Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

2008 #74
John Rawlins | 63 mins | DVD | U

Despite the success of their two Sherlock Holmes films (The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both 1939), Fox decided the character was outdated and resolved not to make any more. Universal clearly disagreed, and the popular pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce reprised their roles three years later for this, the first of twelve Holmes films the studio would make with the duo in just five years.

There’s more change afoot than just the logo at the start, however, as Holmes and Watson are dragged from their typical Victorian setting to London in the midst of World War Two. For a modern audience, who definitively associate Holmes with the Victorian era, this move seems virtually incomprehensible and sacrilegious; but Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories take him as far as the start of World War One, so bringing the character another 28 years forward is little worse than, say, relocating the 1980 novel The Bourne Identity to 2002. Nonetheless, the filmmakers were aware of the problem even at the time, choosing to open the film with a title card that asserts Holmes to be “immortal… ageless, invincible and unchanging” in the hope that audiences would accept a then-present-day setting.

Whether the setting bothers you or not, the story itself might. The basic concept is a nice idea for a war-set spy-thriller, but not really for a Sherlock Holmes mystery. There are plenty of audience-pleasing applications of his ‘impossible’ deduction skills, such as the moment when Holmes concludes someone dislikes him based on the depth of footprints left in a carpet (never mind that the character huffily ignored Holmes when he came in), but the main plot involves a minimal use of these abilities. It’s also loaded with implausible elements — why would the Nazis waste bombs on empty fields (to disguise one plane going a different route) when they could have used them on genuine targets? Why are recordings shipped to Germany and broadcast back, rather than just broadcast from England? Worst of all, what’s going on with Rathbone’s haircut? The final twist is either genius or ludicrous, I’m not sure which; and the misguided reference to Holmes’ deerstalker (he’s promised not to wear it — why?) is, well, misguided.

It’s not all bad. As mentioned, the basic storyline is a good one, providing decent entertainment once it gets going; Holmes gets plenty of amusing lines, which manage to provide more genuine laughs than Watson’s incompetence; and there’s some lovely shadow-drenched photography — though the film’s even more drenched in patriotism, to the point of propaganda at times.

The consensus seems to be against me, but by the end I was quite enjoying Voice of Terror. It may be a Sherlock Holmes film in name only, but taken instead as a cheap spy thriller it makes for passable entertainment.

3 out of 5

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