BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE SHERLOCK HOLMES COLLECTION, VOLUMES ONE AND TWO

By • Apr 17th, 2006 •

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MPI Home Video
Years 1942-45. Digitally restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

VOLUME ONE:
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942) 65 mins.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1942) 68 mins.
SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943) 71 mins.
SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943) 68 mins.

VOLUME TWO:
The PEARL OF DEATH (1944) 68 mins.
THE SCARLET CLAW (1944) 74 mins.
THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944) 61 mins.
THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1945) 69 mins.

A lengthy preface in the liner-notes-booklet of both volumes contains a detailed explanation/apology from UCLA’s restoration archives for the uneven quality of the materials used in restoring these films to their present shape. I immediately went to PEARL OF DEATH, the one that mattered most to me. Rarely seen nowadays, with a tight, inventive script by Bertram Millhauser, and featuring an absolutely riveting horror shot of Rondo Hatton, if there was deterioration, I didn’t notice it. The print is gorgeous; those rich tones accurately reproduced, some extreme long shots a bit soft, but weren’t they always?, one tracking shot with Holmes and Watson appears soft, but the background is sharp, so it was a problem on the set, not in the nitrate… In short, worth buying the whole collection for this one title. But don’t let that be your motivation, even though it was mine. They’re all pretty wonderful, these tight-budgeted ‘B’ spinoffs of the original ‘A’ releases. The final and weakest four will be out from MPI in a third Volume next year.

Continuing with Box Two, THE SCARLET CLAW’s opening finds Holmes modeled after a skeptical Houdini, playing against Paul Cavanagh as Lord Penrose, a template for the notoriously desperate-to-believe-in-the-supernatural Conan Doyle. (The screenwriter must have been in on the gag, yet I haven’t seen it written about before.) Though Davies’ commentary labels this and the others “assembly line” pictures, which they were in the Universal production schedule sense, they are also, at their best, utterly impeccable role models for ‘B’ films, perfectly cast, amazingly well planned out technically, replete with rich photography and ample camera moves, intelligent and witty screenplays, use of props on a par with any ‘A’ feature, and they generated copious amounts of mass audience warmth . One lamentation here: much of the music has been recycled from earlier horror films in the Universal stable. Watson is at his huffish, avuncular best, and his most droll.

THE SPIDER LADY is the closest Holmes has ever come to romance, in his intellectually/sexually charged duel of wits with the eponymous femme fatale, played with almost too much regal delight by Gale Sondergaard. Rathbone seems to enjoy the chase; it’s hard to believe that he would soon exit the series, completely fed up with the role, whereas Nigel Bruce, disappointed by his co-star’s desertion, would carry on the series, on radio, with Tom Conway.

Only HOUSE OF FEAR disappoints in this box. It’s a poor man’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, poorly cast, and the fun stops there. But three out of four ain’t bad!

In addition to the finest matchup of actors to portray Holmes and Watson in Sherlock Holmes filmed history (Nigel Bruce’s Watson probably comes the farthest from capturing Doyle’s literary characterization, but the warmth between him and Holmes, the mischievous cruelty between Holmes and him, and the script possibilities inherent in this chemical interaction of the two, justifies all), the tight writing, expert casting and subsequent thesping, and exemplary liner notes (mixing erudite research with personal anecdotes by Scarlet Street’s editor Richard Valley), all scream ‘buy me!’ for Christmas.

Director Roy William Neill (born Roland de Gostrie) didn’t go on after the series was stopped by the studio in ’46. In fact, he died later that year, aged fifty-six, leaving an impressive list of ‘B’ films as his legacy (including the lovely little Columbia gothic THE BLACK ROOM with Karloff in twin roles, and Universal’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN), which now, thanks to UCLA, we can appreciate anew.


Supplements include:
David Stuart Davies commentary, Photo Gallery, Poster gallery, Intro by Robert Gitt of UCLA Archives, Production notes by Richard Valley.


Credits:
Directed by Roy William Neill (7) and John Rawlins (SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR).

Cast:
Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, and, variously, Evelyn Ankers, Miles Mander, Gail Sondergaard, Hillary Brooke, Lionel Atwill, Henry Daniell, George Zucco, and Rondo Hatton.

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