Bursting into a packed courtroom Sherlock Holmes proclaims that he has vital evidence that will destroy the alibi of the accused, none other than Professor Moriarty, who is on trial for murder. Alas he is too late, for the verdict of innocent has already been passed by a reluctant jury. Upon exiting the court a free man the Professor boasts to an obviously repulsed Holmes that he is planning a crime that will see the world's greatest detective discredited! A short time later Holmes is visited by Sir Ronald Ramsgate of the Tower of London who asks for his assistance in safeguarding the imminent arrival of The Star Of Delhi. But the subsequent entrance of a distressed young woman with an intriguingly mysterious murder threat will draw Holmes into the web of deceit woven by Moriarty. So, will the scourge of the criminal type be able to protect the life of the young Ann Brandon and also detect the true intentions of his most dastardly opponent? The game is indeed afoot!
Following hot on the heels of the impressive Hound of the Baskervilles, 20th Century Fox gave Messrs Holmes and Watson another cinematic crime to solve in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes. Interestingly it was decided not to adapt one of the many stories from the pen of Conan Doyle but instead inspiration was very loosely taken from a stage play by William Gillette. This was the second time that Basil Rathbone would don the deerstalker, ably assisted by Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson, and the last time that they would find themselves in the Victorian age. Subsequent adventures (made by Universal rather than Fox) placed them, with varying degrees of success, in a contemporary setting.
South African born Rathbone is without question the definitive cinematic Sherlock, looking as if he has stepped out of one of Sidney Paget's wonderful illustrations that accompanied Doyle’s tales in The Strand Magazine. In this film he undeniably gives his best performance portraying all the now classic Holmsian mannerisms. Bruce provides the comic relief giving Watson a bumbling likeability, and if Holmes is a tad cold and logical Watson is almost too human for his own good, nearly giving away vital information at one point. Bruce brings a slightly childlike aspect to the good Doctor, sulking when chastised by his learned friend, but soon back in his good books. Although his more rotund colleague provides the comedy element Rathbone also displays a lightness of touch and versatility during the scenes set at the party attended by Miss Brandon, at which he utilises a cunning disguise. It could rightly be argued that the cinematic Watson is not totally in keeping with Doyle's original characterization but it works well with the two actors obviously relishing their respective roles. The chemistry between them is undeniable and although they are as different as chalk and cheese their friendship is never less than genuine. The leads are ably supported by Ida Lupino in the role of Ann Brandon, Peter Willes as her ill-fated brother Lloyd Brandon and Alan Marshal, who gives a suitably suspicious performance as Ann’s fiancé Jerrold Hunter.
But where would a hero be without his villain and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes pits the detective against his most infamous opponent, Moriarty. Upon leaving the courtroom Moriarty and Holmes share a hansom cab, in which some delicious verbal sparring ensues – "You have a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it pickled to the London Medical Society." to which the Professor brusquely replies, "It would make an impressive exhibit." This sets the tone for a film about the duel of intelligence between the two men. The audacity of Moriarty for telling Holmes that he is planning the ultimate crime is reflective of his character. Brought to the screen by the impressive George Zucco, he is a man who is similar to Holmes in his logical intelligence but one who twists it to criminal purposes. Rather than the slightly aloof air of Holmes he has contempt for his inferiors who are no more than tools in his machinations. For him criminal acts are a complex game, in which he must be the victor. But the crime must be one of such audaciousness and complexity as to confound his pipe-smoking enemy. In direct opposition to the companionship that exists between Holmes and Watson Moriarty is a solitary figure, more comfortable when attending to the myriad flowers and fauna in his home, and more affected by the death of one of those flowers than any fate which befalls his fellow man. Zucco's style, all curt dialogue, driven criminal intent and barely concealed megalomania is almost as definitive as Rathbone’s in transferring a character from page to screen.
Apart from the impressive performances the film is further enhanced by the novel idea of having two mysteries for Holmes to solve. Will he be able to unravel the deliberately intricately plotted mystery involving Miss Brandon? A plot that, whilst merely a smokescreen for Moriarty's real crime, will place those involved in mortal danger. Will he discover the real intentions of Moriarty in time? This gives Rathbone the chance to shine, with Holmes taking centre stage throughout the film as he explores the intentionally convoluted clues presented before him. You can see his brain working, processing the information to form a picture of events as he moves around the murder scene from one clue to next with barely concealed vigour. As such the film has a real momentum assisted by Alfred Werker's brisk direction. He never lets the pace flag, keeping the adventure moving briskly along and even introducing a brief nod to the German expressionist style during the film's finale, via the use of lighting and camera angles. The locales of Victorian London are well realised – an aspect that was obviously lost in the decision to modernise the crime solving duo's further adventures – the film is full of dimly lit cobbled streets, hansom cabs and foggy alleyways in which a man with murderous intent could easily conceal himself. London of the 1890s does not seem a safe place, apart from the presence of Holmes of course! The only real shortcoming, and it is a minor one, is that once Holmes discovers the real crime behind the subterfuge it is a slightly rushed affair from detection to resolution.
Despite not being inspired by one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is almost certainly the best of the Rathbone and Bruce movies, and therefore one of the best Sherlock Holmes films. It contains all the required elements; the Victorian setting, the convoluted clues, the sharp dialogue and in Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ ultimate nemesis. As well as a ripping yarn in its own right the film is a testament to the enduring popularity of possibly the single most recognisable and iconic character in fiction, the crime fighting resident of 221b Baker Street.