The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939, Sidney Lanfield)

Oft-adapted Sherlock Holmes story – there are three versions just on my must-see list – but I’ve never known what it’s about until now. In fact I’m struggling to recall if I’ve ever seen any Holmes movie, besides the time I watched the first half of Wilder’s Private Life. It’s set on the southwest peninsula of English on the “moors,” AKA the heath, which are either highlands or lowlands, tundra-related, and don’t seem very well defined. Now I’m suspicious about other vague British landscape terms: fens and bogs and derries and what not.

But on these particular moors, Sir Charles is dead, and young Richard Greene (tormented zombie of Tales from the Crypt) has arrived to inherit the estate, asking for assistance from Holmes (Basil Rathbone, evil mesmerist of Tales of Terror) and unimpressive mustache guy Watson (Nigel Bruce, third-billed in Limelight) because of the suspicious wolfy deaths in the area.

Colorful characters: suspicious John Carradine looks after the house, Barlowe Borland is a sideburnsed maniac who enjoys suing his friends, and beardy Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill, star of Doctor X and The Devil is a Woman) is like oh btw I dabble in the occult, and a minute later they’re all having a seance.

Then there’s pretty girl Wendy Barrie (Dead End) and her brother Morton Lowry, a murderous dog-keeper. His dogs bump off a local convict who’d stolen Basker’s clothes. Holmes is seemingly absent from all this, having sent Watson ahead, but has actually been observing in disguise.

Watson, his unamused friends, Holmes:

Killer on the heath moors:

Christoph Huber in Cinema Scope:

Though only billed respectively second and fourth… Rathbone and Bruce’s immediate success spawned the only long-running Holmes film cycle. Rathbone brings unprecedented authority to the part, conveying both the arrogance accompanying Holmes’ intellectual superiority and the irony necessary to complement Sherlock’s full mystique. Meanwhile, scene-stealer Bruce, not quite as (in)famously bumbling as later Watsons, deserves credit for solving an eternal dilemma: his endearing interpretation humanizes the duo’s relationship in a manner similar to Watson’s exaggeratedly humble narration of the stories, and gives the doctor something to do when not participating in the action, just admiring his friend’s brainy prowess.