I watched The Voice of Terror last week, Basil Rathbone’s third film as Sherlock Holmes, and his first for Universal. It was mercifully short. Set in World War II, it is ultimately a propaganda piece – a fable about the importance of not giving in to despair – something which Holmes very often did in the original stories. To that end, Rathbone’s Holmes is here quite separate from the one who demanded Watson bring him his needle at the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s The Hound of the Baskervilles: he is stiff upper-lipped and, if a vestigial trace of his arrogance remains, he is fully committed to the war effort.
The film quotes at its close the famous “east wind” speech, and in this sense its highly patriotic Holmes has some justification in the canon. But the film’s explicit insistence that Holmes is eternal, and that it is therefore OK simply to transplant him to another time, doesn’t quite wash: the film’s full title is Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, and this tips the studio’s hand. As I wrote in my Strange Horizons review of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, some movies simply use Holmes’s name to get their flick a wider audience. This is one of them, Rathbone’s iconic profile notwithstanding.