Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
***½/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, Reginald Denny
screenplay by Lynn Riggs & John Bright, based upon the story "His Last Bow" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
directed by John Rawlins
THE SPIDER WOMAN (1944)
**/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Gale Sondergaard, Dennis Hoey
screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
directed by Roy William Neill
by Ian Pugh My introduction to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes came courtesy of MPI's recent double-feature DVD, and as introductions go, one could certainly do worse. Plucking the detective from Fox's Victorian backdrop and throwing him unceremoniously into World War II, Universal's take on the Holmes series comes across as hell-bent on forging its own continuity and, moreover, its own sense of context. The first entry in this new cycle, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, begins with a title card explaining why the film makes such a dramatic departure from the previous two:
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.
The Universal scripts don't necessarily attempt direct adaptations of Doyle's prose but instead dabble in reminiscent storylines given the benefit of precedent, sometimes with direct references to relevant cases/stories. Holmes's social status in his own cinematic world now roughly corresponds to his fame in Western popular culture. As such, Rathbone's Holmes carries with him an air of superiority that seems to stem more from the loftiness of his legend than from his incomparable talents as a detective. It's an appropriate interpretation that nevertheless results in limp cinema, as doors open for him immediately and with a bare minimum of fuss. Comic relief Nigel Bruce plays Dr. Watson as a bumbling child with his hand caught in the cookie jar and everyone else surrounding Rathbone basically follows Bruce's lead as deductions spew forth in long, didactic streams and crises are solved before they're properly introduced. While the literary Holmes was a bit of a bastard whose genius forced everyone to accept him as a member of society, Rathbone's Holmes is a literal/figurative movie star who basically dictates society. We know that Sherlock Holmes is destined to succeed--the problem is that there's nothing here that remotely resembles a feasible challenge worthy of the character's taste for the bizarre.
That said, there is plenty of challenging material in John Rawlins's Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, a picture that understands its own components so well as to reveal quite a bit about the nature of contemporary iconography and propaganda. The film sends Holmes to stop a ring of saboteurs, led by radio broadcasts from the titular Lord Haw-Haw manqué, before they can wreak more havoc and further demoralize Britain. Very loosely lifted from Doyle's Holmes epilogue "His Last Bow" (a fairly angry piece of WWI propaganda in its own right), The Voice of Terror manages to deliver a strong message about the fundamental problem of maintaining patriotic optimism when we are told that the enemy is all around us. It's not a piece of escapist entertainment, but rather an admission that not even popular personalities could provide a decent refuge from what was happening all across Europe. It goes so far as to less-than-subtly imply that the Voice of Terror's broadcasts are themselves responsible for the bombing attacks on London.
The Voice of Terror is bursting with patriotism, yet there's something uneasy about how it resurrects a literary icon to fight an inexorable propaganda tool. It feels less like national pride and more like a desperate move born of wartime confusion. Despite the fact that we are told Holmes is "ageless" and "invincible," there's hardly any consolation in bringing him out of retirement1 to combat the very real threat of Nazism: deprived of his by-now familiar deerstalker cap in favour of a fedora, his only allies--all destined for a violent death--can be found in a bar full of tough criminals who, confronted with their failures, curl up in teary balls. Holmes's blitzed-out London, a natural precursor to Harry Lime's Vienna, is dark, wounded, and ready to eat itself from the inside out2, and once the identities of the bad guys have been revealed, the film lingers on not German treachery but British uncertainty. The final monologue, taken straight out of "His Last Bow," is unmistakably a rallying cry, but it also recognizes the wages of war and warns its audience to prepare accordingly. The Voice of Terror's only real flaw is its insistence on maintaining the tired appearance of a police procedural when it knows damn well there's more to this incarnation of Holmes. Still, it's startlingly modern in that it knows nothing it can offer will ever be enough.
Starting with Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, a pedestrian effort that finds Moriarty selling a stolen war machine to the Nazis, Roy William Neill took over the director's chair for good in 1943; in spite of the astonishing precedent set by Rawlins, it seems that Neill could only see Holmes as an opportunity for vaguely-nationalist escapism. Two years and two films after The Voice of Terror, The Spider Woman still has the war on its mind (its denouement takes place at a shooting gallery with Axis leaders as targets), but barely. Though The Spider Woman is evidently "based on a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle," it's actually more of a light smattering of death traps culled from a selection of cases: as Holmes tracks down a black widow hailed as a "female Moriarty" (Gale Sondergaard), he's subjected to the diabolical plot from "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," committed by the perpetrator from The Sign of the Four--which is soon followed by a huff of the titular poison from "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot."
Filmed almost entirely in sitcom medium-shot, The Spider Woman bears all the earmarks of a franchise settling into a rut: it's hastily-assembled for mass consumption; its adherence to its source material is calculated for maximum familiarity; and its presentation of Sherlock's deductions and disguises feels similarly pandering. The Universal series would cut a pretty clear path to Cold War spy pictures (the overall stiltedness of The Spider Woman specifically reminds of Dr. No--and even features an analogous bedside spider attack), but taken in tandem, these two movies demonstrate only too well that it takes more than base recognition to make a compelling film out of Sherlock Holmes.
The 1.33:1 transfers of The Spider Woman and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror found on MPI's DVD were apparently both struck from 35mm prints restored and "preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive," though this does not mean they're of comparable quality. The Voice of Terror looks pretty clear across the board (the preponderance of reasonably deep blacks doing well to accommodate the picture's noir lighting schemes), but The Spider Woman's image is blanketed in specks and dirt throughout. The latter, too, suffers from audio (DD 2.0 mono across the board) best described as congested, and neither closed-captions nor subtitles provide assistance for either feature. For whatever reason, the disc's menu and packaging organize the two films in reverse-chronological order.
- The Voice of Terror
63 minutes; Not Rated; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Mono); DVD-9; Region One; MPI
- The Spider Woman
65 minutes; Not Rated; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Mono); DVD-9; Region One; MPI
1. Another interesting point being that "His Last Bow" is the very last chronological Conan Doyle plot, featuring Holmes at the age of sixty and ready to head back to beekeeping after two years of wearying field work. Is he really as "ageless" as that title card first claimed? return
2. The original title was Sherlock Holmes Saves London, presumably changed because he does nothing of the sort. return