Review: John Rawlins’ “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror,” Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

Nigel Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, and Basil Rathbone in “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror”
Nigel Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, and Basil Rathbone in “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror”

In 1939, Fox cast Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his Dr. Watson in two back-to-back films featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective. Despite their success the studio chose not to make any further films with the characters; Rathbone and Bruce would instead continue to play the roles on a weekly radio series. Three years later, Universal decided to cash in on the radio show’s popularity, acquiring the rights to Doyle’s books and casting the same actors for a whole new series of films. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was the first in the Universal series, which abandoned any sense of continuity with Fox’s films by bringing Holmes into modern day war-torn London. Consequently, the elaborate Victorian England sets are gone, despite how crucial the era’s aesthetic was for the Fox films. Universal saw the character as a little more than a B-movie lead, and so the expense of a period piece was entirely out of the question.

Here, Holmes is pitted against the Nazis, serving the same propagandistic purpose as other B-movie characters at Universal like The Invisible Man in Invisible Agent. Holmes is brought in by the government to help them put a stop to a German radio program entitled “The Voice of Terror,” which menaces the British public with broadcasts detailing all the attacks carried out by Nazi spies. The case is far from Holmes’ traditional areas of expertise, but he takes it on to as a matter of wartime responsibility. Less of a mystery and more a traditional crime procedural, the film at least ends with a classic monologue where Holmes explains all the details of the case. But the downgrade in budget is evident, and the story feels as routine as any other B-crime picture—even the banter between Holmes and Watson feels stale and more cartoonish than before. But it was successful enough to spawn 13 more films, all churned out by the studio over the course of four years, until Rathbone finally ended the series by dropping out in 1946.

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For More on Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

Read the review in The New York Times