The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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  • directed by Alfred L. Werker
  • starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino, George Zucco
  • The master sleuth hunts his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, who is planning the crime of the century.

“You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”

This was released just five months after the first of the series, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was a big improvement for me if only for the reason that Sherlock Holmes was actually in most of it. Unfortunately in Hound he was absent from most of the middle section Baskerville Hall scenes and I found that the film also suffered from what I saw as a not so challenging threat to Holmes’ intellect. This film, which similarly plodded along at an awkward pace, begins with no reservations on the antagonist side as we are introduced to Moriarty, a guy that even this Sherlock novice knows to be the one true equal to the detective and the sole threat that could come up with a scheme that is a few short steps ahead of Holmes and Watson at any point. To have Moriarty, and such a good one played by George Zucco, automatically makes it a superior film to the previous one.

On top of that we got to see a lot more of Sherlock Holmes in his downtime. Whether he was plucking chords on his violin to a jar full of flies or keeping tabs on the employees at his residence you get more of the sense that this is a guy whose obsessive nature consumed him even when not preoccupied with a crime. The beauty of Moriarty as a villain is that he knows all of this about Holmes and is able to challenge him intellectually while manipulating the faults that he knows are alive inside of Holmes.

As far as the film itself goes, there were a couple of clunky scenes. The chase scene with Ann and the club-footed henchman in the third act was a pretty bad exercise in pace and tension. I don’t know what was going on with Werker, but just as I grew worried that anything that veered into action territory appeared to be completely lost on the director, he slowed down the pace for the final showdown between Holmes and Moriarty as the two circled each other through stairwells and shadows to face off. Sure, some if it was uneven, but luckily the strength of the series lies in the dialogue and the Holmes and Watson relationship. It was another great performance by Nigel Bruce, who added just the right amount of comic relief as Watson.

These two films, the firsts of the long-running Sherlock Holmes series, make it difficult to fully connect due to a noticeably inconsistent narrative flow. They just don’t seem pieced together in the necessary way to create the suspenseful arc that the characters and stories deserve. Each of them also have their positives, and this one benefited greatly from, most of all, not having Holmes off screen for most of the running time, but also from some nice touches, such as a great musical number by a disguised Holmes at the party, a further unveiling of his neurotic side, and the extraordinary threat of one of the best villains of all time.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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