3) Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943):
The third of a mini-series within the films focusing on World War II sees Holmes and Watson off for Washington, seeking to recover microfilm vital to the war effort. The film is more a spy thriller than a traditional detective story, but Rathbone makes it work.
The film features another solid performance from Rathbone. In this one, Holmes is matched up against sophisticated and ruthless Nazi spies who will do anything to capture the microfilm. This is one of the best types of Holmes films, with the villains and Holmes racing against time towards a solution.
The tension is heightened by clever camera work surrounding the object of the quest, which is a matchbook containing the missing microfilm. The producers rarely let the matchbook out of our sight. We see it passed from hand to hand, even follow it on a tray at a party. It was a very clever and fun device.
2) Sherlock Holmes: The Voice of Terror (1942)
The Voice of Terror brought Holmes and Watson off the radio and back on to motion picture screens and relaunched the series at Universal, and set the series back into the modern times of World War II Great Britain, placing our heroes in the mix of one of the greatest fights in history. This movie has a ripped from the headlines feel as Holmes seeks out a man whose diabolical broadcast were designed to destroy the morale of the beleaguered British public by disclosing classified war information over the radio.
The cinematography was inexpensive but well-done. If you get the restored version from UCLA, the barroom scene where Holmes seeks help in weeding out the Voice of Terror is extremely well-shot. The solution to the case is unexpected and the film packs an emotional wallop. The spirit of World War II comes through in the film. The Voice of Terror is a film about sacrifice, courage, and the indomitable spirit that refused to blink in the face of Nazi Germany.
Of course, there are many people who question the decision to have movies where Sherlock Holmes fights in World War II. However, we must remember that at the time the movie was released, survival of Great Britain was an open question, and the movie has the sense of that. What this means is that the stakes of the film are high and the film had a sense of this larger story going on in the real world. It would be odd for Holmes not to be involved in these sort of cases.
World War II brought many changes to the lives of fictional detectives. Not only Sherlock Holmes, but other detectives such as Nero Wolfe and Charlie Chan lent their skills to the war effort. World War II was when people from all walks of life were having their lives shaken up. Holmes was no different..
And what would Arthur Conan Doyle think of his hero becoming a Nazi buster? The last line of the film provides a clue. Holmes tells Watson, “But there’s an East wind coming all the same. Such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less. And a greener, better, stronger land will be in the sunshine when the wind is clearer.” The quote was actually a line Doyle wrote for Holmes in “His Last Bow,” which was set during World War I. I have no doubt that this film is one Doyle would approve of.
1) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not just the very best of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, but the best Holmes film I’ve yet seen. The movie begins with Professor Moriarty (played superbly by George Zucco) being acquitted of a crime and Holmes pledging to bring him to the gallows. Moriarty responds by planning an ostentatious crime and plans to keep Holmes distracted by giving him a puzzle so fascinating that it’ll keep Holmes occupied while Moriarty pulls off the crime of the century.
While Hound of the Baskervilles introduced us to Rathbone as Holmes, he really begins to own the role in this performance. The dynamic between Holmes and Moriarty has never been better. The crimes are clever and well-executed. The film represents the ultimate in the Holmes-Moriarty battle of wits and the battle is not limited to wits only. The confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at the end of the movie is well-shot and well-scored, making for an exciting and well-paced end to the adventure.
The movie also has the some nice little touches including a fun musical interlude. In addition, unlike later Holmes films which were shot on a limited budget due to wartime restrictions, this film is a beautifully shot period piece.
Thus, while many great and good Holmes would follow, if I had to pick only one Sherlock Holmes film to take on a desert island, this would be the one.