The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

2008 #9
Sidney Lanfield | 77 mins | DVD | PG

The Hound of the BaskervillesArguably the definitive screen interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, appear for the very first time here, in what would become the first in a series of 14 pictures starring the pair. (Incidentally, this will be the first in an irregular set of reviews of that series. I have the rather lovely Optimum box set, you see, and so shall slowly work my way through it. Though as I’ve already owned it for several years and only just started watching it (as with so many DVDs), I have no idea how long it will be before I finish.)

I’ll start by laying my cards on the table: The Hound of the Baskervilles is a vastly overrated Holmes tale, and one that has been unduly adapted at least 15 other times (that from a quick search of IMDb). As far as I can tell its popularity is primarily due to the circumstances around its original publication (it was the first Holmes story in nearly a decade, following his death in The Final Problem). Holmes is absent for much of the story, which plods along fairly uneventfully (or, at least, inconsequentially) until a slightly dubious climax involving a centuries-old portrait. Naturally, all of these flaws carry over into any faithful adaptation, and this certainly is one.

One of the novel’s strong points is its occasional Gothic styling, and this is something the film version does very well. Dartmoor looks fantastic, like something Tim Burton would have created were he working in the ’30s. It’s clearly a set, but it’s dramatic and moody and completely effective. After the dull and poorly-designed interior scenes in London, it’s fantastic when the film finally moves down into Devon and things… well, don’t exactly get going, but at least there’s something to look at! As with the novel the plot meanders by, diverted by an escaped convict and an entirely pointless (in this version at least) seance, until that painting-based resolution. All is not lost, however, as a particularly vicious-seeming attack by the hound livens things up considerably.

Rathbone is underused as Holmes, which is a shame as he immediately makes the part his own. Bruce isn’t as bungling and comedic as he would later become, though the signs are already beginning to show. And the infamous final line — “Oh Watson, the needle!” — is actually a huge anticlimax if you haven’t seen it before, an entirely pointless, meaningless and misplaced addition.

I feel like I’ve come down a little harshly on Hound of the Baskervilles, mainly thanks to a general unfavourable opinion of the source material. There are many better Holmes stories, often ignored thanks to the fame of this particular one. The following 13 films may be even less faithful adaptations than this, but I’m looking forward to their fun and frivolity, which will hopefully top Baskervilles. The moor really is fantastic though.

3 out of 5

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