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Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection(1939-1946)
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection stars Basil Rathbone as the legendary Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the venerable Dr. John H. Watson.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection is comprised of all 14 classic films on 5 discs:
The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl of Death, The House of Fear, The Woman in Green, Pursuit to Algiers, Terror by Night, Dressed to Kill
For more about Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection and the Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray release, see the Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray Review
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Mary Gordon, Dennis Hoey
» See full cast & crew
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray Review
Wondering whether you should buy this Blu-ray box set? Why, it's elementary my dear readers.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, March 22, 2011
Forget the puzzle-box Agatha Christie whodunits solved by Poirot and Miss Marple, throw out Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled private eye capers, and dismiss entirely long-running TV police procedurals like C.S.I., Law and Order, and The Shield; without Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, it's doubtful that any of these successive gumshoe thrillers would even exist. Sherlock Holmes is, by far, the most well known fictional detective, and the very mention of his name evokes the tenets of an entire genre: careful observation, deductive reasoning, and the use of the latest advances in forensic science. In the forty-year span between 1887 and 1927, Holmes appeared in four novels and fifty-six short stories, and most of these—in one form or another—have been adapted for the stage, television, and the screen. It's commonly held that Holmes is the most prolifically portrayed movie character, with some seventy-five actors having tackled the role in over 211 productions to date, from William Gillette in a 1916 silent film to Robert Downey, Jr. in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Perhaps the most iconic Holmes, however, is South African-born British actor Basil Rathbone—also one of my top-five candidates for having the coolest name of all time—who played the Baker Street Wizard in fourteen films between 1939 and 1946.
The series began at 20th Century Fox with The Hound of the Baskervilles, in what was supposed to be a one-off adaptation of the most widely recognized Holmes story, but the film's success in the U.S. prompted the studio to quickly release a second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. For reasons not entirely clear, Fox made no further Holmes movies, but Universal Studios—after acquiring the rights to several of Doyle's stories in 1942—reinvigorated the series, making twelve additional films, all starring Rathbone as Holmes and the jocular Nigel Bruce as his trusty assistant, Dr. Watson.
The series deviates—quite drastically at times—from the established Sherlock Holmes canon. For one, while the two Fox films are set in Doyle's fitting Victorian timeframe, all of the Universal films take place during the WWII-embroiled 1940s, and three of them—The Voice of Terror, The Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington—feature a good deal of explicit anti-Nazi propaganda. Most of the scripts borrow liberally and loosely from Doyle's stories, with The Hound of the Baskervilles standing as the only truly faithful adaptation. The greatest change—and the one that keeps some nitpicky Holmes purists from enjoying the series—is the transformation of Dr. Watson. In the original stories he's a capable physician and reliable narrator, but in the movies he's largely played for comic relief, gullible and avuncular, always astonished and easily fooled. (Personally, I enjoy Bruce's portrayal—he gives levity to the films and some of his extremely funny scenes are among the series' most memorable.)
Differences from the source material notwithstanding, the films do capture the essence of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories—the tight plotting, the sense of atmosphere, and the pipe-smoking detectives' uncanny grasp of logic. Along with Jeremy Brett, who embodied the role on British television between 1984 and 1994, Basil Rathbone is certainly a strong contender for the definitive Sherlock Holmes. He's captivating throughout all fourteen films—sharp, assured, and displaying a rare ability to facially convey the mental gymnastics going on inside his character's mind. Rathbone looks like he's actually trying to crack the crime, even as he's acting. Although he was a veteran stage actor and appeared in numerous other films—David Copperfield, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro—Rathbone is remembered almost exclusively for his work in the Sherlock Holmes movies. Still, this is quite a legacy. While they're basically B-movies, made quickly and cheaply on the Fox and Universal lots—you could justifiably call this an "assembly line" series—the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone are elevated by terrific stories, fine performances, and lots of production value for their meager budgets.
