While Adventures had been commissioned before Hound had even made it to the cinemas, the poor critical reception of Hound saw Fox decide to drop their new Sherlock Holmes series before it had even began. Rathbone and Bruce were such a natural fit for the role, however, that the two were approached to take over the lead in an already existing radio series, with the pair starring in two hundred and twenty episodes over the next seven years. With this keeping them in the public eye, it’s not surprising that Universal approached them to star in a new series of Sherlock Holmes films in 1942. The two accepted, on the condition that actor Mary Gordon be also brought in to reprise the role of Mrs Hudson the housekeeper.
The two films from Fox had actually been unusual in setting the stories in the original period of the 1890s, and Universal moved them to what were then modern times. This had the dual effect of making the films cheaper to produce, and allowing them to address modern issues such as World War 2. The first of the new films was Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, a combination of the Conan Doyle story His Last Bow with the real-life story of William Joyce, commonly known as Lord Haw-Haw.
Joyce was an Irish-American who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Galway, to a Catholic Unionist family. In fact Joyce claimed to be involved with the Black and Tans (British Temporary Constables, notorious for violence against civilians), and moved to England as he feared his life was in danger in Galway. There he joined Oswald Mosley’s “British Union of Fascists”, rising to become their director of propaganda. He broke with Mosley in 1937, and fled with his wife to Germany when war became inevitable. There he became Germany’s most notorious broadcaster of propaganda into Britain, often claiming to be speaking on behalf of or giving instructions to (fictional) units of saboteurs. Urban legends soon sprung up claiming that British secrets were being broadcast by Joyce, although there are no verified cases of this happening. After the end of the war, Joyce was captured by the British army, tried for treason (despite having become a naturalised German citizen) and executed. He was the last man to be hanged for treason in the UK.
The film borrows the legend of Joyce dealing with and commanding saboteurs, and it’s important to note that at the time there was no certainty that he was lying about that. It is a pretty propagandist piece, as would be the case for the next two entries in the series as well. It’s also a much more “conventional” film than later entries in the series, as the new writers and producers tried to find their feet with Holmes.
The film opens with a shot of Rathbone and Bruce, in what would become a classic establishing shot for the series, before switching to the credits, followed by a title card which declares the character of Holmes “ageless, invincible and unchanging” (a nod to the shift in time period from the previous films). This is replaced by a map of Germany, and we hear the Voice of Terror, calling out “Germany broadcasting, this is Germany broadcasting” (a reference to the standard opening for the propaganda stations of “Germany calling, Germany calling”, shifted just enough to avoid being tasteless). As the Voice describes the sabotage across the country and calls upon operatives to act, we see people clustered around their wirelesses with grim expressions. It’s a very effective sequence that must have struck a chill note of familiarity with contemporary audiences.
The “Inner Council” of British Intelligence discusses the Voice. Various plans are thrown out, until Sir Evan Barham declares his intention to call in Sherlock Holmes. Despite the objections of the other members to bringing in an outsider, Sir Evan presents them with a fait accompli, as Holmes and Watson (an old schoolfriend of Sir Evan’s) arrive while they are talking. Holmes throws out some of his usual spot-deductions (marks on the carpet indicating who had stood and paced around, clay on a boot showing where someone had been that day – the usual stuff), but is interrupted by a broadcast from the Voice. It declares that a train transporting British soldiers is, right at that moment, being derailed and destroyed. The Council confirm the truth of this, and this convinces them that bringing Holmes in may be justified. (The chief critic, Admiral Sir John Prentiss, had a son on board the train.) Holmes then declares that he believes that the Voice is building up to some master plan, and asks that his connection be kept secret. Sir Alfred Lloyd demands that Holmes keep them apprised of his progress, but Holmes brushes him off.
Back at 221B Baker Street, Watson cleans his pistol while Holmes listens to a live broadcast of Beethoven’s Fifth, then calls up the BBC to ask for them to play a recording of the symphony while taking notes on readings from a mysterious oscilloscope-like device. Watson is confused, but any explanation is blocked by the arrival of one of Holmes’ informants – with a knife buried between his shoulder blades. He gasps out the name “Christopher”, and then dies. Holmes reveals that he had asked the man to search for information in Limehouse, and the two run off (but not before we learn that Holmes had promised Watson not to wear his deerstalker).
