Friday, August 02, 2002

Rathbone and Cushing as Sherlock Holmes

When I was growing up, I saw most of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies on TV on the late afternoon show. The first two, HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, are generally considered the best, if only because they cost the most and had the most care taken in their making. These two, set in Conan Doyle's time, stand out to me, but the rest, set in the present and mostly made on B-movie budgets, have tended to blur together in my memory, so I'm trying to re-watch the other Rathbone films as I run across them. THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1945) has a good critical reputation, though there are plot loopholes galore. A "Ten Little Indians" atmosphere is created in a house where a group of seven men are being killed off, one by one, often mutilated beyond recognition, in what appears to be an attempt to get insurance money. Holmes and Watson (and later, Lestrade) arrive on the scene to figure out what's what. I admit it had me puzzled, although my partner Don figured out the solution in the first 20 minutes, and it's a nifty one. THE SCARLET CLAW (1944) has a Hound of the Baskervilles-type setting, a small village where animals, and eventually people, are being found dead. Holmes and Watson learn about the situation after a retired actress is killed, then they receive a letter from the dead woman asking for help. She's beyond help, but they decide to investigate anyway. This isn't quite as good as FEAR, but it has its moments and the foggy village atmosphere adds to the movie's appeal.

I think Rathbone is the best Holmes (and, of course, Nigel Bruce is the best Watson), but I watched the 1959 Peter Cushing version of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES anyway and was quite disappointed. It's a Hammer production and looks and feels like one, with its bright colors and elaborate but artificial sets; the problem is that it keeps threatening to become a full-fledged Hammer horror movie, but it never does. Some more bosoms and blood could only have helped. I won't rehash the plot, about a supposed ghost hound from Hell that is threatening Lord Baskerville and assorted other villagers. Christopher Lee is wasted as Baskerville--he does his best to bring some oomph to his role, but is defeated by mediocre direction. Cushing is serviceable as Holmes, and Andre Morrell practically vanishes as Watson. On top of which, at almost 90 minutes, it's just too long to sustain interest, especially since it does follow the original story fairly well, so if you know it, you know exactly where it's going. Watching this just made me want to watch the Rathbone version again.

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