This DVD double feature, which is being released ahead of the Robert Downey Jr. film “Sherlock Holmes,” offers a pair of films from Universal’s popular 1940s series of Sherlock Holmes adventures, starring Basil Rathbone as the world’s greatest detective and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick Dr. Watson.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” (1942) was the first in the Universal series to update the Arthur Conan Doyle stories to fit Holmes and Watson into a World War II environment. Needless to say, the Third Reich was no match against the world’s greatest detective. The film offers a somewhat convoluted tale of a Lord Haw-Haw radio broadcaster who is flooding the British airwaves with predictions of Nazi-inspired mayhem at British military installations and troop transport rail lines. John Rawlins, normally a minor director, did a smashing job in framing the story with moody noir-style cinematography and in bringing out a surprisingly strong performance from B-level scream queen Evelyn Ankers as a Cockney lass who helps Holmes unmask a Nazi agent (played by Thomas Gomez, an underrated character actor who is effectively chilling here).
“The Spider Woman” (1944) is a decidedly less successful effort, with Holmes and Watson battling a “female Moriarity” who is responsible for the so-called “pyjama suicides” – wealthy men inexplicably killing themselves while still in their sleeping garments. Roy William Neill’s quotidian direction is less stylish that Rawlins’, and it doesn’t help that the screenplay (cobbled together from a number of Conan Doyle short stories) makes very little sense (and you haven’t lived until you see the “pygmy” in the suitcase!). However, Gale Sondergaard brings a healthy dose of camp glamour as the eponymous villain, while Rathbone and Bruce help raise the weak material with the vigorous hamming that helped enshrine them as the ultimate interpreters of the Conan Doyle characters.
Both films come from restored 35mm prints, and the visual quality is quite strong. As double features go, this is an entertaining diversion for any fans of old-time mysteries.