The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Later this week, this blog turns four years. With this week’s post, I therefore take you back to where it all began: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in 1946.

That first film I wrote about was Terror by Night, arguably the best of the many Sherlock Holmes films available at the Internet Archive. Later that same year, Rathbone along with Nigel Bruce were to make their last screen appearances as the famous detective and his sidekick. While not quite as good as the earlier film, Dressed to Kill is not a bad pick if you like old-school mysteries.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill begins with two preludes. First is a scene from a prison, then one from an auction hall. Both involve music boxes, and this is of course no coincidence. Later, we find ourselves on home turf, as far as Holmes mysteries go. Holmes and Watson sit in the 221 B Baker Street apartment, the one playing the violin, the other musing over some old cases that have recently seen print. Watson’s old pal “Stinky” calls for a visit, and of course he brings a somewhat intriguing mystery. A mystery with a music box. Well, who would have imagined?

In an attack of lacking imagination, the producer and writer here re-used the plot of the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, which had already been filmed with Rathbone two years earlier as The Pearl of Death. But there is a twist. The music boxes that are featured in place of the original’s Napoleon busts are not exactly identical; the music they play has slight variations, and in those variations is a code. A code that only Sherlock Holmes can crack. We are also treated with a number of memorable crooks, including a femme fatale well played by Patricia Morison.

With this film, I consider myself to have mined the Internet Archive for worthwhile Sherlock Holmes films, except for one little bonus feature that I saved for next week. There are several other Holmes-related films in the Archive, but all are either too poor or too short, usually both. Of historical interest is, for example, a series of silent shorts.

In addition to this one and Terror by Night, two of the fourteen Rathbone/Bruce films are available for download at the Internet Archive, and in the intervening years since my first post I have written about both. They are Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945).

This film is best enjoyed whenever you are in the mood for some good, classic, Holmes. Few are better than Rathbone, and add to that solid scenography, dialogue and directing. I still think that Terror by Night is the best Holmes film at the Internet Archive, but when you have seen that, you will want more, and Dressed to Kill is not a bad next selection.

Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill
Download link
Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.1 G)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

It is perhaps tempting to believe that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a contemporary setting is a recent idea. Not so. That gimmick has been used at least since the 1940s, when the American producers of new Sherlock Holmes films deicded to enlist Holmes and Watson for the ongoing war effort. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as well as several other films from the war years, they help fight Nazi spies in England. This in spite of the film being based on an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1945)

The film begins in Switzerland, where an inventor has constructed a new revolutionary bomb sight. He wants to offer it to the English government, but the Nazis are wise to his intentions, and so the chase begins. The rest of the film depicts the efforts by both sides to gain control of the inventor and his plans. Professor Moriarty naturally turns out to be the leader of the Nazi spies, and the thing turns into a battle of wits between the two master minds.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was Basil Rathbone‘s fourth Sherlock Holmes film, but only his second by Universal Studios (the first two were made by 20th Century Fox), and the oldest of his Sherlock films available at the Internet Archive.

Fans tend to be divided regarding Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. Many see him as the classic Watson, but others, myself included, think he is way too thick-headed, contributing very little beyond cheap comic relief. Still, it must be admitted that Nigel Bruce was a competent actor, and he did the best he could under the circumstances.

This film is best enjoyed because of Basil Rathbone’s usual excellent performance. His Sherlock is possibly the coolest and most laid-back. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes on screen does not get more classic than this. As an added bonus, Lionel Atwill does a very sinister Professor Moriarty.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (656×496)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.2 G)

The Woman in Green (1945)

I have written before about Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. All in all, he made fourteen films about the detective, and in addition to that radio plays and stage plays. A number of the films (and several of the radio episodes) are available at the Internet Archive, among them his eleventh Sherlock film, The Woman in Green.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes playing the violin and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson smoking a pipe in The Woman in Green (1945)

The film opens with a voice-over narration, but as an oddity, the narrator is not Doctor Watson. The voice belongs to Scotland Yard inspector Gregson, who takes the place in the story normally held by inspector Lestrade.

A serial killer is at large in London, and Sherlock Holmes is the only one who can stop him. The killer strikes at women, and after the deed is done chops off one of their fingers. The tracks eventually lead to a hypnotists’ club where Holmes and Watson face some serious peril, not to mention the notorious Professor Moriarty.

For the well versed Holmes fan, this is a fairly interesting and novel story. Like many other Rathbone films, it is not based on any of the original Doyle stories. There are some logical holes in the plot, but none glaring enough to take away the enjoyment of watching.

The crew makes good use of low angles and effective lighting, lending a dramatic, almost melodramatic, aspect to many scenes.

This film is best enjoyed for Basil Rathbone’s iconic portrayal of the great detective. There are good reasons why he remained the King of Sherlock Holmes actors for decades. And even though he may have since been dethroned by Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and perhaps even Robert Downey, Jr., his performance is nevertheless a pure joy to behold.

Henry Daniell as Professor Moriarty and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in The Woman in Green (1945)

The Woman in Green
Download link
Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.2 G)

Terror by Night (1946)

As I write this blog’s very first post, it just so happens that tomorrow is the World Book Day. So I thought, what better way to celebrate than to start off with perhaps the most iconic literary character of all time. Sherlock Holmes.

When you think about Sherlock Holmes, perhaps actors like Robert Downey, Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller come to mind. But they are only the latest few in a very long line of screen Sherlocks. The first one, in fact, is not even known by name. He appeared in a very short and silly film called Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).

What actor you favour is a matter of preference, of course. My own vote goes to Jeremy Brett of the 80s and 90s, but before him the undisputed Sherlock for fans all over the world was Basil Rathbone. He did the role no less than fourteen times, defining the almost aristocratic detective that many still associate with the character. Even more important for future interpretations may have been Nigel Bruce’s slightly thick-headed Dr. Watson.

Basil Rathbone and Renee Godfrey in Terror by Night (1946)

The Internet Archive has a good number of Sherlock Holmes features. Perhaps some day I will write about a wonderful little TV series from the 1950s, but today we focus on Rathbone. Five of his Sherlock films are on IA. All are good, but if you want to watch just one, make it Terror by Night from 1946.

While not Rathbone’s most well-known performance, it is certainly a very good one. Holmes is given the task of guarding a valuable diamond during a train journey, and most of the film is set on board the train. An old train with its steam engine and passenger compartments makes a perfect backdrop for a mystery, as has been proven again and again in films such as Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). The shape of the train helps to tighten the plot, since it is impossible to move from point A to point C without passing point B along the way. Good use is made of this dramatic convenience in the film.

Terror by Night is packed with clichés, but quite honestly: How is it possible to make Sherlock Holmes without the clichés? Even the modern interpretations cannot do without them. In this particular case, they are used with such charm and ease that they only serve to raise the film to even higher levels. Rathbone acts cool and in control in a way that is pure joy to behold, and quite a relief from today’s slightly psychotic Sherlocks.

This film is best enjoyed with a large cup of hot Earl Grey tea, and some scones and marmalade.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in Terror by Night (1946)

Terror by Night
Download link
Year: 1946
Running time: 58 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)