Robert Downey Jr.’s two-fisted boho Sherlock Holmes, newly out on DVD, is likely to last a couple of rounds, but the definitive embodiment of the world’s smartest man will forever be the elegantly lean hatchet-face, mellifluously named Basil Rathbone, whose entire Sherlockian oeuvre is also available in a spiffy DVD box set.
A onetime Shakespearean actor, Rathbone was best-known for playing suave villains in mid-’30 costume-dramas when he was cast as Holmes in Twentieth Century Fox’s atmospheric The Hound of the Baskervilles and its lesser sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both 1939). The latter opened on the day that Germany invaded Poland. When the brainy super-sleuth—who, according to the chronology established by his creator Arthur Conan Doyle, would have been pushing 90—returned three years later in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, it was to chase Nazi spies through the Blitz craters of London (and quote Richard II in the closer).
With his victory over the Axis radio fiend, Rathbone’s Holmes, abetted by an assortment of disguises and his lovable sidekick, Dr. Watson (the consummately blithering Nigel Bruce), became Hollywood’s wartime emblem of indomitable England. Holmes’s arch nemesis, Dr. Moriarty (Lionel Atwill), was reborn as a German agent in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943); Holmes crossed the Atlantic to confound the Nazis in the blandly surreal Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) and, in a far superior caper, The Scarlet Claw (1944), tracked a serial killer through Quebec’s marshy wilds. (Although the killer is not a fascist, that movie ends with Holmes quoting Winston Churchill’s declaration that Canada was the linchpin of the Atlantic alliance.) As featured in a dozen programmers released between 1942 and 1946, mainly directed by veteran journeyman Roy William Neill, Holmes and Watson took their place in Universal’s World War II roster of fantastic creatures—The Wolfman, Maria Montez, Abbott and Costello, and The Creeper (acromegalic character actor Rondo Hatton), who made his debut as Holmes’s nemesis in The Pearl of Death (1944). Greatest of the heavies, however, was Gale Sondergaard, the eponymous murderess of The Spider Woman (1944), lighting up the gloom with her wickedly gracious smile.
A staple of Saturday-morning TV in the ’50s and ’60s—and hence central to a generation’s kid-culture—the Holmes’ movies were not only distinctive for the emphasis placed on the hero’s intelligence, but also exemplary for their economical pace and proto-noir lighting. MPI’s box set includes both Fox productions, plus all the Universal films previously restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Everything looks great, from the inky blacks and silvery chiaroscuro to the original titles and stirring pitch for war bonds that concluded most adventures.