Classic Hollywood's reconceptualisation of much classic literature created versions that have sunk deep, almost immovable roots into the popular psyche. In spite of innumerable attempts to shift the impression, who thinks of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster these days and not James Whale’s, or Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and not William Wyler’s? Not many. The pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson is perhaps the greatest example of this. The Conan Doyle fan in me cringes in appreciating Bruce’s version of Watson, who, although allowed moments of professional quality, is mostly used as a comical fuddy-duddy with a powerful dash of the old school tie, parochially bluff charm exuded by the dimly insulated English gentleman, defined so well by other early 20th-century pop culture fixtures, such as the writings of P.G. Wodehouse, or Caldicott and Charters from The Lady Vanishes (1938). The all-action version embodied by handsome movie star Jude Law in Guy Ritchie’s current, tedious reinvention is a complete, bold inversion of the image, only partly closer to the original mark. Notably, the only actor to ever remember that Watson was a wounded war veteran with a slight limp was Robert Duvall (bad accent and all) in The Seven-Percent Solution (1976). Rathbone’s Holmes, in appearance, could have stepped directly out of the old Strand magazines, and he embodied the character’s brilliance – the rapid-fire deductions, the delight in disguise, the shows of surprising physical agility – with a perfect flare, even whilst stepping back from the character’s egotism and more antisocial qualities, as a drug-addicted bohemian with contempt for British class distinctions and certain aspects of traditional morality. And yet, it's still easy to why this pairing of actors is still held in high terms by classic movie fans: they were just so good.
The Hound of the Baskervilles was already the most famous Conan Doyle Holmes novel and oft-filmed by the time this version came along; the first adaptation was, apparently, Rudolf Meinert’s 1914 German adaptation (which was strung out as a serial, with increasingly imaginative variations, a la Louis Feuillade), which saw Meinert lay some of the groundwork for the eruption of German Expressionism, as he would go on to help make Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919). In any event, Sidney Lanfield’s 1939 adaptation was the first to unite Rathbone and Bruce, under the aegis of 20th Century Fox, and another period-dress film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, would follow hard on its heels before the series was sold on to Universal, where it would be transferred into a modern setting, and expert English quickie director Roy William Neill would take over for all but the first entry, which was handled by John Rawlins. Neill’s lucid, snappy sense of atmosphere and pacing, light touch with hints of Expressionism, and his interesting capacity to blend an unconvincing back-lot Blighty with a personalised sense of the material’s quintessential qualities and native insularity, would more properly define the series.
A pure jobbing director, Lanfield’s handling here is languid, lacking compulsive pace or narrative compaction. This is partly because, as the film’s billing indicates with Richard Green listed as the star, this is an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes novel, but one adapted in such a way that removes specific emphasis on the investigating duo. Holmes and Watson essentially become major supporting characters, and the story is rendered, by and large, a romantic melodrama based on a classic English novel, and an each-way bet in terms of audience appeal. The adaptation is faithful, and yet rather than tying the explication of the mystery to the investigator’s viewpoints, and specifically Watson’s reportorial zest, which balances Holmes’ detail-specific sensibility, here the story is spread out more broadly. Lanfield and credited screenwriter Ernest Pascal diffuse the mystery with too many cutaways and weird dalliances. Like making Dr Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) and his wife (Beryl Mercer) into spiritualists who stage an abortive séance to contact the dead Sir Charles Baskerville. Or including Holmes’ famous deduction that Sir Charles must have been running, rather than tiptoeing, when he died, from his footprints, but having Mortimer make the observation instead. And too much time is devoted to the wooden romance between the future Robin Hood and Inspector Nayland-Smith, Richard Greene, top-billed as Sir Henry Baskerville, and Wendy Barrie as Beryl Stapleton, step-sister to the villain, John Stapleton (Morton Lowry).
Unlike in the 1959 Hammer version, still by far the best if not the most faithful version, there’s also a general avoidance of analysing the material for deeper reflexes: whereas the Hammer version is one of the singular examples of the brilliant Terence Fisher touch in making Sir Henry the living, partly unwitting avatar of the sensual greed, rapaciousness, and cruelty of the worst aspects of the aristocratic past, and the Stapletons the degraded, ensnaring revenge for that past, here it’s essentially about the aristocracy’s paranoia about being supplanted by the petit bourgeoisie, and the darkly sexual undercurrents are drained off by making Beryl not, as in the book, Stapleton’s secret, much-abused wife, used by him as bait, but his sister proper. This constitutes Beryl not as half-willing femme fatale but as simplistic romantic proxy. The Hammer version also more sharply relieves the disparity between Holmes, man of pure rationality, and the mysterious hound, force of supposed supernatural agency, and the coherent way the miasma of history, sex, and violence entwine to bridge the rational and the irrational in a fashion that only Holmes is clever enough to discern. Here it’s just a straight murder plot, rendered in a fashion that robs it of essential pulpy force, especially in the film’s abrupt conclusion, leaving Stapleton’s fate up to chance and seeing the lone reference to Holmes’ cocaine habit tossed over the shoulder as a weird but amusing closing gag. The Baskerville manservant, Barrymore, is here amusingly rechristened Barryman, and played by John Carradine, perhaps, I can only imagine, to avoid any hint of satire on the acting clan, and Carradine, like Atwill, plays his role as pure red herring, all shifty obfuscation and halting line deliveries.
What this version does do well is the entirely expressionistic version of
Dartmoor, a model sprawl of fog-licked hillocks, marshes, wizened trees and ancient ruins. The sequence in which Watson and Sir Henry delve into the foggy night in pursuit of the convict Selden (Nigel de Brulier) is a deliciously fog-bound, hazy adventure into the primeval, as too is the later scene of Seldon’s death, pushed from a cliff top by the marauding beast. Indeed, the hound itself is, for once, actually a pretty damn fearsome-looking animal. Lanfield offers a nice little sequence, usually left off-stage in other versions, in which Stapleton goes about his routine for unleashing his horrendous mutt, which he keeps in a pen underneath a gravestone, emerging from the ground with genuinely striking ferocity, thus lending its climactic attack on Sir Henry urgency and threat. Lowry’s Stapleton is good, a neatly sketched study in upright charm masking peculiarly English psychopathy, anticipating his equally callow characterisation in Don Siegel’s The Verdict (1946). Unlike many other versions, this one also seems interested in the resonances offered by the Neolithic ruins on the moor (although the character fascinated by these remnants is changed, for some reason, from Mortimer to Stapleton), as Sir Henry and Beryl meditate momentarily, in exploring the ruins, on both the mutability of their own immediate lives, but also on the recurring cycles of human existence. It’s also easy enough to see why the chemistry of Rathbone and Bruce was to make such a marked impression, particularly in the hilarious scene in which Holmes, hanging about the moor in the guise of a limping peddler, draws out Watson to his cave hideout. He maintains the masquerade as Watson, trying to achieve an air of authority, says that he himself is Holmes: when Holmes reveals himself, Watson flies into a huff, and Holmes delightedly increases the offence by regaling Watson with his screechy violin sawing. Here the Rathbone-Bruce duo, for better or worse, clearly stakes out the beauties of this variation on the theme, and a winning team is born.