On March 31st 1939 worldwide cinema audiences were introduced to Sherlock Holmes on the big screen. Basil Rathbone taking on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Victorian detective under the direction of Sidney Lanfield.
At the time of release Rathbone only received second billing, with the top honour going to Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville. In fact, Sherlock Holmes was hardly mentioned in much of the film’s publicity. However, this first film outing cemented Rathbone as the quintessential screen version of the detective. In turn, laying the foundations for many movies and TV shows to come. While Rathbone himself would go on to make another twelve appearances as Holmes on screen.
At 80 years old, the first cinematic leap into Sherlock Holmes looks glorious, the moors bathed in stark and dreamlike darkness. An aesthetic that helps merge Conan Doyle’s literature with the darkness of the early Universal horror films. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox under the production of Darryl F Zanuck opts to stick rigorously to the Victorian era. Delivering sets that sing with authenticity; the git and dirt of London’s streets cut against the isolation of the moors. As a result, this is a film that still engages and surprises 80 years on.
Meanwhile, Rathbone’s first portrayal of Holmes lights up the screen, his effervescent personality captivating the audience while owning the character. His peddler disguise mid-way through, still one of the high points of the film. As Rathbone demonstrates his ability to portray multiple characters, alongside his roots in Shakespearian theatre.
Alongside Rathbone, Greene, Barrie, Lowry and Bruce all give solid performances with some truly wonderful comedic moments coming from Barlowe Borlands Mr Frankland. However, the films biggest weakness comes from the bumbling and underserved portrayal of Watson, one that would continue to haunt the character for many films to come.
Ultimately creating an atmosphere that still feels fresh and timeless when compared to many other films of the era. With Lanfield’s version of Hound of Baskervilles still the best cinematic adaptation of the book, despite a myriad of remakes over the years.