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1st April, 2020

Public Domain

Some films have a Proustian effect on me. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) is one such. The first few minutes transports me like the proverbial tea-soaked madeleine of In Search of Lost Time: the lush and strident Hollywood music over the titles giving way to doomed and terrified Sir Charles Baskerville hurrying over Dartmoor as a hellhound wails, only to drop dead in sight of his front door as smoke-like fog drifts over his body.

The film, directed by Sidney Lanfield, was only middle aged when I first saw it in the late Seventies, nonetheless it seemed to the small boy watching it as if it had emerged from the Victorian era by some strange miracle of the adult world. It appeared ancient and somehow all the more terrifying for that. We lived in a world of electric light, gas fires and colour television; this film was coming from a spectral past filled with horrors unimaginable. I was immediately gripped.

From Dartmoor via the setting up of some red herrings at Sir Charles’s inquest we move swiftly to Sherlock Holmes’s lodgings in Baker Street with his amanuensis Dr Watson, played as an amiable duffer by Nigel Bruce, prefaced by a charming model shot of Big Ben chiming. Forty years on I still revisit the delicious unease and sense of mere temporary safety of seeing Holmes, played by the great Basil Rathbone, in his gas-lit drawing room wearing a comfortable-looking smoking jacket and being told by myopic Dr Mortimer: ‘Mr Holmes, There was one detail I kept back from the inquest. About 50 yards behind Sir Charles were footprints . . . the footprints of a gigantic hound.’

Sir Henry Baskerville arrives in London en route to his inheritance, Baskerville Hall, in Devon, where Sir Charles met his end. But Sherlock Holmes fears for his safety on account of an old family curse…

We are told there are only seven basic plots: Baskervilles falls under ‘overcoming the monster’, a tale as old as Beowulf and no doubt older than that. Such yarns require a considerable hero and Holmes fits the bill. I don’t quite see him, as Christopher Isherwood does in Exhumations, as a great comic character, though he does have a point. The tales alluded to by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the stories but never written possibly reveal a lurking comic vein: the giant rat of Sumatra (‘for which the world is not yet prepared’), the mysterious experience of the Patterson family on the Isle of Uffa and, of course, the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant.

But I digress. This is an appreciation of a film, one in which there is scant humour – Holmes in disguise as a cripple forgetting which leg he was limping on being about the only non-ironic laugh – but that is as it should be.

Baskervilles the movie distils the fog-shrouded, gas-lit atmosphere of the stories in a great American way, in other words ladling it on thick, and here we come to the real star: the art direction,  handled by Richard Day, something of a legend in the field, who started his career under the wild indulgences of Erich Von Stroheim.

Most serious Holmes fans consider the best screen version of the Great Detective was played by Jeremy Brett on British television in the Eighties. It is true, Brett inhabited the part as no other actor has done, plumbing the recesses of Holmes’ psyche to such a degree it is said to have affected the actor’s mental health. “Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played—harder than Hamlet or Macbeth”, he said.

But the series fails on its drearily functional production design, which could have stood in for any other Victorian TV drama at the time. Plus it was in colour, and Sherlock Holmes should always be in black and white.

Monochrome perfectly suits the world of Holmes, where everything is in a miasma of mist and smoke, lots of smoke: chimney outside and tobacco in. And, of course, the first illustrations of Holmes, done by the great Sidney Paget for the Strand magazine, were in black and white. One glance at Paget’s famous 1893 drawing of Holmes and Moriarty locked in their deadly struggle at the Reichenbach Falls, in Switzerland, shows that the one thing Holmes doesn’t need is colour.

Rendered in silver celluloid Holmes could even withstand being modernised, as he was when Universal took over the film series from 20th Century Fox, keeping the winning double act of Rathbone and Bruce.

But out of Rathbone’s 14 outings as Holmes, Baskervilles is first and best. Later in the series he memorably clashes with the Hoxton Creeper and the Spider Woman, but they pale next to the spectral hound of the West Country. Here we have the Holmes of archetype: with the deerstalker, the tweed ulster and cape and an indefatigable spirit.

On its release in March 1939 the Monthly Film Bulletin opined that ‘the atmosphere is extremely well contrived with an exciting climax’. Bang on.

Writing of Conan Doyle’s stories in the early part of the 20th Century, the US poet and essayist Christopher Morley said: ‘The whole Sherlock Holmes saga is a triumphant illustration of art’s supremacy over life.’ Or to put it another way: ‘I’ve been to Paris France and I’ve been to Paris Paramount. Paris Paramount is better.’ That was the film director Ernst Lubitsch in what turned out to be something of a valedictory comment on an industry which later became entranced by that rather treacherous noun realism. Lubitch’s comment goes for the graveyard in the middle of the great Grimpen Mire in which the villain of Baskervilles has his lair. Spooky as the real Dartmoor undoubtedly is, nothing can beat what Richard Day and his team put together for ending of Baskervilles.

Funny to think that outside the soundstage at Fox the hot sun was shining down on the palm trees of Santa Monica.

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