In Limehouse, Holmes notes that their Army driver is tailing them, before the two are threatened by an anonymous tough. Holmes rebuffs him, and the two move on, only to be interrupted once again by a knife (which Holmes recognises as German). The two men arrive at a rough looking pub, which falls silent as they enter. Holmes asks to speak to “Kitty”, but while they wait a barfly comes to their table. He introduces himself as a man Holmes had sent to jail ten years prior, and demands that Holmes say who sold him out. “You told me,” replies Holmes, before explaining the evidence the man had left behind, which deflates him entirely.
Kitty (the girlfriend of the dead informant) arrives, demanding to know what became of him. Kitty is played by Evelyn Ankers, who is most famous for playing the role of Gwen Conliffe (yes, really) in the 1941 classic The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney Jr. A stalwart of Universal’s horror films, she brings a touch of melodrama to the role that suits the character of the “fallen woman” Kitty. Holmes tells her that her boyfriend is dead, and she responds with demands to know who killed him. Holmes tells her that he was killed by German spies, and asks her if she knows what “Christopher” means. He appeals to her patriotism, and her desire for revenge, asking her to enlist the underworld of London to help him track down the Voice’s agents. She rouses the people in the pub, declaring that if they refuse to help for fear of the police, then they might as well be friends of the Nazis. This is where the most propagandist part of the film shows through, as she rouses them to action through appeals to patriotism. It’s a bit corny to modern ears, but you can’t really blame the film for that.
The Inner Council discuss Holmes, referring to his activities to far, describing them as “a murder, and a session in Limehouse”, before Holmes, Watson and Sir Evan arrive. Sir Evan has a hand bandaged, as somebody has taken a shot at him outside his house. The Voice then broadcasts, speaking of a fire on the docks, which the men go out on to the balcony to observe. Holmes then reveals that the “instructions” are actually out of sync with actual events – the fire must have started well before the voice called attention to it. He then reveals the results of his experiments with Beethoven’s Fifth to be a notation of the difference between live broadcasts, and broadcasts of recordings (a genuine effect caused by the flattening of the frequencies), and that this leads him to believe that the Voice’s broadcasts are all pre-recorded. From this, he deduces that the Voice himself must be operating within England, using records of bombing raids to show that one plane is disappearing from the formations, presumably to collect intelligence, including the recordings for broadcast from Germany. The Council are somewhat incredulous, and are even more incredulous when Kitty arrives seeking to speak to Holmes. He leaves, refusing to tell the council where he is going.
Holmes and Watson walk though darkened streets, and Watson tells Holmes that they are being followed. It’s Sir Alfred Lloyd, who has been suspicious of Holmes throughout. He joins them as they break into an abandoned set of pre-Victorian underground river docks. They search the interior, until they are ambushed by a mysterious figure in the shadows (with one arm, holding a pistol, somewhat improbably thrust into a spotlight). The figure threatens them before stepping to the light, revealing himself to be a character we had not seen before. He is played by Thomas Gomez, in his first actual on-screen role. Gomez would go on to star in sixty more films, and would even be nominated for an Oscar for one of them. His role here as Meade, the lieutenant of the Voice and the chief on-screen villain, is a mixture of politeness and viciousness that manages to blend genuine menace with a subtle undercutting of the character as petty – the perfect propaganda villain, the spy who claims to spy for ideals but who actually spies out of a slighted sense of self-worth. Meade summons his men, and prepares to dispatch Holmes, Watson and Lloyd, until Holmes signals with a sneeze for the patrons from the bar to come running in and rescue them. Meade’s men are captured, but he manages to escape through a trapdoor into a hidden speedboat.
Meade is entering his house when he hears a policeman shouting. Instinctively he hides in the shadows, and when he sees Kitty run past he pulls her out of sight, as a policeman runs past. He brings her into the house to hide, noting the bag she carries as stolen. Clearly attracted to her, he offers to let her hide out until the police have gone. He pours her a drink, which she accepts.
