Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: Sherlock Homes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Like I said in an earlier review, I love the "Homes versus the Nazis" films. They are fun little films, and though they were made somewhat on the cheap, (which you can tell by the short running times, the sometimes poorly constructed scripts, and the occassional terrible performance from a supporting actor) they were usually very entertaining. This one was the first of the official Universal Holmes during WW2 films (as opposed to The Hound of the Baskervilles which was set during Victorian times and made at Fox Studios), and so it is both better and worse than many of the films to follow.

It is better because the cinematography (which is rarely bad in these films, but often not particularly inspiring) is actually often surprisingly effective - consider the scene in which the Nazi spy R. F. Meade is first discovered in an abandoned warehouse - his first appearance on screen is an arm, holding a pistol, sticking out of pure blackness. I mean, it makes no sense in the context of anything like 'realism' or 'logic', but damn is it cool looking. Also, there is great use of fog and smoke to create atmosphere in this film - something which diminishes as the series goes on.

But the problems in the film are that the Rathbone-Bruce relationship isn't quite as solidified here as it would later become, Watson isn't quite as entertainingly moronic, and the obligatory initial scene of Holmes deducing where a person has just been or what his job is or whatever seem more forced here than they would later. He doesn't manage to smoothly work it into conversation or anything, and it just seems awkward, like Rathbone or the director or somebody didn't quite know how to handle this sort of scene yet.

And there is one terrible scene in a barroom, where a woman named Kitty (played charmingly by Evelyn Ankers - the scene isn't her fault) shouts insanely about how if everyone in the bar hates the Nazis then they should tell her who murdered her husband, and why his dying word was "Christopher". What is particularly strange about this scene - appart from its terribleness - is the sheer pointlessness of it, in terms of plot. At no point in the film do we find out why her husband's last words were "Christopher," or who killed him. I mean, I suppose the point of the scene was to both whip up anti-Nazi sentiment in the audience, and also to show that Kitty was devoted to the cause of fighting Nazis, but it makes no sense to have such a histrionic and insane seen revolve around a plot point that will just never be mentioned again. I must stress, though, the terribleness of the scene is due almost entirely to the poor writing - throughout the rest of the film, Ankers is fun to watch (Kitty pretends to be a petty thief, hiding out in Meade's apartment), and the cinematographer and editors did their best with the scene as written. Actually, that might have been the problem - in order to give some interest and tension to what was just a bad and annoyingly written scene, the film decided to go for a hyper-stylised approach, which just sort of ends up making the whole thing seem worse, somehow. Kind of like how Frank Miller's godawful The Spirit movie would have been better if it had just been really boring and really stupid, rather than being really boring and really stupid and hyperstylised.

Putting that one scene aside, as well as a few other petty complaints, it really is a fairly decent film. It's fun, has a good pace, Rathbone and Bruce are both pretty good (although neither one is as good as they will become), nice cinematography, and a crazy-in-a-fun-way villain in Meade. He's no Moriarty, but he'll certainly do.

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