Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection Blu-ray Review

As a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve been biding my time waiting for these films to arrive on high definition and the wait is finally over!  MPI and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have teamed up to restore twelve out of the fourteen films in this collection.  Now in glorious 1080p resolution, these films have never looked better!  With the incomparable Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the bumbling but good natured Dr. Watson, this is the team up that all other actors playing these roles are compared to.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

Note:  Since there are fourteen films in this set, I took an average of them all to decide a final score in this category.  Below, you will find each movie’s individual score.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939, 80 min.) (4 out of 5 stars)

The most celebrated tale of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set in the Victorian Age and was originally released by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1939. It is the first of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

When Sir Charles Baskerville is killed outside of Baskerville Hall, his good friend Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) fears that the curse of the Baskervilles has struck once again. Mortimer enlists the help of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), before yet another Baskerville can succumb to the evil legend.  Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) arrives in London to claim his inheritance, Mortimer takes Sir Henry to 221b Baker Street and expresses his fear for Sir Henry’s life. Baskerville soon learns that along with the grand mansion on the moor, comes a devlilish curse, a curious butler (John Carradine) and a cast of bizarre neighbors.  Holmes, pressed with “other business,” sends Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) to accompany Sir Henry to the dreary moor to protect the young Baskerville from the legend of the wicked hound. Of course, with danger afoot, Sherlock Holmes may not be so far from the scene as is assumed.

I loved the original story of this from Arthur Conan-Doyle, and this movie was a great adaption of it.  The movie benefited from  a large budget, good actors, and some great atmosphere.  I think this movie serves as a perfect example of what people think of when they think of a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, 83 min.) (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Set in the Victorian Age and regarded by many as the finest of the fourteen films in the Sherlock Holmes/Basil Rathbone series, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” was originally released in 1939 by Twentieth Century-Fox.  Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) has at long last been brought to trial for murder. But the “Napoleon of Crime” is acquitted after the court finds a lack of sufficient evidence. Moments after the judge releases the defendant, Sherlock Holmes dashes into the courtroom with proof that will destroy Moriarty’s alibi and send the professor to the gallows. Alas, he is too late and the criminal mastermind is set free.

Moriarty wastes no time in plotting his next crime, but in order to be successful he must divert the attention of the Great Detective. Enter Miss Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino), who calls on Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) after she and her brother receive anonymous letters containing a drawing of a man with an albatross hung around his neck, and a date written above the picture. Their father received the same baffling letter years before and was found murdered on the date inscribed in his letter.

Are these mysterious letters but erroneous distractions? Are they clues to a case irrelevant to the exploits of the evil Professor Moriarty? Or are these portents of disaster inexorably linked to the master criminal’s plan to commit a crime that will shake the very foundation of the British Empire? It is for Holmes and Watson to sort out the mystery and, hopefully, eliminate the menace of Professor Moriarty.

While The Hound of the Baskervilles serves as a perfect example of an atmospheric Holmes movie, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmesis a perfect example of the majority of the novels.  I think this movie best captures the spirit of the books and it has a great script that perfectly illustrates the battle of wits between Holmes and Moriarty.  While the actors who played the role of Moriarty changed frequently in this series, I think George Zucco was the best of the bunch and he really was a fantastic nemesis.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942, 65 min.) (3 out of 5 stars)

This was the first film in the Sherlock Holmes series to bring the master detective and Dr. Watson into the terrifying modern world of Nazi sabotage and spies.  The master detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his faithful cohort are back, preserved and digitally restored in 35mm to original condition by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.  This newly restored version of the classic film includes the period war bond tag, studio logo and credits from its original theatrical release.  Filled with ominous shadows and interesting camera angles, the visual beauty of the film in 35mm is stunning.

When taunting saboteurs warn of a Nazi invasion of the British Isles through their horrific radio menace the Voice of Terror, the British Intelligence‘s Inner Council calls in Sherlock Holmes to help in the crisis.  On the first night of their inquiry, Holmes and Watson find a dying man on their doorstep. His last word sends Holmes to London‘s seedy Limehouse district, where he enlists the aid of Kitty, the sweetheart of the slain man, to help find the saboteurs.  With the Voice of Terror promising new destruction in the coming days, Holmes and Watson must hurry to solve a complicated puzzle of terrorism and espionage.

