modern-day was the idea of Basil Rathbone who felt the Victorian era was too old fashioned, so I wonder if he was also the genius behind that awful hair.)
While Watson as a ninny didn't originate with the Rathbone/Bruce pictures--there were hints of it as far back as the Arthur Wontner pictures--but it was these pictures that solidified the approach as "standard." The same is true of Holmes as nearly 100% hands-off as far as physical altercations go; when a brawl breaks out between Nazi agents and Limehouse ruffians hired by Holmes as muscle, you almost get the sense that Holmes is afraid to get in the middle of the fight. The Rathbone Holmes seems like he would never throw a punch but would instead leave it to others even in the most dire of situations, so it is with these films that the idea that a "action-oriented" Holmes isn't truthful to Doyle began.
The strong presence of these somewhat legacies aside in this film doesn't really harm the entertainment value, however. The story is too fast paced for anything but Holmes bad hair to distract from the fun, and excellent performances by the stars and supporting cast only made it that much better.
Basil Rathbone is excellent as always as Sherlock Holmes (even if I will always prefer Peter Cushing's portrayal) and Nigel Bruce is solid as the comic relief, perhaps even moreso than in future sequels as less of the humor is at the expense of his character than will become the norm. Other standout performances are delivered by Henry Daniell (who will return to the series again and again, as a different villainous character almost every time) and Reginald Denny as power-brokers in British Intelligence, either of which could be a double-agent and the Voice of Terror himself. Finally, Evelyn Ankers has a small but important part as a Limehouse bar girl who helps Holmes track the Voice of Terror's main operative for deeply personal reasons.
Universal started the film with a title card that described the character of Sherlock Holmes as timeless, a character that works equally well in his "native world" of late 19th century London or the "modern day" of the 1940s. This film, and the sequels that followed--several of which saw Holmes cross wits with Nazis and their agents--show this to be true. Heck, they even make a person wonder what Holmes might do with the Internet and modern science if he were to be transported to the PRESENT modern day.