After extensive restoration and new high-definition masters by the UCLA Film and Television Archive—a twelve-year process completed in 2003—MPI Home Video first released the fourteen films on DVD, and the company has now brought the entire collection to Blu-ray, where it looks absolutely stunning, especially in comparison to the many shoddy home video iterations of the four films in the public domain. Longtime Holmes aficionados should already be familiar with the entire series—feel free to skip down to the video/audio portion of the review—but for you Baker Street neophytes, read on for quick capsule reviews of all fourteen movies.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939, 1:19:43): Oddly enough, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce weren't even top-billed in Hound, the first film in the series. Fox never considered the duo might have a lasting future as Holmes and Watson, so the top spot went to Richard Greene, playing Sir Henry, last heir to the cursed Baskerville estate, an eerie, isolated manor standing on the foggy moors of Devonshire. And indeed, Holmes is absent for much of the film. When his presence is requested to investigate the suspicious death of Sir Henry's uncle, Holmes sends Watson instead, only to show up much later in disguise. The central mystery concerns the legend of the Baskerville Hound, a supposedly demonic and immortal canine known to hunt down members of the Baskerville clan on the perilous Great Grimpen Mire, where "one false step equals death." Of course, the real culprit is decidedly un-supernatural. Might it be the Nottinghill murderer, the escaped lunatic (Nigel De Brulier) who roams the moors? Perhaps Barryman (John Carradine), the gaunt butler? And what of the friendly next-door naturalist, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry)? This is one of the best screen adaptations of the Hound tale, heavy on Gothic touches, like crumbling Neolithic ruins, swirling fog, and an exceedingly creepy séance. It's also the film that's most faithful to Doyle's original. Starting with the following film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the movies were either pick-and-choose hodgepodge amalgams of Doyle's stories, or almost entirely new creations.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, 1:21:42): The last of the 20th Century Fox Holmes films and the last to be set in the period-correct Victorian era, Adventures pits Holmes against his dastardly arch-nemesis, Moriarty (George Zucco), who has just narrowly escaped a murder sentence due to lack of evidence. A free man, Moriarty hatches a new criminal plan, which seems to involve killing Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino), the heir to an enormous estate. And yet, this is only a front for his real scheme, a far more lucrative steal that I won't spoil here. Zucco makes a cracking Moriarty, a character that Holmes refers to as "the very genius of evil." And he is. Moriarty is such a devilish sumbitch that he has a servant who does nothing but play minor-key clarinet music all day, the soundtrack to his master's fiendish brainstorming. At one point, Moriarty even threatens to boil his butler in hot oil for the minor offense of forgetting to water the plants. His opening tęte-ŕ-tęte with Holmes is filled with zingers and mutual disdain. This is great stuff! You can also begin to see Watson's evolution into a buffoon here; there's a really funny scene where he lies down in the middle of the street to reenact a crime, startling a baffled passerby. Incidentally, Adventures is responsible for popularizing the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson," a line that never appeared in any of Doyle's stories.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942, 1:05:29): The first Universal entry in the series is quite a departure. Forgoing the Victorian setting of the Fox films, which required expensive period-detailed sets, the new home of the franchise switched the action to the present, enabling Holmes to take on England's biggest threat yet—the Nazis. When the film opens, an intertitle explains the temporal shift: "Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible, and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains—as ever—the supreme master of deductive reasoning." There's also a clever moment in the beginning when Holmes reaches for his famous "deerstalker" hat—the one with the floppy ears, way out of fashion by the 1940s—but reluctantly dons a fedora instead at Watson's urging.
Besieged by radio broadcasts from a German who gloats over the English airwaves about Nazi victories, British intelligence calls in Holmes to silence this "Voice of Terror" and help stop a rash of saboteur attacks. This is the first of several films in the series to adopt a distinct noir-ish tone and visual style. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell fills the frame with dark, slanted shadows, and the story takes us through London's somewhat-seedy Limehouse district. There's even a femme fatale of sorts, Kitty (Evelyn Ankers), who, in a quest for justice, infiltrates the group of Nazi spies who killed her husband, led by Meade (Thomas Gomez), a portly double agent. The film's climax inside a bombed-out cathedral is evocative of its era, when V-1 rockets were raining terror over English cities, and Holmes' closing monologue—taken straight from Doyle's story "His Last Bow"—is an optimistic coda meant to instill hope in the audience: "There's an east wind coming, Watson…Such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a greener, better, stronger land will be in the sunshine when the wind is cleared."
