Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Forgotten or Overlooked Movies: SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942) starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

I suspect this movie has purposely been forgotten my some to whom the idea of Sherlock Holmes still alive and kicking in or around 1940 or so, is anathema. Horror of horrors. Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave. Nah. Far as I'm concerned, Holmes is now, was then and always will be, immortal. (Despite Doyle's fussing.) So why shouldn't he show up to help fight Nazis? What greater evil has ever daunted the British lion? (A hint of this appears in the opening credits as the darkness of war looms over Great Britain.)

In this third of what would eventually be fourteen Holmes and Watson films (most directed by Roy William Neill), suspend your disbelief and join in the fun of watching Basil Rathbone - one of the three best Holmes interpreters, the other two being Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett - as he goes about the business of taking on 5th Column spies and saboteurs plaguing England on the very eve of World War II. This time directed by John Rawlins.

Here's the story: Alongside Watson - played bumblingly and endearingly by Nigel Watson - Holmes is called in (as a last resort) to add his peculiar genius to a problem-plagued Government Defense Committee faced with a national disaster of nightmarish proportions.

What the newspapers have dubbed the Voice of Terror is a nightly (more or less) radio transmission - interrupting regular broadcasting - in which a strident German accented voice (speaking in English) predicts the immediate defeat of the British while, more importantly, predicting some deadly terrorist event, i.e. a train carrying hundreds of soldiers blown up while the Voice is on the air, similarly, a bombed factory or other important site destroyed, ships blown up and sunk in the night -that sort of thing. All these disasters happen almost instantaneously as the news is being broadcast, under the very noses of the government and the defenseless British people. Needless to say, this has the country on edge.

A seemingly hapless and helpless War Cabinet is not something any government wants to project while the threat of war is sitting across the Channel. At any rate, why the broadcasts are not simply knocked off the air is not very adequately explained, really, but that's okay - without the Voice of Terror there would be no story. And what a voice it is, too. Mocking and devious, self important and self-satisfied. There's no one like the British for saying the word, 'terror' with just the right amount of ominous emphasis. Also the word, 'futile' but I'm off on a tangent again.

When Holmes is called in, the Voice has been having it all his way for a while and a desperate cabinet has voted (not unanimously, so there is dissension in the ranks) to allow civilians - Holmes and Watson - access to heretofore 'secret' information regarding the Voice.

In this film, Basil Rathbone appears especially impatient, focused and harried, you can almost see his colossal brain working, shifting gears into overtime His country needs him - dammit!.He wears very dashing tweeds and a flamboyant kind of hairstyle which I didn't mind, but others seem to. (That means you, Classic Becky. Ha!)  He also has occasion to make a couple of strong, stirring patriotic speeches and very nicely too. The ending comments by Holmes to Watson, in a bombed out church, are especially poignant and prescient - Shakespeare, I think - This Sceptered Isle - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back to the story: Once Holmes is on the job, he almost immediately deduces that the voice has to be a member of the Defense Committee - a traitor in the upper reaches of government; treachery of the worst sort. (But he tells no one since it is merely suspicion.) He also deduces that the Germans are making one secret flight every few nights - a single plane under cover of fighters flies low over the English countryside to drop papers, plans and the recording. You see why Holmes's brain is needed during these fateful times?

In the meantime, Holmes has allied himself with the scruffier denizens of the Limehouse district of London. By appealing to their patriotism - hey, even crooks and low-lifes have patriotism - he has them spying and snooping about the city for anything untoward, especially around the wharfs and darker regions of town. Holmes always was good at getting this sort of help even back in Victorian times. The members of the Defense Committee - all upper class twits themselves - are, of course, scandalized. But Holmes could care less. War is not the time for the niceties of social class.

In general, the film has an excellent cast which includes Reginald Denny (a favorite), Thomas Gomez, Henry Daniell - hissss! (who went on to play Moriarity and other villains in several more Holmes films) and Montagu Love. It also stars Evelyn Ankers playing the important role of a young woman from Limehouse who, at Holmes' urging, insinuates herself into the shadowy household of a vile Nazi conspirator played by the always repugnant, Thomas Gomez.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR is well done and has a good dramatic sense of urgency to it  - it was filmed in 1942, after all. I like the look of it in comparison to the later films whose budgets were practically nil. Though the films in this long-running series were never meant to be more than B grade, this one, in my view, is a stand-out. But then, I've always liked these sorts of story lines in this sort of setting. And there's no getting around the whole 'Voice of Terror' shtick which I enjoy immensely.

I did miss the Victorian trappings, but needs must and I, for one, am not taken aback that Holmes would be brought forward in time to deal with the Nazis. Of all the modern updates of Holmes, this remains a favorite.


  1. Hello Yvette:
    We are, we must confess, suckers for almost any old black and white film, and these 'Sherlock Holmes' are absolutely no exception. Indeed, as far as we are concerned, they are perfect material for a wet, cheerless Saturday afternoon. And you are so right, for the casting was often excellent.

    A very thorough and enjoyable review.

  2. Hi Jane and Lance: Back from your trip? I'm assuming you had a great time. I'll check in at your blog a little later.

    I love these vintage black and white molvies as well. They were a world onto their own. :)

  3. Of course, I meant 'movies' and of course, I meant to thank you Jane and Lance for your kind words.

    Sorry about that. :)

  4. Haha. It is much easier for me to buy the idea of Holmes fighting Nazis than watching him in modern series.

  5. Great pick Yvette. I do quite like the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes and Watson. But then again, Holmes is one of my favorite literary characters.

  6. iluvcinema: I love 'em too. This is one of my favorites.

  7. Now, the best fiction I've read pitting Holmes against the Nazis, if somewhat indirectly, is rather modern: Michael Chabon's novella THE FINAL SOLUTION, which I'm always quick to recommend. First in one of the last of the George Plimpton issues of THE PARIS REVIEW, and published on its own.

  8. Well, you convinced me to see this and like it!

    After I recovered from laughing uproariously at the (as always) excellent and perceptive review, I added it to my To-be-taken-out-of-the library list.

    Sounds terrific, my kind of movie: anti-Nazi, a bit of fun about British classicism, Holmes and Watson, and a woman spy for them in a Nazi household (although I'll be nervous about her safety and have to remind myself it's a movie.)

    Can't wait to see this.

  9. Todd: Is this the one where Holmes is never mentioned by name? I'm vaguely familiar with the title. I'll have to look it up to see if it's something I might like. I'm careful with Holmes pastiches. But Chabon is, of course, a powerhouse writer.

    P.S. This is a very enjoyable movie that deserves a huge tub of popcorn. :)

  10. Kathy: Well, not really a full fledged household. More like the dark house/apartment of one nasty conspirator. The point is made - none too subtly - in the film, that it's okay for Kitty (Evelyn Ankers) to sleep with the enemy since she is not, technically, 'a lady'.

    Despite itself, there's quite a bit of 'class' snobbery going on in this film Interesting to watch.

  11. I found a dvd at my library with several of Holmes/Watson films, not just this one, but a collection.

    It's 16 hours long.

    If I can take it out and renew it and spread the movies out over several weeks, fine. If not, I have to just see a few. I can't see 16 hours worth of films so quickly -- and then there's the reading, too.


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