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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

In a year chock-full of good movies, 1939 saw the first two — and the two best — movies that teamed up Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Hot on the heels of The Hound of the Baskervilles came an even more stylish yarn, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, to pit the Great Detective against his arch-nemesis, Prof. Moriarty (George Zucco). Moriarty's double-bladed scheme is not merely to filch the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. He aims to distract Holmes with murderous red herrings and thereby publicly humiliate the Crown's famous defender, thus ending the two opposing geniuses' rivalry. Involved in the convolutions is exquisite ingénue Ida Lupino (Rebecca, High Sierra), who comes to 221b Baker Street when her brother, and then she herself, is threatened by the same mysterious messages that presaged the murder of her father exactly ten years ago.

Ostensibly based on William Gillette's stage play, Adventures doesn't break a sweat trying to make sense of its unwieldy and pulpy plot, but gets away with it in entertaining fashion thanks to pithy dialogue ("You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty; I admire it; I'd like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society") and the strengths of everyone in front of and behind the cameras. Rathbone is again pitch-perfect as Holmes, his wiry energy and avian features guaranteeing that the actor would find the role unshakable for the rest of his career. Bruce's bovine Dr. Watson is lovable even as he settles into the silly-ass buffoon that purists have come to either loathe or hate. Note, however, that it's trusty Watson who keeps trying to steer Holmes to the business of the endangered Crown Jewels, a task Baker Street's most renowned resident pooh-poohs until it's nigh too late.

Zucco's Moriarty may be the screen's finest. This coolly evil Napoleon of Crime proactively manipulates the London underworld like, as Arthur Conan Doyle put it, a spider in the center of his web. The relationship between Holmes and Moriarty is smartly crafted, like two ruthlessly competing CEOs determined to see each other ruined.

In terms of directing and photography, Adventures is even better than its predecessor. Director Alfred L. Werker shows off a flair for the material, and we get scenes that appear composed, lit, and shot expressly for the most evocative publicity stills. The noirish ambiance of Victorian London is beautifully rendered, with hansoms clattering down cobblestone streets in a city built from roiling fog and inky shadows.

Regrettably, after only two films 20th Century Fox discontinued the series. After Adventures, Universal snapped up the rights (and the cast) and "re-imagined" the Holmes tales in twelve enjoyably trashy B-movies that set Rathbone and Bruce against such WWII villains as Nazis and Fifth Columnists and The Spider Woman.

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MPI's DVD release of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes will more than please fans of the series. Struck from a well-preserved print, the gorgeous, crystalline black-and-white image displays fine clarity, definition, and contrast. The DD 2.0 monaural audio also arrives in very good shape.

A welcome extra comes from Richard Valley, the publisher of Scarlet Street magazine, who supplies a packed commentary track. Valley is an engaging, casually professorial speaker. His relaxed delivery reels off spools of expert info and insight with a baritone voice that's ideally pitched for such genre material. Armed with encyclopedic knowledge of the screenplay's many revisions and edits, he applies putty to the film's numerous gaps in plot logic and continuity glitches. Valley also provides a five-page slipsheet essay that recreates scenes and dialogue snipped from the final cut.

We also get a routine gallery of publicity photos and poster art, and a compilation of trailers for later films in the series. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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