The Universal ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series (1942-1946)

Three years after Fox had dispensed with the services of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Universal re-hired them (and Mary Gordon as their faithful housekeeper Mrs Hudson) for what would become twelve more adventures.

This time, however, they would be produced as a B-feature series, with reduced budgets and shooting schedules, and no chance of authentic period detail. Instead, it was decided to update the settings to the forties, giving Holmes a chance to do his bit for the war effort, though in fact only the first three (easily distinguished by an opening caption explaining the transition and a peculiar Byronic haircut for Rathbone) actually pitted him against Nazi agents. As the series progressed, the modern elements became more and more sidelined, so that it became increasingly possible to ignore the switch for long stretches.
Though unquestionably formulaic, the series proved consistently popular with audiences of the time and remains a delight today. Though only a few of the stories owed more than an echo or two to Conan Doyle, the screenplays, often the work of Bertram Millhauser, were atmospheric and engrossing, and a huge contribution was made by a recurring cast of wonderful players.
In addition to Dennis Hoey, who made several delightful appearances as Inspector Lestrade, these included show-stopping villains Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Henry Daniell and Gale Sondergaard, leading ladies Hillary Brooke and Evelyn Ankers, and a peerless rear guard composed of the likes of Miles Mander, Gerald Hamer, Frederic Worlock, Halliwell Hobbes and Paul Cavanagh.
All but the first was directed by, and all but the first three produced by, Roy William Neill, an under-rated craftsman who worked in both Britain and Hollywood.

1. Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) *
A reasonable first try: Holmes is called in by the British government to unmask Nazi saboteurs whose activities are announced by radio transmission in a (very) loose riff on Conan Doyle's His Last Bow. This initial attempt to marry Holmesian detection with wartime espionage feels a little uneasy, but the supporting cast is first rate, and it's never unenjoyable.

2. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) *
Lionel Atwill gets his shot at Professor Moriarty, now working for the Nazis and stopped in the nick of time at the climax from draining every drop of Holmes's blood; any resemblance between this and Conan Doyle's The Dancing Men is purely minimal. With director R.W. Neill on board, and Dennis Hoey debuting as Lestrade, the series is beginning to find its feet, though it's only when the Nazis are dispensed with in two films' time that it really takes flight.

3. Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) *
"I'm so accustomed to working quite alone at my lodgings in Baker Street that I sometimes forget the more modern scientific methods so particularly effective here in America." Holmes visits the States on the trail of a missing microfilm; Watson discovers the joys of bubblegum. Two of the series' Moriartys, George Zucco and Henry Daniell, deserved more intricate villainy.

4. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) ***
First class update of Conan Doyle's The Musgrave Ritual and probably the best of the series, with a worthy mystery for Holmes to solve and inventive use of Universal's backlot and standing sets. For the first time, the war setting is incidental rather than of the essence, and the switch has a liberating effect on the series, which from this point on would become increasingly preoccupied with eerie atmsopherics.

5. Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944) **
Holmes fakes his own death, disguises himself as an Indian officer and nearly gets killed at a shooting gallery, as he attempts to snare femme fatale Gale Sondergaard, who uses her pygmy assistant to drop deadly spiders into her victims' bedrooms. Conan Doyle has been liberally plundered this time: elements of The Final Problem, The Empty House, The Dying Detective, The Devil's Foot and The Sign of Four are all incorporated. Sondergaard, needless to say, is superb.

6. The Scarlet Claw (1944) **
Richly atmospheric if somewhat cartoonish variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles, distinguished by a superb performance from series regular Gerald Hamer. More than ever, the atmosphere is Universal horror, with ghostly apparitions and victims found with their throats torn out; the formula is now well-oiled and purring, but it's basically a silly film. That it is so highly regarded, and Pursuit to Algiers so disliked says something interesting about the generally accepted criteria for judging these things.

7. The Pearl of Death (1944) **
The premise of Conan Doyle's The Six Napoleons with horror trimmings, notably the first appearance as 'The Creeper' by Rondo Hatton, a hulking, real-life acromegaly victim, who reprised the character in a few more films (including The Spider Woman Strikes Back, a Holmesless pseudo-sequel again with Sondergaard) before his death in 1946. A rare chance for Evelyn Ankers to play the villain, and bags of fun for all.

8. The House of Fear (1945) **
The only problem with working Holmes into an Agatha Christie country house murder mystery is that he has to stand ineffectually by as murder after murder occurs beneath his nose... other than that this is a fun original, spuriously indebted to The Five Orange Pips, with no leading lady but a genuinely surprising - if incredible - twist ending.

9. The Woman In Green (1945) **
This time it's Hillary Brooke who gets the chance to play the bad girl, though most of her thunder is stolen by Henry Daniell, an untypical but effective Moriarty, blackmailing wealthy victims by setting them up as perpetrators of a series of murders in which the victims' fingers are severed. The screenplay incorporates parts of Conan Doyle's The Empty House, and due possibly to the indisposition of Dennis Hoey, we get our only encounter in this series with Lestrade's great rival at Scotland Yard, Inspector Gregson. The pace is a little uncertain, and censorship interference has somewhat compromised the plot (in the original draft young children were the victims, and the creepy surgeon with his dollies served a far more sinister purpose), but it pulls itself together for a fun climax.

10. Pursuit To Algiers (1945) **
Often unfairly dismissed as the weakest of the series for no better reason than the fact that it eschews the now-expected touches of the macabre and horror film asides, this is a perfectly pleasing and enjoyable shipboard intrigue, with some good dialogue for Rathbone and Nigel Bruce singing 'Loch Lomond'. The first reel is among the best of the series, the final twist is a good one, and no other entry in the Universal series has so authentic a feel of the original Conan Doyle stories. Trouble is, it's in the tradition of 'Charles Augustus Milverton' or 'The Illustrious Client' - stories where Holmes has a mission to accomplish and a villain to defeat rather than a mystery to solve - rather than 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. So what?

11. Terror By Night (1946) ***
Absolutely top-drawer entry, a cracking whodunnit on a moving train, with several excellent scenes and an especially nice double-climax. That's one beast of an English accent Renee Godfrey struggles with in the course of an extraordinarily detached performance, but is she ever gorgeous.

12. Dressed To Kill (1946) *
The series finale is, sadly, one of the weaker entries, with a nicely eccentric premise undone by blah exposition and a truly preposterous resolution. But it's still enjoyable enough, with Patricia Morrison pleasingly feline as the now standard female mastermind, and no real signs that the series is running fatally out of steam. It had dipped and peaked before, and if Rathbone had not grown restless, this was a series that could have gone on forever.