The Hound of the Baskervilles

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jan 22, 2015

Very handsome, very atmospheric. Very obvious, too, with telegraphing, leading cutaways, over/emphases that look mighty obvious these days. I have vague memories of the book behaving similarly, or at least of the conclusion being a bit Scooby-Doo. A pretend ghost dog! (To be fair, it’s a pretty impressive pretend ghost dog.) I need to revisit those short stories; I recall vaguely, and I still suspect, that many of them stand up very well indeed. But Arthur Conan Doyle was not unmitigatedly or unfailingly a great writer. In addition to his superb red-headed leagues and speckled bands, he also produced a good deal of pulpy page turners. And hurrah for that! But we needn’t get all high-horsed about it, nor be upset if some of ACD’s source actually merits the eventual B-movie industrial approach they would get. Mind you, if The Hound of the Baskervilles is a bit b-grade, then the back and forth at the conclusion is still pleasingly effective, while the red-herring featuring the housekeepers and the convict brother moves from nicely mysterious to nice, and moving.

The filmmakers withhold Rathbone from us for quite a while at the beginning of the film. Good plan. He’s so right! That carefully calculated introductory shot must have been downright thrilling in 1938-9, especially to devoted Conan Doyle fans. Actually, it still is thrilling. Frodo lives! Also, they make Nigel Bruce/Dr. Watson into a joke-butt, right from the beginning. Fans of the films are used to this by now, of course. But what a strange decision!

What do we make of Lionel Atwill’s speech at the film’s conclusion? He very feelingly thanks Holmes for all of his services, on behalf of all Englishmen. The speech is rather touching, and quite outsized, given the small bit of deduction that had just taken place, and the fairly innocuous conclusion to which it’s brought us. Films are always products of, films always reflect their times. Is there something pointedly 1938 going on here? The English Colony in Hollywood? War clouds? Matter-of-fact rationality and general unflappability in the face of Hitler, or a proto-call for proto-aid in the midst of a proto-blitz?

There’s a bigger bombshell, at least to the modern mind, on the film’s very last line. “Watson, the needle!”