The year is 1889. Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead of heart failure, but there are some who say that he has died of fright and succumbed to the family curse, brought on by the death of a gypsy girl many generations before. When his heir, Sir Henry (Richard Greene) arrives in Britain to take up residence at Baskerville Hall, Dr Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) contacts the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his companion Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) in the hope that they will prevent the family curse striking once more...
Perhaps the most celebrated version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous mystery was scripted by Ernest Pascal and presented the best loved rendering of Holmes and Watson until Jeremy Brett was cast for television. It started a whole series of adaptations of the great detective's adventures, the first two being set in Victorian England, and the subsequent adventures set in the then-contemporary 1940s. All were strong on atmosphere, but few matched the dark, studio-bound eerieness of this outing, which really played up the creepy elements of the story.
As Holmes, Rathbone is always the most intelligent person in the room, and isn't afraid to let you know about it. He has a streak of arrogance and a show-off quality that leads you to wonder why the other characters don't tell him, "Don't patronise me, you bastard!" until you realise that he is the one man they can depend on to track down the killer hound and its devious master. He may put Sir Henry's life in danger for the sake of solving the case, but as the film progresses a more compassionate side of Holmes emerges to take the edge off his overbearing nature.
It has been said that The Hound of the Baskervilles is more of a Dr Watson story than a Sherlock Holmes story, and Nigel Bruce does well in keeping the action ticking away. He's a bit like a hound himself, but a big, loyal, puppy dog who listens in awe as Holmes explains the plot to him. The rest of the cast is filled out with suspicious types (helpfully, they are assembled at the start of the film so we can see who we suspect the most): Dr Mortimer, who dabbles in the occult, Stapleton, an archaeologist who cheerfully regales everyone with tales of how deadly the misty mire is, and the shifty butler Barryman who hides a secret.
Rathbone and Bruce don't enjoy top billing in their first adventure together, that goes to Greene, but it's their film all the way. The set design and phototgraphy expertly conjure up a doomladen air - it's no wonder Sir Henry wants to get married so quickly, the honeymoon provides him with a great excuse to get away. It's one of the few stories of supernatural horror where the non-paranormal explanation isn't a let down, because it just wouldn't be satisfying if the world's greatest detective didn't solve the case, and this classy (if not completely faithful) production does the character justice. It's a bit disappointing we don't see the villain's demise, but you can't have everything. Listen for the last line - a blatant drugs reference!