Monday, February 17, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Director: John Rawlins                                  Writers: Lynn Riggs & John Bright
Film Score: Frank Skinner                            Cinematography: Elwood Brendell
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Evelyn Ankers and Henry Daniell

This was the third of the Sherlock Holmes series to feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The series would now be filmed at Universal who purchased the rights from 20th Century Fox after finding the series too uninspiring to continue. Universal found away to cut costs by setting the series in the current day and have Holmes and Watson chasing after Nazis rather than murderers, and by doing so they found they had a hit on their hands. The Voice of Terror is a radio announcer from Germany who seems to know all of the sabotage plans going on in England the moment they happen. He can predict dams blowing up, refineries exploding and railroad derailments almost as they occur. The war council in London is, of course, deeply concerned about the morale of the nation were this to continue and, since they have had no luck stopping the anonymous “voice,” one of them has called in Basil Rathbone as Holmes to put his superior intellect to work figuring out how to stop him.

The dissenting voice in the council is Henry Daniell, who believes that this is a military operation and that a mere amateur sleuth has no business being a part of it. But Reginald Denny has his way and Rathbone and Bruce set off to make England safe again. He starts his investigation down in the Limehouse district by talking to the widow of a recently killed operative, Evelyn Ankers in one of her most famous roles as Kitty. She gives a stirring speech to the criminals of London to help in the pursuit of the country’s enemies rather than continue to see their own government as the enemy. Thomas Gomez is the improbably Nazi agent in London who manages to kidnap Rathbone, Bruce and Daniell while following him. But before he can kill them Holmes calls on his network of criminals who get the drop on the Germans, but not before Gomez makes a quick getaway. After that, Rathbone’s machinations are designed to deceive everyone, including the war council as he becomes convinced one of them is a Nazi mole.

It certainly isn’t one of the most exciting entries in the series, but it does establish a new kind of enemy. Even so the new stories also come from the original Conan Doyle, this one reworked from “His Last Bow,” a First World War story of a double-agent working inside the British government. One of the more positive aspects of the modern setting for the series is the use of noir techniques on the look of the film. The high contrast lighting is particularly effective in director John Rawlins’ close ups, with the use of extremely bright lighting on Rathbone and Ankers in the pub, and Gomez later on. Elsewhere the characters are able to completely disappear into shadows. It’s a great effect. As always Frank Skinner’s distinctive music graces the opening as well as, in this episode, the entire film. What we don’t get, unfortunately, is one or more of Holmes’ patented disguises, which Rathbone loved to don. In fact, the actual part of Holmes in this production is fairly minimal. Still, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror signaled a new start for the detective at Universal and was a harbinger of better things to come.

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