Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone
John Watson: Nigel Bruce
Year: 1942
Case: His Last Bow


Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is one several WWII propaganda films, which pitted Holmes against the Nazis. While quite fascinating from a historical point of view (in terms of examining wartime propaganda), these films were not by any stretch Rathbone’s best Sherlock Holmes films. Loosely based on Doyle’s His Last Bow, Holmes is commissioned by the British government to help fight against Nazi Germany and, in particular, track down the origins of a covert Nazi radio broadcast, calling itself ‘the voice of terror’.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

While the trademarked pimp hat of Universal’s later films was conspicuously absent (and this was quite distressing), Rathbone still managed to pull off an outstanding performance. He does, however, take some time warming up, but this is quite understandable given that this was the first film in Universal’s line up (and notable in that it was the first film to deviate from the Victoria Era). This, of course, is easily forgiven, for one cannot help but forgive a man willing to wear eyeliner throughout a film (and crossing-dressing Holmes is such a pleasant thought).

Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

Nigel Bruce made this film. I have had quibbles with his Watson in every film I have seen to date, and yet all of that changes in this film. Bruce’s Watson in The Voice of Terror is a masterpiece. He enunciates. He demonstrates his intelligence. He is completely loyal to Holmes, and protective of Holmes, and defensive of Holmes, and so much the picture of the Watson from Canon that I literally applauded his performance. Well done, Bruce. Well done.

Delightful Elements

Watson. Watson. Watson. I am, quite literally, amazed by Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. His Watson is quite charming, quite intelligent, and quite in keeping with the Watson of Canon. In addition to this, Watson is quite protective of his Holmes, going so far as to defend him on several occasions.

The plot itself is quite well done. The story is an interesting one, and the final resolution, while expected, is still quite delightful. The blending of Canon into the script was masterfully done (the infamous ‘east wind’ monologue comes to mind), and it is quite easy to imagine that, with the proper execution, the script could have been quite powerful.

While not an element of the film itself, props go to the costuming department for fashioning a walking stick into a flashlight. Holmes alone is a force to be reckoned with. Holmes with access to Bond-like gadgets is practically a god.


Sadly, my quibbles far outweigh the delightful elements in this film. We will begin, of course, with the propaganda. I must first confess that the second world war was well before my time. In addition to this, I was born and raised a continent away, and so am unable to fully comprehend what it would have meant to have war on one’s doorstep. Given the current state of the world (and in particular, England) during the filming of this film, one can well imagine that the propaganda was necessary (if intended at all, and it is entirely possible that it was not –though this is hard to imagine). Still, it is impossible to watch this film now and not notice the propaganda. It is impossible, too, to dismiss the propaganda, for it is exceedingly blatant.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the propaganda wouldn’t have been half as noticeable as the film was engaging. It is not. The plot itself is quite fascinating, and yet the execution is lacking. This film tells rather than shows, and this becomes increasingly apparent as the film goes on. It is slow moving, drawn out and at times downright boring. This is only highlighted by the lack of a soundtrack, as most of the slower paced scenes take place in pin-dropping silence. In addition to this, the faster paced sequences are often melodramatic. The switching between the two, then, is quite jarring.

There is also a distinct sense of unrealism about the film. For example, every German in the film is played by an American. This is quite unusual, for in place of the anticipated German accents, we are given American accents (although this is perhaps understandable, given that England was at war with German during the filming of this film). Then, of course, there is the confusing matter of why Nazi spies hiding in London should meet in full Nazi dress. One would think they would at least attempt to look inconspicuous. Then again, I suppose it was necessary to mark them out in some way as Nazis, as clearly this could not be done via their accents.

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, this film is not in the least bit slashy. Oh, there are a few weaker scenes which, when one squints, do appear to contain some subtext, but overall the film is distinctly lacking in the blatant subtext found in the rest of these films.

In the end, this film earns only 1 out of 5 pipes, and this pipe exists solely for Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. Indeed, despite my many problems with this film, it shall go into my favourites pile merely for the fact that it proves that Bruce is capable of playing a well rounded, useful Watson.