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943, 1:08:46): The war effort is once again a strong theme as The Secret Weapon concerns Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post, Jr.), whose new invention, the "Tobel Bombsight," could turn the tide in favor of the allies. When Tobel disappears—leaving behind only a cryptic message—it's up to Holmes and Watson to crack the code and track down the missing inventor. Complicating matters is Holmes' old nemesis, Moriarty—played here by a fiendish Lionel Atwill—who, despite dying in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, seems to be as ageless, invincible, and unchanging as our hero. Naturally, Moriarty is in league with the Nazis, and there's a great sequence where the villain straps Holmes to an operating table and plans to slowly bleed him dry to an ignoble death. When will bad guys learn to simply shoot the good guys and be done with it? The Secret Weapon is notable for the first appearance of Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade —a Scotland Yard detective who will appear in several subsequent films—and it also features Holmes in several classic disguises. At several junctures, the film is reminiscent of a more frivolous, B-movie version of The Third Man. Starting with this film, all the remaining entries in the series would be directed by Roy William Neil (Black Angel).
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943, 1:11:32): This is one of my personal favorites. It's not quite as serious as the previous two, and it has a fun, very Hitchcockian premise. Remember the microfilm that everyone was after in North by Northwest? Sherlock Holmes in Washington features an identical MacGuffin. Before members of an "international spy ring" kill him, a British agent in America covertly slips his secret documents—microfilm cleverly hidden inside a V-for-victory matchbook—into the purse of a well-traveled Washingtonian socialite (Marjorie Lord). What follows is a crazy "follow-the-matchbook" caper that has Holmes and Watson called in from London and out of their comfort zones as two Brits in the world's political powerhouse. (See, much later: In the Loop) Watson has some particularly humorous moments, slurping milkshakes and attempting to imitate "quaint American customs and manners."
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943, 1:08:06): Doesn't Sherlock Holmes face death in every one of these films? Nondescript title aside, Faces Death is fine entry in the series and the first of the Universal films to drop the explicit war-propaganda vibe. The setting is an isolated home for officers suffering from "shell shock"—this was before it was called post-traumatic stress—but the war is never really mentioned. Rather, this is a return to the gothic sensibilities of the Fox films—albeit set in the present day—complete with a spooky manor, an arcane ritual, and much thunder and lightening. Holmes and Watson are called in when patients at the home start dying suspiciously and the two sleuths find themselves trapped in a tale of Edgar Allen Poe-like proportions. There's even a chess game played with human pieces! Dennis Hoey returns as Lestrade, the Scotland Yard inspector who continuously doubts Holmes' intuition. My favorite scene has Holmes shooting holes in the walls of the 221B flat during indoor target practice!
Sherlock Holmes: The Spider Woman (1944, 1:02:11): The Spider Woman is one of the oddest films in the series—in every sense of the word "odd." For one, Bertram Millhauser's screenplay borrows plot elements from no less than five of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories— The Final Problem, The Dying Detective, The Adventures of the Devil's Foot, The Speckled Band, and the novel The Sign of the Four—but still manages to feel cohesive. Plus, it's neither a gothic mystery nor a WWII espionage thriller like the previous films. Spider Woman starts off with a series of "Pyjama Suicides," bedtime deaths that Holmes suspects are actually the murderous work of Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard), a "female Moriarty." This is a wacky one, continuously escalating in weirdness. Holmes fakes his death on a fishing trip and reemerges disguised as "Rajni Sighn," a potential target for Spedding's life insurance scam. There are poisonous spiders! A mute child! A shooting gallery with Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito as targets! Just when you think it can't possible get any more bizarre, there's a plot twist involving a pygmy, whom Holmes refers to as "that creature in the suitcase." Yes, between Holmes' brown-face makeup and the treatment of a pygmy as somehow subhuman, this one seems a wee bit racist around the edges by today's standards. Still, it's an eccentric entry that's not to be missed.
Sherlock Holmes: The Scarlet Claw (1944, 1:13:48): Widely considered one of the best of the Universal Holmes films, The Scarlet Claw is essentially a variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles, the story of a criminal who masks his crimes under the guise of a supernatural creature. When Lady Penrose is conspicuously killed, her husband (Paul Cavanagh) summons Holmes and Watson to the ominously named French-Canadian village of La Mort Rouge, supposed home of a glowing marsh monster who continues to murder hapless residents. Of course, the perpetrator is actually human—I won't give away who it is, as the reveal is a rather unexpected twist—his clothes daubed in phosphorescent paint. Although the story is highly derivative, The Scarlet Claw has oppressive atmosphere in spades, and Rathbone is definitely on his game here. Also, the special effects used to create "the monster" are quite good for their time.
