“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939)

by A.J. Hakari


It’s weird how the most famous screen depiction of Sherlock Holmes spent little time in the era for which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended him. After Universal assumed control of the series begun by 20th Century Fox, Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) were quickly put to work chasing Nazis and assorted other baddies in a modern setting. But before Fox let go of what went on to become a thriving franchise, audiences got two outings set in that classic gaslight age: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The former needs no introduction (being the most well-known and filmed Holmes story), but Adventures puts on a plenty good show of its own, supplying an engaging battle of wits onto which fans should have no trouble latching.

Just like Batman and the Joker or Mike Nelson and Pearl Forrester, Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a constant struggle with one man — Professor Moriarty (played here by George Zucco). As Adventures opens, Moriarty narrowly escapes being sentenced for his latest terrible crime and immediately formulates a plan of revenge aimed at a certain, deerstalker-loving detective. The fiend’s plan to strike back at Holmes involves presenting him with two cases, one designed to keep the uber-sleuth occupied while Moriarty brings the other to fruition. Holmes can’t help but take the bait, assuming the position of bodyguard for a terrified heiress (Ida Lupino), but it’s not long before he picks up on a new trail of clues, sending him off to foil his eternal foe once and for all.

What I dug about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is that it had an extra bit of oomph that other Holmes pictures don’t. For the bulk of the film, the detective is wrapped up in the Lupino case, which, despite being meant as a distraction, isn’t a frivolous wild good chase. There’s real danger afoot, and we understand why Holmes would prefer protecting this poor girl over some big-ass jewel instead. You could almost call it a twist on Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” philosophy on building suspense; while Holmes roots out Lupino’s stalker, we’re on the edge of our seats because Moriarty’s latest crime of the century is brewing elsewhere. It’s no intricate web of thrills and chills, but with a good story and fog-drenched sets, the film has you absorbed right down to the final race against time.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes also works because it gives fans of this particular series precisely what they love about it. Rathbone’s Holmes is commanding, authoritative, and surprisingly well-rounded. Not only does he get to exercise the character’s legendary deductive reasoning here, he also shows off his skills as master of disguise and, in the climactic showdown with Moriarty, even indulges in a bit of fisticuffs. Nigel Bruce makes for as good-natured and lovable a Watson as ever, although you can definitely spot signs of the hapless bumbler the movies would eventually render him cropping up here and there. Lupino nicely evokes sympathy with her perpetually-menaced character, and Zucco’s Moriarty is a solid villain, underplayed but by no means a harmless schemer.

Sherlock Holmes has enough endearing qualities to make every new incarnation of the man interesting in its own way. Even as his latest big screen escapades move him away from cracking confounding conundrums in favor of making him an action hero, the detective’s foundation always finds a way to break through. Old-fashioned films like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes aren’t going anywhere, so long as they serve up a good mystery, some good atmosphere…and, what the hell, throw in the weird hat, too.