At 221B Baker Street, Holmes reveals to Watson that he deliberately allowed Meade to escape, as he is convinced that the Inner Council has a mole, and that Meade is their only lead to him. As they consider which member of the council it could be (Watson declaring that Sir Evan is out because of their previous acquaintance, and Prentiss due to the death of his son), Kitty arrives, revealing that the previous scene was all planned out by Holmes to bring her into Meade’s life without arousing suspicion. There is some delicate 1940s-style stepping around the issue of her relationship to Meade and how she has had to steel herself for it, before she reveals that she overheard him on the phone discussing a matter in the area of Sir Evan’s estate. Holmes immediately sets out to discover what he has planned.
Sir Evan is setting out on his rounds as an Air Raid Warden, reminiscing with his valet about their times in the trenches during World War I. A figure watches from the bushes as he leaves his house. Meanwhile, Holmes and Watson are being driven down by their female Army driver, with Holmes remarking on the quietness and remoteness of the spot. They find Sir Evan out on his rounds, and Holmes sets off alone to find him, joining him on his rounds. They hear the sound of air raid sirens, and see a single plane landing nearby. Meade runs out and throws a package onto the plane, as Sir Evan runs out firing at the plane. The shots bring Watson running, but the plane – and Meade – have escaped.
Back at Meade’s house, Kitty berates him for leaving her alone half the night, but Meade is distracted. He speaks of achieving power, and then talks about a dream he had as a child, of being a great knight, crushing his underlings. He tells Kitty that he wants to share his great moment with her, and asks her to get her coat and come with him.
Holmes arrives late to a meeting of the Inner Council, pleading a prior stop at Downing Street. They listen to the Voice of Terror broadcast once more. He mocks their defences, and specifically mentions their coastal defences. They decide that the greatest threat is on the north-eastern coast, and decide to move their defences there from elsewhere on the coast. Holmes is dubious, as the Voice had never before spoken of future attacks, but the Council choose not to listen. One of Holmes’ informants arrives, telling him that he trailed Meade and Kitty to a bombed and abandoned village on the south coast. The council are reluctant to go there, until the phone rings and they are “ordered” to accompany Holmes – clearly a result of his earlier visit to Downing Street.
The council arrive at the village, to some seriously dramatic music, and rendezvous with a unit of British Home Guard soldiers. They indicate that Meade and his men have gone to the bombed church, and we see them gathered around a shattered altar, clad in Nazi uniforms. Meade lays out the plan – they will accompany the imminent invasion forces, leading them to where their agents are ready to take over government in the major cities. One of them is in the middle of denouncing his former time in Birmingham, “slaving in the factories”, when he is cut off by the arrival of the Home Guard, who swiftly surround and disarm them. Meade sees Kitty with Holmes and realises that she has betrayed him. Holmes reveals the essence of Meade’s plan – that the Voice would divert their attention while Meade met the real invasion force. He also reveals that he believes that there is a mole on the Inner Council – and that the mole is actually the Voice himself. While Holmes lays his plan out, Meade spies a pistol beneath a coat. Holmes accuses Sir Evan, revealing (although he never explains how he knows this) that Sir Evan was actually killed and replaced during World War I by a German officer after he was captured, and since then has been a sleeper agent for the Germans. Sir Evan cheerfully admits to the charge, believing that the invasion fleet will be arriving momentarily regardless. But Holmes had persuaded Downing Street to overrule the Council’s decision to reposition the defences, and the invasion fleet has been destroyed. As they listen jubilantly to a report on the wireless, Meade seizes the hidden gun and shoots Kitty, before attempting to run. He is unceremoniously cut down by a Home Guardsman with a Bren Gun.
After everyone has left, Holmes and Watson stand in the ruins of the church, watching the sun come up and Holmes gives a somewhat abridged version of his speech from His Last Bow to the strains of “There’ll Always Be An England.”
This isn’t one of the better Rathbone and Bruce films (a poor script redeemed by good performances), and the wartime propaganda shines through, but it’s an important touchstone for the series nonetheless. The first of a new era, the propaganda value of showing a great British hero like Holmes doing his bit no doubt helped to propel the film, laying the groundwork for the 11 more Universal Holmes pictures to follow. There are some solid performances – Gomez is a great villain. And while Kitty’s fate does follow slightly the cliché of the Fallen Woman Redeemed Through Sacrifice, she’s still a great noir staple transplanted into a Holmes story, setting the tone for a lot of the series to come. Two more wartime films would follow, before we returned to pure mystery, but none quite so barefaced as this.