Comforting in its old-fashioned formality, The Hound of the Baskervilles milks suspense from a stockpile of dated banalities, fabricating an insular, clammy environment from stagy backdrops and exaggerated expressions. The caterwauling of cast and soundtrack alike conceal narrative shortcuts by sheer volume, placing the chilly pleasures of a horror-tinged whodunit at the fore and rashly obscuring the core puzzle beneath protracted oration and antiquated intertitle. Left without a stake in the mystery, the audience ruminates over the defects, finding little of merit in Richard Greene’s listless performance and its accompanying romantic subplot, inevitably settling for the attractive rind atop fleshless fruit.
The preserved elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s text flourish when used appropriately, particularly in the discourse conducted between Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce), which is snappy without sounding garbled or rushed. The film benefits heartily from Rathbone’s cocksure and quick-witted take on Holmes, his knowing glances and self-possession contrasting Watson’s skepticism and lumbering gait. No introduction is needed for these prominent literary figures, their collective quirks deeply ingrained in Western culture, and screenwriter Ernest Pascal wisely inserts them directly into the narrative in progress, eschewing an origin story.
The matter at hand concerns murder amidst the dreaded “moors of Dartmoor,” a location as sparse and craggy as the surface of the Moon and swathed in creamy layers of brume. In accordance with local legend, every Baskerville male for countless generations has met a grizzly end upon receiving his inheritance, mauled by the jaws of a phantom canine. The genesis of the myth is shown in faded images, superimposed over intermittently turned pages from the folio that harbors the tall tale. Returning to handle his deceased uncle’s affairs, Henry Baskerville (Greene), the last living heir, laughs off these resident superstitions, only to be rattled by an ominous threat in the post, cobbled together from newspaper clippings.
Ignoring the forewarning, Baskerville returns to his ancestral home with Watson in tow, curiously turning a blind eye to Holmes’ absence and the assassination attempt that occurred within hours of their voyage. The “dreadful eeriness” of the manor is just as unwelcoming as London’s cobblestone thoroughfares, leaving Henry and his guest to walk on eggshells around the servants, their malignant stares and nocturnal scheming laying the groundwork for a plateful of red herring. Despite the material’s familiarity, the stale machinations of Gothic horror sustain interest, primarily the otherworldly ambience of the moors, protruding at acute angles and concealing bottomless peat bogs and wild-eyed convicts. The density of the fog and incessant howling conjure a bone-chilling atmosphere, aided by the marriage of smoky whites and desolate greys that adorn the intricately painted backdrops.
Hints of German Expressionist influence reside within the heavy shadowing, hanging over shoulder and bedecking the corner of each room, coaxing jagged silhouettes from the faint flicker of candlelight. The séance at the film’s center benefits from this natural lighting, casting dancing flames on the frightened brows of its congregates and illuminating the spectral gesticulations of the oracle. Depth and space are also insinuated by the photography and set design, fashioning extensive drawing rooms and endless tracts of land in spite of the unconcealed scrims.
Regrettably, any triumph of technique is undercut by strained attempts at integrating romance, an aspect of the novel best left on the page or tackled by a picture with a prolonged runtime. At a lean 80 minutes, Sherlock Holmes is absent for nearly a third of the film’s length and visual depictions of letters and notes are frequently used to expedite the plot, leaving the consulting detective’s deductions to a hasty summation in the closing seconds. Drained of its exploratory essence, The Hound of the Baskervilles is slight and inert, a pretty picture bereft of intrigue and subtext.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (20th Century Fox, 1939)
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Written by Arthur Conan Doyle (novel) and Ernest Pascal (screenplay)
Photographed by Peverell Marley