Seeing Holmes and Watson in action in the 1950s isn’t as jarring as you might imagine and much like the message that appears before the movie, Holmes is timeless and can work in any time-frame.  This movie was obviously made to shore up morale in England and it works well on that level.  With the Nazis being the villains this time, Holmes faces a new threat larger than any before.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942, 68 min.) (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” inspired The Secret Weapon. The wartime plot pits Sherlock Holmes once more against his nemesis, the villainously brilliant Professor Moriarty, who was believed dead but is now working for the Nazis. The Nazis have assigned Moriarty to kidnap Dr. Franz Tobel, the inventor of a new super bombsight.  Sherlock Holmes outwits the enemy agents and escapes with Tobel and his precious invention.  But despite elaborate precautions, the inventor later disappears before the process of manufacturing the bombsight is perfected.  Holmes and Watson must stop the Nazis from getting their hands on the new bombsight, wrapped in a code of dancing men. Using a variety of disguises – a Swiss inventor, the Lascar sailor Ram Singh, and an old German bookseller, Holmes puts his own life on the line in a race against the clock to prevent Moriarty from carrying out his evil plans.  The Secret Weapon is also the first of the films to introduce Dennis Hoey as Scotland Yard detective Inspector Lestrade.

It was nice to see the dancing men concept incorporated into one of the movies and it was fairly clever to add it to a World War II film where cryptography played such an important role in the war.  This movie challenged Holmes more than most since he not only had to match wits with Professor Moriarty like usual, but he also had to deduce the code left by the equally brilliant Dr. Tobel.  This had a good script that kept you guessing and I think it’s one of the better films in the set.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943, 71 min.) (3 out of 5 stars)

A British secret service operative, carrying top-secret microfilm from England to Washington, disappears while traveling to his destination. Fearing for his safety just before his disappearance, he passes the microfilm, ingeniously hidden, to another passenger on the train without her knowing. The agent is reported missing and Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate. Filmed during World War II, Sherlock Holmes in Washington pits Holmes and Watson against Nazi enemy agents. The British government asks Holmes and Watson go to Washington to recover the missing documents before they fall into the wrong hands, which would be disastrous for England and her allies. Holmes is up against an international ring of spies in a race against time to piece together the clues and discover the whereabouts of the microfilm before it is too late.

A decent entry in the Holmes series but not one of the best.  The movie has a great concept of using an item that everyone is looking for which has worked before in other movies with greater precision and suspense, but this film doesn’t quite pull it off as well.  However, Holmes does deliver are some nice sentiments about the future partnership between America and Great Britain. 

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943, 68 min.) (4 out of 5 stars)

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is an intriguing mystery based upon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual.” Dr. Watson, tending recuperating soldiers housed at centuries-old Musgrave Manor, summons Sherlock Holmes to investigate strange happenings. What follows is a bizarre series of events, including murders, secret passages, a game of chess and a mysterious family ritual. Even Inspector Lestrade is on hand, as well as lovely Hillary Brooke as Sally Musgrave. But only Sherlock Holmes, in a race against time and a desperate killer, can decipher the ancient riddle and uncover the treasure it hides.

Going back to their roots after the overly patriotic WWII films, Holmes and Watson investigate a spooky manor filled with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.  This is a welcome return to the atmospheric mysteries that I prefer the team to tackle.  Basil Rathbone’s hair is thankfully back to normal after several pictures of having it bizarrly combed forward on the sides.

Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman
(1944, 63 min.) (3 out of 5 stars)

This movie is loosely based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story “His Last Bow.”  London is in a panic over a series of apparent “Pajama Suicides.” Sherlock Holmes, however, is more inclined to believe that they are calculated murders.  It is up to the great detective to discover the motive and the means of these crimes and to unmask the murderer.  Enter Miss Adria Spedding; an intoxicating woman of character whom Holmes is convinced is behind the killings.  A series of masquerades and deadly game playing ensues as Holmes and Watson enter a battle of wits with The Spider Woman.  The master detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his faithful cohort Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) are back, preserved and digitally restored in 35mm to original condition by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

There are some good moments in this movie but there’s some far fetched ones as well.  This movie liberally borrows elements from several original stories and combined them for no apparent reason.  The combination doesn’t serve the story well and could have easily dropped a couple of those elements with no harm to the story.  There are still some very nice cat and mouse scenes between Holmes and Ms. Spedding where they both pretend to be other people while knowing who the other one actually is.

The Scarlet Claw (1944, 74 min.) (5 out of 5 stars)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson journey to Canada to attend a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society in Quebec.  Before long, they find themselves investigating a series of gruesome murders that the locals attribute to the legendary phantom marsh monster of La Morte Rouge. But Holmes suspects a master of disguise is the real killer, who might be anyone in the village.  He contrives a clever trap and courageously sets himself up to be the killer’s next victim.

