It's wartime propaganda. That's pretty much your first and last impression of the film. Is it a good movie? Maybe, after a fashion, once you've managed to define what you mean by "good". In some ways it's a hard film to assess fairly, since no one making it cared two hoots what anyone might be thinking in the 21st century. Yes, it's odd and preachy. Even the other wartime Sherlock Holmes films aren't this clumsy, not by a long chalk. However I'm sure its intended audience engaged with it far more vigorously than anyone today possibly could.
Basically it's all about Lord Haw-Haw. Everyone's heard of him, but a little digging showed that I knew less than I'd thought. Time for a history lesson.
Lord Haw-Haw was the nickname of several announcers on the radio programme Germany Calling, which was broadcast throughout the war both into Great Britain and the United States. It started on 18 September 1939 and continued until 30 April 1945, when the British took Hamburg. People normally take Haw-Haw to be one William Joyce, who was the Nazis' most prominent English language broadcaster and ended up getting hanged for it, but there were others too. The Nazis' technique with these broadcasts was to combine news with propaganda. They were inaccurate, exaggerated and sneering, but they were also liable to contain hard information about people's friends and relatives lost in bombing raids behind enemy lines. Thus they were listened to, despite their repellent and disturbing content. J.A. Cole once wrote that, "The British public would not have been surprised if, in that Flensburg wood, Haw-Haw had carried in his pocket a secret weapon capable of annihilating an armoured brigade."
The film begin with a caption card telling us that this is only a B-movie and sod the continuity. "Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving the significant problems of the present day he remains - as ever - the supreme master of deductive reasoning." Cheeky, eh? Yes, we've hit the Universal films. Under normal circumstances I'd have assumed that the new studio was just too cheap to pay for historical recreations, but for once here that would be unfair since everything depends on the wartime setting. I'm just grateful it's set in England rather than America. Furthermore it's only fair to note that Sherlock Holmes adaptations of the twenties and thirties tended to make him contemporary. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been writing new stories almost right up to his death in 1930. Case-Book came out in 1927, even if it's still set in the late nineteenth century. On top of that, 1942 is nearer to Holmes's time than to ours, so there's a definite sense of history there even if it's the wrong era. One can't help noticing the lack of horse-drawn carriages, while it was a mistake to put Rathbone in modern dress. What's wrong with the deerstalker, eh?
Incidentally, the film claims to be based on His Last Bow. The only similarities I could detect were: (a) smatterings of dialogue, (b) the name Von Bork, (c) a war. The Woman in Green
(1945) in this movie series would ironically be a more convincing adaptation of that story, despite claiming to be original. Applying this exciting approach to the English language, I have since discovered that Dad's Army was based on Henry V.
Anyway, on with the story. We start with model shots of Nazi-triggered catastrophes. These are rather good. One of them's been lifted from The Invisible Man
, but hey. Delighting in all these is of course the gloating Voice of Terror. I have no idea how authentic this fictional version is, but I imagine it's close. The audience would been all too familiar with the real thing. Anyway, he sounds downright evil. The film slightly overplays people's reactions to him though, with bigwigs saying things like, "Even our allies are counting England out."
Already the subtlety level is dropping, but we ain't seen nothing yet. Sherlock Holmes arrives and it's obvious almost immediately that there's a mole among our bigwigs. Not ten minutes will have passed before you'll think can even write down his name. Something this blatant wouldn't work in any ordinary film, but here you honestly don't know. Would they really be that obvious? This is a film that's bludgeoning you with its political points, but even so could the plot really be as one-dimensional as they're making it look? Soon it's even obvious that we're meant to be suspecting him. He's played by Henry Daniell, the reptilian son-of-a-bitch who'd go on to play Moriarty in The Woman in Green
. Oddly enough, that film's villainness would be played by Hilary Brooke, who also makes her (uncredited) series debut here.
Anyway, it's an odd kind of double-bluff, much like "how stupid do you think I am?" It works, but it shouldn't.
