With the Robert Downey films creating a renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes, the folks at UCLA and MPI have hit upon a lovely bit of synergy: assembling the Basil Rathbone collection of Holmes adventures and releasing them on Blu-ray. The set contains 14 feature length movies, completely restored on 5 discs. Casual fans might not have much use for it, but Holmes aficionados will love it. Hit the jump for my full review.
Rathbone came from an earlier school of acting, with an emphasis on melodrama and a comparative lack of moral vagaries. Yet it’s fascinating to see how many of Holmes’ qualities remain intact between his era and ours. His imperiousness, his condescension, the way he considers other people mere audience members for his brilliance… it’s all intact, wrapped in the stereotypical deerstalker hat and pipe. The most pronounced differences come with the support; while Jude Law’s Watson has no problems calling Holmes on his abhorrent behavior, Nigel Bruce played the character mainly as a buffoon. Yet he and Rathbone still establish a ready chemistry as they take on the baffling mysteries of the 1940s.
The films all feature a slower pace than modern audiences may be used to, compensated by gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and some nice Gothic atmosphere. Rathbone began his run at Fox, with an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and an original story entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. From there, the franchise moved to Universal and one of the more unusual developments in the history of the character. The next 12 films featured him in a “contemporary” 1940s setting: fighting Nazis and spies rather than snooty English murderers. It proved a surprisingly good fit, and while the latter films backed off from overtly political storylines, the trappings of the era never become unduly intrusive.
Not that every film in the collection is a masterpiece. Universal produced two or three of them a year, and the B-rate production values show through more often than not. The best evoke the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works; the remainder just mark time with shopworn revelations and unsurprising twists. But even in the worst of them, Rathbone is an absolute hoot, with a charismatic presence born of the stage and a twinkle in his eye that reminds us all to have some fun with it. It helped him escape the villainous roles he cut his teeth on earlier in his career, and while he never quite shed his association with Holmes, he never appeared tired or bored with it onscreen. Though the film series lasted only 8 years, it cast a considerable shadow on the character, and Rathbone remained the definitive Holmes until the 1980s, when Jeremy Brett tossed his formidable hat in the ring.
The Blu-ray represents a heroic restoration effort, culled from damaged and deteriorating copies to create a remarkably clear print. Scratches and other flaws crop up in all the films, but they actually add to the set’s retro charm. There isn’t much in the way of extras – and in point of fact, the Blu-ray set contains nothing that an earlier DVD collection didn’t deliver (if you have the DVDs, save your money) – but with over sixteen hours of films, one can hardly accuse the set of skimping. For more casual fans, the set serves more as a curiosity than a must-have, but its old school charms are undeniable. Anyone who loves the character needs The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection, just as they need Brett’s version, Downey’s and the great Seven Percent Solution from the 1970s. Holmes didn’t get this far by aging poorly; take a look and you’ll see.