Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 1939. Twentieth Century Fox. Screenplay by Edwin Blum, William Absalom Drake, based on the play by William Gillette, from characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Cinematography by Leon Shamroy. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Music by Robert Russell Bennett, David Buttolph, Cyril J. Mockridge, David Raksin, Walter Scharf. Production Design by Richard Days, Hans Peters. Costume Design by Gwen Wakeling. Film Editing by Robert Bischoff.
The famed detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle got his first major adaptation in American sound cinema with The Hound of the Baskervilles, followed by this film the same year, with the dashing Basil Rathbone perfectly cast in the lead role in both. Holmes has two seemingly unconnected cases fall in his lap when high ranking Henry Stephenson walks into his den and asks his help in safely escorting a precious gemstone to its display in the Tower of London. Stephenson has been sent an anonymous letter warning him that it will be stolen, then Ida Lupino swiftly follows him in and tells Holmes that she is scared for her brother’s life and her own, as she has been receiving threatening drawings ten years to the date from when her father was murdered. Holmes thinks the jewel isn’t of any concern, how could the palace not take care of its own precious treasures, and focuses his energies on Lupino’s case because it twists his imagination far more. He is convinced that his nemesis Moriarty is behind all this, and having been unable to get him convicted of murder in the film’s opening courtroom sequence, he is dead set on getting him this time. Foggy London streets are created on a Hollywood backlot to beautiful effect, and Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Watson have great fun camping it up as the endlessly curious and courageous sleuths in this warmhearted adventure. You can feel that there are elements of the Holmes legacy that have been rounded off for Hollywood standards of the time, our hero isn’t quite as insular and abrupt as he was written in the stories, and the story involves surprisingly few twists; for those of us who have grown accustomed to later presentations of the character, particularly the very recent ones that have really committed to his less savory qualities, this will actually feel like a humdrum mystery story with the name Sherlock Holmes slapped on it.