The most prominent other guest characters here are Thomas Gomez and Evelyn Ankers. Gomez would go on to be Oscar-nominated in 1947 and a Broadway star, but in on screen he'd always get cast as a supporting player rather than a lead. This was his first film. Meanwhile Evelyn Ankers was a scream queen who around this time also did The Wolf Man
, The Ghost of Frankenstein
, Son of Dracula
, The Mad Ghoul, The Invisible Man
's Revenge and a good number more. She retired from movies to be a housewife at the age of 32, although she kept her hand in with occasional television roles and one last film in 1960. They're both good. They're also playing in a completely different movie from everyone else. The relationship between their two characters isn't what you'd expect from a film like this. Ankers plays the girl of a murdered man who on Holmes's urging basically goes out to seduce the enemy. She gets in with Gomez. Most of their relationship is left offscreen, but it seems that by the end her feelings are genuinely torn. She's working for our heroes, but the film also sees it necessary to ensure that she gets shot and killed by the bad guy just before the credits. That was surprising.
It's all good work, not to mention surprisingly hard to read for a modern audience. Censorship is different these days. If it's not on screen, it's not part of the story. However here all the juicy stuff could never have got past the censors, so you'll have to be paying attention and ready to put two and two together.
That's the good bit. The downside would be the unconvincing Britishness. The accents! Sweet heavens, the accents. "I'm British and I'm proud of it," says Ankers. That would be where in Alabama exactly? It's a particular surprise since Hollywood films of this era could be superb at this kind of thing. Well, not here. This time everything falls down with a crash, especially from Gomez and Ankers despite the fact that I've seen the latter do better in other films. For further laughs, check out the countryside at the 51 minute mark. Mmm, that's England. Yeah, in a pig's eye. Fortunately the series isn't all like this, but that's not much help here. You might also be interested to learn that "the North coast" apparently means Scotland.
Meanwhile the plot is driven by convenience, although it does insult your intelligence less than would the next film in the series. Holmes and Watson get home, having accepted the job of catching the Voice of Terror. What can they do now... ah, I see someone's stumbled into Holmes's rooms with a knife in their back. Do they say exactly one dying word? I'll give you three guesses. However what a stroke of luck! For a moment I'd thought the scriptwriters might have had to use their imaginations. In fact the dead man had been working for Holmes, who disturbingly never shows a scrap of remorse for having indirectly caused his death by sending him out on this case. Maybe he's read the script and knows that's nothing compared with what he'll ask of Evelyn Ankers.
I've made merry with these foibles, but I don't actually mind them. What really sticks in a modern craw are the speeches. Remember I called this a propaganda film? YOU can help fight the Nazis! Sherlock Holmes told me so. The villains' speeches are more effective, sometimes to the point of being chilling, but it stops the film dead when the good guys make their appeals to patriotism and vigilance. This is undoubtedly the hardest part to judge fairly today, since this apparent "stop the plot" grandstanding would have undoubtedly felt completely different back then. Or did everyone groan back in 1942 too? I dunno. Mind you, the film's apparently overwritten purple ending is taken straight from His Last Bow.
"It's a lovely morning, Holmes."
"There's an East wind coming, Watson."
"I don't think so. Looks like another warm day."
"Good old Watson. The one fixed point in a changing age. But there's an East wind coming all the same. Such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less. And a greener, better, stronger land will be in the sunshine when the wind is cleared."
See what I mean? Today it seems overdone, but at the right time and place...
I did enjoy this film, but it's odd and faintly indigestible. Nevertheless it still stars Rathbone and the excellent Nigel Bruce. I smiled at the moment where Watson forgot his stick. Also even among Limehouse lowlifes, it paints Holmes as quite a celebrity. He can call up the BBC and get them to play records of his choice, although it's possible that the American producers were getting it confused with a request station. Amusingly there's also a Nazi called Sheila. Sorry, Scheeler. That could have been better chosen.
All that said, it's still a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film and thus basically good solid entertainment. Classic hero, murder mysteries, wicked villains and a 1942 Universal adventure story. However...