Beginning with a Mutoscope adaptation made in 1900, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most oft-portrayed roles in world cinema. Among the most handsome of the countless movie productions featuring the world’s greatest consulting detective were made by 20th Century Fox in 1939. The first of these was the excellent Hound of the Baskervilles and the second is the even better The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The plot of the film owes little to any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories, and indeed is one that had been used many times before and still gets a workout in movies today: A brilliant champion of justice matches wits with an equally gifted master criminal who has announced that he will soon commit “the crime of century”. But when the hero is Sherlock Holmes played by Basil Rathbone in his signature role and the villain is Professor Moriarty played with comparable verve by George Zucco, everything old is first-rate entertainment again.
As Zucco and Rathbone circle each other in their battle of wits, two supporting players bring added energy to the proceedings. Many Holmes fans do not care for Nigel Bruce’s comic take on Dr. Watson, as it goes against his portrayal in the canon. But I am with those who find it endearing, in part because it adds some sweetness to the films that sets off Rathbone’s appropriately rationalistic and at times even cold Sherlock. As the woman around whom much of the mystery centers, a then unknown Ida Lupino also strengthens the film by giving the audience vulnerability leavened with strength and intelligence (Lupino would go on to become a pivotal figure in women’s advance in Hollywood, as I describe here).
Fox rolled out the budget for its Holmes films, which shows in the excellent production values throughout. These are enhanced by the legendary Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which has effective film noir/horror overtones. Last but not least, this is the one and only film in which I can honestly compliment Alfred Werker’s direction (I recommended He Walked by Night previously, but recall that despite the credit going to Werker, that film was mostly directed by a true master, Anthony Mann). If every journeyman director has one great film in him, this well-paced, exciting and suspenseful treat is Alfred Werker’s.
p.s. Even though both of Fox’s 1939 Sherlock Holmes films were excellent, they were not critically well-received at the time and also led to some grousing from Doyle’s descendants, who controlled the rights to his stories. After promising to make this a long-running series, Fox abandoned the enterprise after the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, a new series of lower-budget Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies set in the modern era was launched at Universal immediately thereafter. That turned out to be one of Hollywood’s very best film series. If you want to explore those films, I recommend my favorite of them, The Scarlet Claw.