Sherlock Holmes: The Pearl of Death (1944, 1:08:40): The "Borgia Pearl," a coveted treasure, "has the blood of twenty men upon it down through the centuries" and before the aptly named Pearl of Death is through, it'll have "the blood of five more victims on it." After Holmes recovers the stone from a female thief and returns it the British Museum, it's promptly re-stolen from its case by Giles Conover (Miles Mander), a noted criminal mastermind. Several seemingly unrelated murders follow, and in each the victims are found lying amid shards of shattered china, their backs broken. It's quite a conundrum, but no match for Holmes' powers of deduction. Besides a razor-sharp screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, The Pearl of Death is notable for the appearance of bit-part horror icon Rondo Hatton as "The Hoxton Creeper," the back-breaker in question. Hatton suffered from a pituitary disorder that caused the grotesque deformation of his face and skull, and the studio was keen to turn him into the next "Universal Monster." Although he did appear as "The Creeper" in a handful of subsequent films—including the non-Sherlock Holmes spinoff Return of the Spider Woman—the character never really took off.
Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear (1945, 1:09:10): On the dreary west coast of Scotland sits Drearcliffe House, home to seven elderly bachelors who call themselves "The Good Comrades." They have one thing in common, according to Holmes: "Each is worth more dead than alive." And indeed, they begin dying one by one, each death portentously foretold by an envelope containing the number of orange pips—that is, seeds— equivalent to the number of "good comrades" who will remain. Adding to the grisliness, none of the bodies are recognizable after the murders. At the core of the mystery is the suspicious fact that each of the seven wealthy bachelors has bequeathed his life insurance policy to the other six. Clearly, one of them is out to kill the others and rake in the massive insurance payout. (Jeez, how many of these films involve insurance scams?) But is it really that clear-cut? This is a classic whodunit, based on Doyle's story "The Five Orange Pips," and it features lots of delicious tension of the sort featured in countless other films—like John Carpenter's The Thing—where the killer could be any of the characters. The ending is definitely a shocker.
Sherlock Holmes: The Woman in Green (1945, 1:07:45): The Woman in Green finds Professor Moriarty—played here by Henry Daniell—arranging his most complicated scheme to date. I won't get into the details—that would spoil the mystery—but let's just say that his plan is a bit farfetched, with perhaps too many variables to be truly believable. Nonetheless, if you can suspend your disbelief, this is a tense entry, and one of the darker films in the collection. It starts with a series of murders, all women, all found with their forefingers cleanly severed. Without giving too much away, I will say that the story involves blackmail and Hilary Brooke as Lydia Marlowe, a femme fatale who is literally hypnotizing. There are several deathly suspenseful sequences; in one, Holmes outwits a sniper with the clever use of a Julius Caesar bust, and later, he narrowly escapes being mesmerized himself. The comically grumbling Inspector Lestrade is replaced here by the more serious Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton), but relief from the tension is still to be found in Watson, who is hilariously susceptible to hypnosis despite his boasts that it's all hogwash.
Sherlock Holmes: Pursuit to Algiers (1945, 1:05:04): This is, without question, my least favorite film in the series. It's less a mystery than an escort mission, and nothing much happens across its 65-minute runtime. Although Holmes and Watson are on vacation, Holmes just can't resist the challenge when he's given covert, cryptic instructions to appear at Fishbone Alley, where he meets the prime minister of Rovinia, who implores Holmes to protect the son of the (fictional) country's recently assassinated king. Holmes, Watson, and Price Nikolas end up on an Algeria-bound ship stocked with suspicious passengers, but the real threat comes from three Nazi cronies who come aboard in Lisbon. There's a Prince and the Pauper-style twist and a few close calls—a bomb rigged in a paper party hat!—but this 1945 entry is anything but explosive.
Sherlock Holmes: Terror by Night (1946, 59:38): If you need another example of how evocative trains can be as the setting for a detective film—see also: Murder on the Orient Express—you'll find it in Terror by Night, a locomotive-bound jewel heist and murder mystery of the first order. (Okay, second order. This is a B-movie after all.) Here, Sherlock Holmes is hired to protect the priceless "Star of Rhodesia" diamond as its owner, the snobby Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), travels from London to Scotland with her son, Roland (Geoffrey Steele). When poor Roland turns up dead, and the diamond goes missing, suspicion falls on several of the train's passengers, including Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey)—a young woman whose baggage is comprised of a coffin, complete with her dead mum's body—and even Watson's good friend, Major Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray). Tensions run ragged, and there's even a great action scene that has Holmes dangling precariously from the side of the train.
