In the 1980s the television series of Sherlock Holmes brought us a definitive Great Detective in the person of the camp, neurotic Jeremy Brett. But before Jeremy there was the great Basil Rathbone. And he WAS Sherlock Holmes. Well, if he wasn't, he was certainly the actor closest to writer Conan Doyle's vision.
Basil Rathbone defined Ugly-Handsome long before Alan Rickman was even born. This saturnine British actor with unbelievable stage-presence and distinctive finely-modulated voice spent most of his screen life playing villians - he was the unforgettable Guy of Gisborne against Errol Flynn's dashing Robin Hood.
The Sherlock Holmes series of the late 1930s through to mid-1940s gave Basil the chance to shine -- and to stay alive 'til the last reel, instead of having swords stuck repeatedly through his gizzards. Those painful endings must have been pretty frustrating, since in real life he was a master swordsman. He even spent time off-screen teaching Errol and other leading men how to look as if they knew how to handle a foil or rapier. Anyway, in the Sherlock Holmes series Basil swapped flashing rapier for dazzling intellect and deductive powers, and always came up trumps. It was all so elementary, my dear Watson...
This Umbrella DVD carries three movies on a single disc -- The Woman in Green, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill and though they drove my wife to bed in disgust (she has an amazingly low tolerance level for crud movies), I found them fascinating. After all, in how many movies can one find a sultry, seductive vamp offering a Great Detective a little Cannabis Japonica tablet before trying to hypnotise him? That sort of thing just isn't done nowadays. It's been years since I went to a Pass the Cannabis Tablet party. The films abound in curiosities like that - there's more than enough here to make up for the pretty limp plots and pedestrian direction.
And there is always the acting. Basil is a fine actor, and his characterisation of the Great Detective is as real now as it would have been 60 years ago. Nigel Bruce is a bit too simple-minded and doddery to be a realistic Dr Watson - even back then, a doctor would have had to have some mild degree of intelligence. This is a doctor we're talking about, after all, not a Liberal politician!
There is a nice sociological detail about these movies. Although the Sherlock Holmes stories are set in late Victorian and early Edwardian England, the time of hansom cabs and pea-souper fogs, the settings were updated to 'today' for these films. This was the 'today' of more than half a century ago, of London during and just after the Second World War, complete with cars, buses and all the other 'modern' details. Yet the social details needed no change - the essence of English life and its class categorisations had remained unaltered. While the dressings of the society - its cars, its clothing fashions - had changed, the underlying fundamentals of that society had stayed totally the same, and Sherlock Holmes sat just as comfortably in the mid-20th Century as when Conan Doyle first sat him down in 19th Century Baker Street.
These full-ratio black-and-white transfers are either from fairly mediocre prints, or have been derived from a video source. The density of the black tones is generally acceptable, but details are muddied - however, I have seen better films given far worse transfers. The reverse is true too - Warner Bros. spent years meticulously restoring that over-rated, badly acted movie Citizen Kane while Billy Wilder masterpieces such as The Major and the Minor still don't even have a release-date!