The Scarlet Claw is the best of the Universal series and I loved the moody, gothic atmosphere that was perfectly captured this time around.  The supernatural elements add an extra level of spookiness which contrasts great with Holmes’ cool detachment.  The script was also better this time around with plenty of twists to keep the viewers guessing.

The Pearl of Death (1944, 69 min.) (4 out of 5 stars)

The film is based on an original story called “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.”  The famous Pearl of Death, a valuable gem with a history of bringing murder and misfortune to its owner since the days of the Borgias, finally reaches its proper place at a museum in London.  But before long the jewel is ingeniously stolen.  Shortly thereafter, a series of horrible murders begins, with the murderer leaving his victims surrounded by a mass of smashed china.  Holmes must outwit two diabolical criminals in a complicated case that could lead to his own death.

This movie marks a rare instance where Holmes actually makes a mistake which sets events in motion that drive him to redeem himself by solving the case.  In a departure from the original story, a man-creature has been added to the movie called “The Creeper” who is played by Rondo Hatten who actually suffered from acromegaly which gave him his appearance.  His inclusion made this more horror tinged than most of the other Holmes movies.

The House of Fear (1945, 69 min.) (4 out of 5 stars)

The Good Comrades are a collection of varied gentleman who crave one thing – solitude. They reside at Drearcliff House, ancestral home of their eldest member. All seems serene and convivial until one by one the members begin to perish in the most grisly of manners. Foul play is suspected by the Good Comrades’ insurance agent, who turns to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson for guidance.

The master detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his faithful cohort Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) are back, preserved and digitally restored in 35mm to original condition by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.  This newly restored version of the classic film includes the period war bond tag, studio logo and credits from its original theatrical release.  Filled with ominous shadows and interesting camera angles, the visual beauty of the film in 35mm is stunning.

When Holmes is told that the deaths are preceded by a message in the form of orange pips sealed in an envelope, delivered to the next victim at dinner, and that the Good Comrades’ insurance policies are all to be paid to the surviving member, the famed detective is convinced that there is murder afoot.  Holmes and Watson are off to Scotland to try and solve the mystery.

Adapted from “The Five Orange Pips,” this movie is another excellent atmospheric entry in the series.  Complete with a spooky castle with thunder and lightning, it is one of the best in the series.  I love these kind of movies where one by one, people are killed by a killer in their midst.  This had a clever script and a lot of nice suspense as well.  Watch this one during a dark and stormy night!

The Woman in Green (1945, 68 min.) (3 out of 5 stars)

The Woman In Green was the last film in the Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes series to be written by Bertram Millhauser.  Four women are murdered and curiously all four have been left without their right forefinger.  Scotland Yard concludes that a madman is to blame but Sherlock Holmes suspects otherwise and soon deduces a criminal mastermind is at work.  The illustrious sleuth has few clues to lead him towards another solved case but he soon discovers a web of blackmail and hypnotism unlike anything he has ever seen.  Holmes fears that only one man, his archenemy, Professor Moriarty (Henry Daniell) could be involved in such an evil scheme.

The film has a great premise to it but it slowly unravels as the movie goes on.  The movie has several plot holes and it serves as the final appearance of Professor Moriarty in a completely weak finale that is beyond anti-climactic.  The ending alone made me lower my rating for this film because a nemesis as formidable as Moriarty should have been resolved with a lot more respect and thought than this.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945, 65 min.) (3 out of 5 stars)

Pursuit to Algiers begins as Holmes and Watson learn that the King of a Ravenia has been assassinated and his son Nikolas is now a marked man. The great detective and his comrade are3+ pressed into service to protect the life of the soon-to- be crowned monarch.  The detective and the good doctor take to the sea in order to safeguard the young heir on his journey from London back to his homeland and throne.  The soon-to-be king poses as Dr. Watson’s nephew while a number of the S.S. Friesland’s passengers appear eccentric, suspicious and downright sinister.  The ship makes an unexpected stop in Lisbon and Holmes is presented with yet three more mysterious passengers.

Once again, Holmes is here as a bodyguard and I prefer him to be more like he was portrayed in the books – more of a detective than a bodyguard.  This movie does offer a new twist of taking place on an ocean liner.  The plot is fairly ho-hum but the ending does add some unexpected value to the movie.

