It’s 1942 and in London British Intelligence's Inner Council is yet again frustrated by the radio broadcasts of the self-proclaimed Voice Of Terror. A representative of Nazi Germany he goads the British public with warnings of terrorist attacks that strike without resistance. Who can halt these dastardly broadcasts and reveal his true identity, why, Sherlock Holmes of course.
The third entry in the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce cycle of films Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is an inauspicious start to the modernised series. After 20th Century Fox’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and a gap of three years, the franchise was taken over by Universal who decided to bring Holmes to the modern age, explained via a written prologue at the films start. What was an obviously tantalising notion, to pit the world’s greatest detective against the Nazis, alas resulted in a rather unremarkable and unsuccessful film.
Taking its inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s His Last Bow, it’s a run of the mill feature which centres on Holmes’ attempts to unmask a double agent within the ranks of British Intelligence, a double agent working for the Nazis. As such there is a distinct vein of wartime propaganda running throughout the film. For example, shoehorned into the plot is a scene in which Kitty, wife of Holmes’ murdered informant, gives a patriotic speech to the criminal element of London, “There’s only one side,” she robustly informs them, “England!” Needless to say they heed to the call, much to Holmes’ relief for “England is at stake!” Ironically, seen from today’s perspective this wartime plotline with its villain a very thinly veiled reference to Lord Haw Haw, has dated the film far more than many others in the canon.
There are other changes that have been made which are similarly unsuccessful. The intelligent resident of 221b Baker Street seems to have been somewhat delayed in getting to the offices of British Intelligence, by a trip to the barbers. In further films he reverted to his trademark hairstyle but gone to is the famous apparel of Holmes, referenced in a comical aside when Watson berates his friend for attempting to don his distinctive deerstalker. Thankfully none of this has affected the performances of the leads; both Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form and hold proceedings together with Rathbone delivering his deductive dialogue with an air of self-assuredness and Bruce bringing his customary likeable naivety to the role of Watson.
Director John Rawlins’ sole entry into the series is a pretty forgettable chapter in the cinematic canon of Doyle’s famous creation. It contains none of the atmosphere or puzzling clues that befit Holmes, having him as a hired hand for British Intelligence doesn’t do the character any favours. The film is nothing more than a standard hunt for the enemy within tale, into which Holmes and Watson have been added. To be fair it’s really a transitional movie, the sense that the filmmakers are trying to find the right tone and style is obvious. At least it retains some of Doyle’s elegant prose, with a final speech from Rathbone lifted verbatim from the source material. The subsequent films were better, still varying in quality but more in keeping with the original stories, even though the filmmaker’s fascination with a Nazi adversary would resurface more than once. At best Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is a film for completists only rather than the casual fan.