Twentieth Century Fox had success with their two period dramas based on Arthur Conan Doyle's continually popular detective, Sherlock Holmes. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were most felicitously paired in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1939.
It fell to Universal to give fans what they craved - more Holmes and Watson. One imagines it was budget constraints that led to the plan to set the tales in contemporary times. Also, where could you find better villains than those masters of destruction, bent on their New World Order, the Nazis?
The studio lets us know where we stand with the opening title card:
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.
Olaf Hytten, Leyland Hodgson, Henry Daniell, Nigel Bruce
Reginald Denny, Montagu Love, Basil Rathbone
A German radio broadcaster calling himself The Voice of Terror is attempting to terrorize the people of Great Britain with pronouncements of acts of sabotage and the committing of that sabotage. He openly taunts the officials tasked with protecting their people. The Intelligence Inner Council is a particular target and one of that body, Sir Evan Barham played by Reginald Denny, is an old school chum of Watson's and has enlisted the aid of Sherlock Holmes. The other members of the Council are against bringing a private detective into their circle, but Downing Street has approved the appointment. Holmes now brings his special talents to bear on ferreting out what he is certain is a leak in the Intelligence Department.
This first of the new Universal Holmes series was taken from His Last Bow from the 1917 publication Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes, adapted by Robert Hardy Andrews (The Cross of Lorraine) with a screenplay by Lynn Riggs (Green Grow the Lilacs) and John Bright (Three on a Match).
The story is told with a distinctive noir flavour as directed by John Rawlins (Dick Tracy's Dilemma) and photographed by Elwood Bredel (The Killers). A constant sense of danger is created in the claustrophobic setting of Limehouse and the docks where Holmes leads all on a search for the criminals. Fog suffocates our characters and unknown enemies lurk everywhere.
Basil Rathbone, Evelyn Ankers
The noir aspect is raised considerably with the introduction of Kitty played by Evelyn Ankers. Her husband Gavin had been a Holmes informant and was knifed in the back for his trouble. Holmes enlists Kitty's help to catch her husband's killer and to rouse her fellow Limehouse denizens in the battle against the Nazis.
Holmes: "Gavin was killed not by his own enemies, not even by mine, but the enemies of England."
The use of close-ups in this scene is mesmerizing and a tribute to Basil Rathbone and Evelyn Ankers's performances. Close-ups also come into play when we meet our villain, Meade played by Thomas Gomez.
Evelyn Ankers, Tomas Gomez
Kitty gives herself one hundred percent to the cause and to her revenge. She becomes intimately involved with Meade, passing information to Holmes through a network of spies. Meade is completely power-mad as a chilling monologue recounting his rise indicates. Meade is as devoted to his cause as Kitty is to hers.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror runs at just over an hour, and I believe the movie would have benefited from a few more scenes involving Meade and Kitty. Nonetheless, Ankers and Gomez are able to convey much about their characters that the script does not give us. It is a true noir relationship of secrets, control, and betrayal, with a bitter noir ending.
That Holmes is successful in quashing an invasion and revealing the double agent is not a surprise. It is why we are here. That this 75-year-old film can still pack a punch with its style should not surprise us either, but that its political content should not be completely foreign to 21st-century ears is troubling.