Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear [1945]

Here are four strong entries (each beautifully restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive) from the peak of Basil Rathbone's prolific, seven-year run as a definitive Sherlock Holmes for the big screen. Three of these films were released in 1944 alone, beginning with the gripping Pearl of Death, a then-contemporary update (set in the World War II years, as with most of the Rathbone-Holmes features) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Six Napoleons." A reluctant Holmes agrees to help a London museum recover a stolen, rare pearl. But the investigation takes a strange turn when the great detective and his sidekick, Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), find their mystery linked to a series of odd murders involving the destruction of porcelain china. Typically, "Pearl of Death" has its share of inside jokes for true Sherlockians, including Holmes's declaration, "If I'm wrong, I'll move to Sussex and raise bees." Of course, that's exactly what Doyle's most famous character did upon retirement. The Scarlet Claw is an original screenplay with elements loosely inspired by Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men." A skeptical Holmes and Watson attend a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society in Canada, but are soon looking into a killing spree attributed to a fanciful marsh monster. Fantastic events are soon supplanted by an even stranger horror concerning a master actor bent on revenge. The Spider Woman employs details of Holmes's apparent death and resurrection between "The Final Problem" and its follow-up, "The Adventure of the Empty House." But the movie takes a different direction when a bizarre series of late-night "pajama suicides" finds Holmes probing the involvement of a femme fatale. Of the quartet of features in this set (all produced and directed by the energetic Roy William Neill) Spider Woman has the most vivacity and familiar textures from Doyle's canon. Finally, "The House of Fear," adapted from "The Five Orange Pips," is a chamber mystery concerning successive murders of the members of an elite club, the Good Comrades. On film, the tale seems a bit ludicrous, but its conclusion is among the most startling in the Rathbone films. There's also a fair amount of comedy between Watson and Inspector Lestrade's bumbling ways. --Tom Keogh

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