Saturday 26 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Director: John Rawlins
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
After two films for Fox in 1939, Sherlock Holmes was temporarily silenced. After all, these were Victorian stories featuring a Victorian character and 1939 was the beginning of a different age, the Second World War. Perhaps Fox couldn't help comparing the fictional villain in their second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with the real life villain making himself very known at the time. Excluding the fact that Adolf Hitler and Holmes's nemesis Prof Moriarty were both notorious villains, they're utterly different because their villainy is from a completely different age. Holmes was effectively and suddenly irrelevant.

A mere three years later he was brought back to a new relevance as a wartime propaganda weapon. Universal hired Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce to reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson, but otherwise ignored the two Fox films entirely. The gaslights and polite criminals of Victorian London are gone and in their place the looming threat of the Nazis, or as Holmes calls them in a patriotic piece of rhetoric, 'the cut-throats of the world.' Holmes and Watson look a little older, though a mere few years perhaps rather than the needed fifty or so. There's no explanation needed and the opening text deliberately avoids one. 'Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging,' it says, as if he's a mythological character like Robin Hood or King Arthur, one that can apparently be conjured up in the hour of his country's direst need.

The need here is provided in the title of the film. The Voice of Terror is a Lord Haw Haw type, a Nazi radio broadcaster thundering out news of military disasters for the Allies, hammering home the superiority of the Third Reich by embarrassing their opponents. The Intelligence Inner Council in London, tasked with combatting this menace, is apparently powerless, one of their number even losing a son in one of these disasters. It's made clear that they're effective at every other task but they're stumped by this one, so Sir Evan Barham, who went to school with Watson, calls in Holmes for a fresh approach to the problem. It's not just a problem for government. 'No-one in the world is safe now, Watson,' says Holmes, 'least of all us.'
Given the skimpy 65 minute running time, there isn't much opportunity for Holmes to work his magic in detail, so instead of the standard set of clues for us to filter through, we watch the master detective watching everyone like TV's The Mentalist, who after all is a character that owes his entire existence to the Holmes method of acute observation and deduction. Rather than us trying to keep up with him, we're not even given the opportunity as he's at least a few steps ahead of us at all times. We're merely left waiting for whatever revelations he feels it appropriate to let us in on at whatever points he feels it appropriate to do so, seemingly plucking the answers out of mid air. It's as reticent with its detail as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was sparing; instead of an intricate cat and mouse game we're given a propaganda message.

It was well timed, of course. After the initial patrotic rush of signing up to kick the ass of the Germans, we had found that it wasn't quite that simple and an inevitably short and victorious war stretched out with no end in sight. Yet by 1942 we had turned the tide as the Nazis overextended themselves, so that the question was becoming more about endurance. Films like this and characters like this helped to boost morale and helped us to endure. On that front there's enough sacrifice and overt patriotism to meet that need, Holmes the mythical saviour aided less by the trusty Dr Watson and more by the capabilities of the filmmakers, working to an obviously scant budget but with great talent to bring to bear: Universal scream queen Evelyn Ankers as a Limehouse prostitute who fights the good fight after one of Holmes's speeches; and other reliable names like Henry Daniell and Montagu Love.

There's also Reginald Denny, who was aiding the war effort in another way as well, designing and building radio controlled target drones for the army through a company called Radioplane. He was a consummate modeller who ran a model aircraft shop on Hollywood Blvd and a kit company called Reginald Denny Industries, but he took that knowledge a step further during wartime, making him something of an aviation pioneer. There's even a movie story in here too, a photo shoot at his Radioplane plant close to the end of the war bringing to photographers' attention a young employee by the name of Norma Jean Mortensen, attention that led to an ever so slightly important screen career under the more famous name of Marilyn Monroe.

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