Sherlock Holmes: Dressed to Kill (1946, 1:11:50): It may not be the best of the bunch, or even among the top ten, but Dressed to Kill is a fitting end to the Rathbone/Bruce series of adventures, one that even provides a few moments of appropriately poignant retrospection for the Baker Street sleuth. The plot is extremely similar to that of The Pearl of Death, but the variations are interesting at least, with the pearl replaced by a counterfeiter's dream—plates for the Bank of England's five-pound notes—and nondescript music boxes substituting for the previous film's smashed Napoleon busts. Better yet, we get Patricia Morison as the dangerously sexy Hilda Courtney—who is indeed dressed to kill— the leader of a criminal trio who will stop at nothing to retrieve the plates. (The other two thugs are Frederick Worlock as the smooth-talking Colonel Cavanaugh and Harry Cording as Hamid, the hulking "muscle" of the group.) The solution to the mystery involves Holmes cracking a clever music box code, but as expected, his life is placed in danger numerous times along the way. In closing, a fun bit of continuity trivia: look at the wall by the door in Holmes' 221B Baker Street flat and you'll notice the bullet holes the trigger-happy detective inflicted on the plaster way way back in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Video Quality
If you thought The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection looked great on DVD—and it does—just wait until you see the series in glorious high definition, with each entry granted a gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. I know what some of you are probably thinking: Fourteen films spread across only five discs? Keep in mind, however, that the films are only about an hour long apiece. If the three-hour-plus extended cut of Avatar can look great on a single 50 GB disc, so can three of these 1.33:1-framed black and white B-movies. For the record, I didn't notice any significant encode or compression issues. While digital noise is present in small doses, banding is almost entirely absent, and there are only a few instances of moiré-like shimmer on certain fine patterns. (Like the tight threading on a herringbone suit.) Obviously, the quality of the transfers depends largely on the quality of the source materials, and although there are the expected flecks and specks and minor scratches, few of the films demonstrate any major damage. Mild brightness flickering? Sure. Occasional staining? Yes. But nothing overtly distracting. The UCLA Film and Television Archive did a terrific job on these restorations, sometimes working with less-than-ideal prints. (For a few of the Universal films, 16mm materials were used to replace lost 35mm footage of the title sequences, and here you'll notice the picture is slightly windowboxed to preserve uniformity.)
Clarity varies somewhat between films—The Pearl of Death looks best, in my opinion—but fine detail is almost always visible, and usually impressively so. Facial texture, the intricacies of costumes—especially Holmes' suits—and close-ups of props are all rendered with satisfying sharpness. This is all accomplished without any hint of edge enhancement. There are a few shots in the Fox films—which weren't restored by UCLA—that seem to exhibit slight symptoms of noise reduction, but by and large grain looks healthy and natural. Likewise, black levels are deep, whites are bright without seeming overblown, and the image has a definite sense of depth. Readers will know it's certainly a good thing when I mention that these transfers reminded me a lot of the ones that Image Entertainment has been putting out for the Twilight Zone re-releases. There's no doubt that this new Blu-ray set represents the best possible way to watch these movies. No complaints here!
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Each film in the series is presented with an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 track, and the results are uniformly strong. Obviously, only so much can be done with the dated audio elements, but there's nothing here that will encumber your viewing experience. A few minor crackles aside, these tracks are actually quite clean and clear, with no significant hissing, muffling, or background noise. The theme song that plays over the opening credits for each film sounds wonderful—full and ominous—and the individual scores retain this sense of dynamic breadth. There's little of the tinny-ness you often associate with mid-century audio. Dialogue throughout the series is always balanced, unobscured, and easy to understand. MPI has provided English subtitles for all 14 features.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The 14-film Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series forever changed how we think about the Baker Street sleuth and his steadfast companion. These movies certainly aren't the most faithful adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, but they are among the best. Sorry purists, but Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis? It just doesn't get much better than that. Longtime Rathbone fans already have their credit cards at the ready, I'm sure, but if you've never seen these films and you're a mystery buff, you owe it to yourself to check them out. They look fantastic on Blu-ray and definitely hold up to repeat viewings. Highly recommended!
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