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Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror
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by Jay Seaver

"Holmes and Watson go to war."
4 stars

Despite having been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since childhood and having never been afraid of movies made before I was born, I had never seen Basil Rathbone in the role until just a few days ago. The idea of Holmes fighting Nazi saboteurs during World War II seemed absurd; besides, much as others had a hard time imagining anyone other than Rathbone playing the part, I could imagine nobody but Jeremy Brett. Now that I'm a little more willing to accept them for what they are, I can acknowledge that "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" is an entertaining adventure.

It's 1942, and England is under siege. "The Voice of Terror" regularly appears on the radio, giving orders to Nazi agents for devastating attacks that are carried out immediately. The Intelligence Inner Council - Sir Evan Barham (Reginald Denny), Alfred Lloyd (Henry Daniell), General Jerome Lawford (Montagu Love), Admiral John Prentiss (Olaf Hytten), and Captain Roland Shore (Leyland Hodgson) - find themselves stymied, and opt to call in Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone). Soon, a man with a knife in his back arrives at the door of Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce), gasping only the word "Christopher" before expiring. Holmes tracks him back to his wife Kitty (Evelyn Ankers), and they soon find one of the leaders of the Voice's London operations, a Mr. Meade (Thomas Gomez) - but Holmes is sure that he's not the ringleader.

Though Sherlock Holmes naturally seems most at home in the Victorian era where he was born, there is nothing about the character that must place him there specifically, and he proves to be a strong enough concept. Indeed, to a certain extent, placing the movie in then-modern times seems somewhat liberating for all involved. Rathbone gets to play Holmes as simply a brilliant detective, rather than worry about portraying a man of another time. The costumers put him in snappy suits and hats rather than the cloak-and-deerstalker getup that looks like a Halloween costume, no matter the time or actor; Rathbone's wild hair looks more fitting for an eccentric genius than the slicked-back look others would have him favor. And cinematographer Elwood "Woody" Bredell uses the excuse of a blacked-out London to shoot the movie with beautiful, noir-like shadows.

The story itself is a fine adventure tale; though the titles claim it to be an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "His Last Bow" - in which Holmes comes out of retirement to foil a German spy in the days leading up to World War I - elements from that short story mainly appear in the last few scenes, notably Holmes's speech about "an east wind". The three credited screenwriters and director John Rawlins lead up to it with an exciting thriller, though, with plenty of action, some puzzles for Holmes to solve, and mysteries that are rather obvious to the audience but not necessarily to the characters. It does flog the patriotism and anti-Nazi rhetoric rather heavily - the movie grinds to a halt every fifteen minutes or so for a rousing speech - but in that, it's a product of its time, when this likely had people standing up in the cinemas and cheering.

The cast, while not particularly filled with star power, does a fine job. Rathbone is particularly good in the role of Holmes, assuredly quick-witted and sharp-tongued, but not one to make the character contemptuous of lesser intellects. Evelyn Ankers sometimes struggles to find the right accent as Kitty, but she makes a charming leading lady. Thomas Gomez is similarly a thoroughly hissable villain as Meade, selling a nice little speech implying that his turn toward evil comes less from a belief in National Socialism as an ethos than as a product of his own insecurity.

And then there's Nigel Bruce as Watson. I can't really blame him for his performance - he just gives the filmmakers and audience what is in the script. However, for someone raised on Edward Hardwicke's later performance and the nondescript, but capable, Watson of the stories, seeing him transformed into this buffoon is a form of torture that negates whatever value the characterization might have as comic relief.

Watson aside, "Voice of Terror" gets Universal's series of wartime Holmes movies off to a good start. Though certain aspects of it once thought iconic have now fallen out of favor, when taken for what it is - a WWII thriller with a memorable lead character - it certainly delivers the goods.

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originally posted: 12/07/09 16:00:00
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