The first of fourteen
Sherlock Holmes films
starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
is the only one faithfully adapted from an actual Arthur Conan
Doyle story. Often filmed, Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles
is problematic for filmmakers (see the review of the Jeremy Brett
version for more thoughts) but luckily this was 1939, a year
it was nearly impossible to make a bad movie. Although there
far more entertaining Holmes adventures starring Rathbone and Bruce,
HOUND is one of the classiest and the most satisfying for Holmes purists.
The screenplay takes some liberties with the original plot (I don't recall a seance in the novel), but is still an excellent adaptation of the novel, and remains one of the best of all movie versions. The shady characters run several layers deep, and if you are not immediately pegging Lionel Atwill or John Carradine as possible suspects in the murder of Sir Henry Baskerville, there is something wrong with you. Of course, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce became Holmes and Watson for several generations of movie-goers and for good reason: they were outstanding. Although he excelled at playing villains, Rathbone was seemingly born to play The World's Greatest Consulting Detective and is considered by many to be the standard bearer for the part. As for Bruce, happily, he is not asked to play the good Doctor John Watson as a bumbling buffoon, a tradition that would start with the next film, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Instead, he comes off almost exactly as he always was in the stories - a gentleman, somewhat lazy, always one step behind Holmes, but ready to throw himself in harm's way for the sake of a good adventure with his brainy friend. Bruce and the rest of the cast carry the middle of the film, since, as in the novel, Holmes is offscreen much of the time. Strangely, Rathbone is billed second and Bruce fourth in this first of their many screen adventures. This would be rectified by the next film (and by this site, as you can see above in our cast list).
As mentioned in another Holmes review, the hardest element of the novel to pull off well on film is the revelation of the legendary murderous hound itself. Here, director Sidney Lanfield allows us to see it early so that when the climactic scene comes, we will not be disappointed that it is, as usual, only a large, angry dog and not some mythical monster.
The only thing keeping THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES from a full five-star rating is the lack of a musical score. ½ - JB