The recent BBC TV series was not the first attempt to move Sherlock Holmes from Victorian times into a more contemporary setting. Universal set several of the series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson, during the wartime 1940s world that they were released in. What makes Sherlock Holmes Faces Death one of the best of these is that the war is now the backdrop to, not the driving force behind, the story, and the filmmakers went back to the source, adapting the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual".
The plot sees Watson working at to the Musgrave estate, a country mansion turned makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded in World War Two. When one of his colleagues is mysteriously attacked, Watson asks Holmes to help investigate, but when the great detective arrives, he finds one of the Musgrave family murdered, a long list of suspects, and a possible link to an old and sinister family tradition.
The script plays fast and loose with the original short story, making it more of a straightforward murder mystery, set in a slightly hokey haunted house, complete with thunder, lightning, suits of armour, secret passages and cobwebs. The story plays out in a somewhat formulaic manner, quickly setting up the story and showing us the suspects one by one.
Rathbone's take on Holmes is one that keeps many of the traits of the books, such as the unpredictable energy, fierce intelligence and eccentricity (we first see him shooting bullets into his living room wall in order to test a theory, and he also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of train times and current affairs). His portrayal is the one that I grew up with, and is the one that perhaps set the public perception of the character in the twentieth century,
Watson is not as quick-witted as in the books, but he is a loyal and likeable fellow, as well as, for the audience sake, filling the role of giving Holmes someone to explain the story to (and being the sort of Doctor who prescribes patients "those American cigarettes you like")
Regular Holmes foil Inspector Lestrade is on hand to provide the comic relief, bumbling from one mishap to the next, even though nobody has any explanation for why a London police officer is investigating a murder in Northumberland. Having said that, nobody has any explanation as to why the English village has a distinctly Mediterranean look either.
Unlike previous wartime Holmes films, here, he is not working for the Allies, and the conflict seems rarely to get a mention. Interestingly though there are hints at some tensions between the British and the billeted US soldiers, with one villager talking disapprovingly of somebody "running off with a Yankee". The only time war comes to the fore is the stirring speech by Holmes at the very end, talking of "a new spirit abroad in the land" where "the old days of grab and greed are on their way out". It feels tacked on, and jars somewhat with the rest of the film, which is a fun, interesting, and atmospheric mystery thriller.