The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

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  • directed by Sidney Lanfield
    starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Wendy Barrie, Richard Greene
  • Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate the legend of a supernatural hound, a beast that may be stalking a young heir on the fog-shrouded moorland that makes up his estate.

Dr. Watson: Murder?
Sherlock Holmes: There’s no doubt of it in my mind. Or perhaps I should say, my imagination. For that’s where crimes are conceived and they’re solved – in the imagination.

I’ve always felt firmly on the outside looking in with regard to all the Sherlock Holmes stuff I’ve seen in the past and I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. Everybody loves a good mystery, but maybe it’s the sort of thing where you need to have Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories in your blood from many childhood years with your nose in the books to really latch onto these specific characters. More likely it’s that with these types of stories, ones that I find to have extremely predictable structures, there needs to be another hook to keep me going, whether it’s the performances, the evolution of relationships over the many installments, or at least an interesting visual style. The Sherlock Holmes films that I’ve seen, especially the latest Guy Ritchie films which frankly have soured me on the whole brand, always have a great dynamic between Holmes and Watson, but then seem to flatline at a certain point beyond that.

This was my first visit to the series that kicked off with this film and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1939 and then went on to include 12 more installments through the 1940s. I thought this would be the one that finally clicked for me mainly due to my growing appreciation of Basil Rathbone and the feeling that he was a perfect fit for the role of the intellectually superior and personally disheveled detective. I suppose this did succeed in a way as I found it be a very easy watch with my expectations of Rathbone’s performance met along with the added bonus of Nigel Bruce’s Watson, who put in good work in Holmes’ absence at Baskerville Hall. Of course it turns out Holmes was there in disguise the entire time but we don’t know that so it’s Bruce that ends up carrying most of the film’s second act and he does so with a light, bumbling manner consistent with the work of such a veteran comic actor. The personality and skill set of Watson over the course of the various adaptations doesn’t appear to be a fixed concept. In this one, Bruce’s Watson may not seem to know what he’s doing at certain points and of course he lacks the logic-like-a-laser mentality of Holmes, but even when he gets it wrong, his relative ignorance tends to contribute to the right path.

At the end of the day this was a tightly told mystery that featured a nice dynamic between the two leads, a welcome ominous mood from the foggy Moorland setting, and a few great sequences. The séance, the hound attack, and a few nice tricks in the typical Holmes-dominated conclusion were the highlights for me. There were a few hints as to the nature of Holmes’ private life when not on the case, including the well-known “Quick Watson, the needle!” closing line, but not nearly enough and I’d like to see more of that going forward. Though I’m still not completely on board with Sherlock, I’ll be keeping up with the series. I’m torn because I want to see it develop, but I’ve read a lot that says this was the best of all Sherlock Holmes films. Time will tell.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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