Terror by Night
(1946, 60 min.) (4 out of 5 stars)

Terror by Night hints at a few of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.  The action takes place on a speeding steam train racing from London to Edinburgh. Lady Margaret Carstairs possess a 423 karat diamond, known as the ‘Star of Rhodesia’ and her son employs Holmes to protect the priceless jewel until it reaches its home in Scotland.  Lady Margaret’s son is found murdered and the ‘Star of Rhodesia’ has been whisked away. Eccentric and suspicious passengers line the Scotland Express as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) investigate.  Along for the ride is an old friend of Watson’s, Major Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray), who may or may not be as disinterested a party as he appears.

It’s nice to see one of the main villains from the novels make an appearance and Colonel Moran has a devious plan that only Sherlock Holmes has a shot at stopping.  This movie had a fun script with a lot of twists and turns and much like Murder on the Orient Express, the stakes are raised even higher when everyone is on a moving train with no chance of escaping.

Dressed to Kill (1946, 72 min.) (4 out of 5 stars)

Dressed to Kill is the fourteenth and final film in the Rathbone/Holmes series.  After over a dozen movies and more than 200 radio appearances as The Great Detective, Rathbone felt it was time to move on to other pursuits.  Three identical musical boxes manufactured by an inmate at Dartmoor Prison are sold to three random collectors at an auction house in London. A female antagonist (Patricia Morison) and her accomplices attempt to recover the musical boxes using all means possible, even murder. Watson’s old schoolmate, Julian “Stinky” Emery, purchases one of the boxes.  After an evening of entertaining Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Emery is murdered and robbed of the recently-purchased musical box.  Holmes and Watson investigate and begin to realize that the musical boxes contain more than just a simple Australian folk tune.
Holmes once again faces a woman of considerable intelligence and obviously meant to be Irene Adler (the only person to ever beat him).  She is just as smart as Holmes and even uses his own methods against him having studied him for a long time.  I enjoyed this movie because it showed a lot of the process of Sherlock’s deduction and how it leads him to discover the culprits.  It’s also nice to see someone smart enough to actually challenge Holmes.

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The UCLA Film and Television Archive has done an amazing job on these restorations! I have the previous MPI release of the Holmes series that they worked on and as good as those looked, this set is even better!  Each 1080p (1.33:1) transfer looks glorious in black and white and they’ve even added the missing Universal titles and end titles that other distributors had removed.  Each movie differs in quality based on the source elements used, but each one of them is such an improvement, I can’t imagine anyone really expecting anything better than this.  All twelve Universal movies have been painstaking restored during a process that took ten years to complete, leaving only The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes not restored.  Don’t worry, those two films look really good too.  Detail is sharp, and I especially liked the suitably inky black levels and well defined contrast.  Of course, there are occasional specks and scratches, but for films made over seventy years ago, these look fantastic. 

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

Each entry in this series contains an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 track that is quite good considering its age.  The movie’s theme music comes across strong and full and the dialogue is clear and precise.  There’s a few minor crackles but I was very surprised at how good these tracks sounded.  Overall, every one of these movies sounds better than I’ve ever heard them and these well balanced mixes are very impressive.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars)

All five commentaries from the previous DVD set have been ported over along with a new Dressed to Kill commentary.
  • Audio Commentaries – There are six commentaries in total with the first one containing David Gregory, Richard Valley, and actress Patricia Morrison, who talk about Dressed to Kill.  Thier commentary was fun and interesting to listen to especially since Ms. Morrison actually starred in the movie!  The other commentaries include author David Stuart Davies who discusses The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Scarlet ClawThe Woman in Green, and also Richard Valley who covers The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  The commentaries by Davies and Valley are a little dry but very informative and I think any fan of this series will enjoy listening to these commentaries.

  • An interview with Robert Gitt of the UCLA film and Television Archive – A brief talk about the restoration effort and how he feels about them.

  • Footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- An old movie-tone newsreel segment that features the Sherlock Holmes author discussing psychic phenomena and how he came to write the beloved series of stories.

  • Photo galleries - Five galleries of photos that include shots from the movie, posters, and publicity shots.

  • Theatrical trailers - A collection of several trailers for this collection.

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

I’m a huge fan of this series, especially of Basil Rathbone’s performance as Sherlock Holmes.  He was perfectly suited to the role and despite my unhappiness with the way Dr. Watson was portrayed by Nigel Bruce, they both had great chemistry together.  It’s just unfortunate that they made Watson such a bumbling old coot.  To be fair, he does have some true to character moments throughout the series which helps alleviate that impression somewhat.  In any case, this set is a must own for any Sherlock Holmes fan!  These movies will never look or sound better than this so I highly recommend this purchase which you will not regret! It’s elementary!

The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection is available so order yours now!


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