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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Like Peter Jackson's film interpretations of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, cinematic adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon are vulnerable to an extra lens of critical analysis. The legions of fans, aficionados, devotees, and armchair scholars of a book-to-film's original source material must, like skeptical clerics studying the Shroud of Turin, hold up every foot and frame of the filmmaker's work to the light of the hallowed author's words and pages. And we all know what the first four letters of the word analysis are. Is the film version faithful to its revered source? Does "faithful" mean dogmatic word-for-word translation from one medium to another, or are creative and practical allowances excusable? Like Tolkien's fantasy epic, Doyle's beloved Victorian detective stories evoke an idealized time and place that never existed except between our ears, so any attempt to visualize them onscreen is inevitably judged through filters found, as Holmes authority Vincent Starrett put it, "in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895."

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most-filmed tale of Doyle's famous Great Detective. For hardcore Sherlockians (not to mention less temperamentally scrutinizing film-lovers) the 20th Century Fox 1939 version remains a favorite screen treatment of Holmes' encounter with the supernatural hellhound. This film, which inaugurated Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their career-defining roles as steely Holmes and trusty Watson, ranks up there as a glossy, respectful interpretation that bends and condenses the sacred text yet remains faithful to its atmosphere and spirit.

When Sir Charles Baskerville dies mysteriously outside Baskerville Hall, his friend Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) finds evidence that the centuries-old family curse, a death-dealing spectral hound, has struck once again. Before Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) arrives in London to claim his inheritance, Mortimer enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) lest yet another Baskerville succumb to the horror stalking the desolate ancestral moors. Mortimer brings Sir Henry to 221b Baker Street and expresses his fear for the young heir's life. Baskerville learns that along with the grand family mansion comes the too-real legend of a phantom killer canine, a secretive butler (John Carradine, one year before his Casy in The Grapes of Wrath), and colorful neighbors such as the boyishly affable Dr. Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who collects ancient skulls from the Neolithic ruins nearby, Mrs. Mortimer (Beryl Mercer), whose séances conjure up ghostly howls, and Stapleton's lovely stepsister (Wendy Barrie, goddaughter of J.M. "Peter Pan" Barrie), who is quite fetching indeed in her riding togs fit for a baroness. Holmes, pressed with "other business," sends Dr. Watson (Bruce) to accompany Sir Henry to the dreary estate and keep a watchful eye for the mysterious goings-on Holmes anticipates. Of course, with danger afoot, Sherlock Holmes may not be so far from the scene as he lets on.

Doyle's short novel has always been difficult to bring to the screen. Not only must Holmes' brilliant yet talky intellectual detective work be combined with gothic horror trappings, but Holmes himself is absent for the entire middle third of the story. This most famous version streamlines Doyle's plot and removes some of its twists and complications, then adds more red herrings than you can shake a deerstalker at. Director Sidney Lanfield cut his teeth on musicals and light entertainments, so he wasn't entirely up to the challenges The Hound of the Baskervilles presented. Nonetheless, he served the material well, and his sets and photography positively overflow with fogbound atmospherics. Even while avoiding the visual difficulties of Doyle's phosphorous-coated beast, Lanfield's climactic Hound attack has yet to be bested. Nowadays the movie strikes us as stagy and theatrical, as much a product of the thirties as of the dry-ice blowers. Yet this Hound ably shows that the miasmic Devonshire moors should be shot only in spooky black-and-white with plenty of deep shadows and craggy rocks. Purists can fault the screenplay for downplaying Holmes' clockwork scientific deductions for action-thriller plot-padding, and they'd be right. Other embellishments are an effective séance scene and a rewrite of Wendy Barrie's role from a knowing accomplice to an innocent romantic interest.

Creative license aside, this film triumphs because it belongs enduringly to Basil Rathbone. Already an established star (he was the villain in the previous year's The Adventures of Robin Hood), his perfect Holmes profile and snappy characterization stamped him irrevocably into the public's image of Doyle's detective. The two Holmes films he made in '39 (the other being The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) are regarded as the best of his 14 screen pairings with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Here Bruce's Watson is not quite the blustery comic-relief boob he became later in the series, an image that subsequent Watsons (such as James Mason) have tried hard to yank back to Doyle's reliable ex-army surgeon and narrator. The chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce energizes one of the great Hollywood team-ups. So sure-footed is this Hound's casting, another version wasn't attempted until England's Hammer Films gave it a garishly entertaining turn twenty years later, and Rathbone's only serious competition for the definitive screen Sherlock wouldn't arrive for almost fifty years with Jeremy Brett.

*          *          *

MPI's DVD release of the 1939 Rathbone-Bruce Hound gives us a print that's almost too good to be true. The black-and-white imagery is beautiful, with deep blacks and spot-on graytones. Signs of age are infrequent and insignificant. For an unrestored print, this is a model vintage film edition. The DD 2.0 monaural audio is also in good shape, although expect some hiss and the occasional pop.

The big extra is an informative and entertaining audio commentary track by David Stuart Davies, author of Holmes of the Movies and editor of Sherlock magazine. A slipsheet insert offers a thorough five-page essay by Richard Valley, the publisher of Scarlet Street magazine. Also here is a routine gallery of publicity photos and poster art, and a compilation of trailers for other films in the series. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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