Legend has it that Twentieth Century Fox decided not to make any more Holmes films after The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, possibly thanks to poor critical reception of Hound of the Baskervilles in the UK. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce continued playing Holmes and Watson on the radio though, so when Universal decided to try their hand at Holmes movies, Rathbone and Bruce were natural, popular choices to play the main characters again.
By 1942, period films were out and modern day adventure movies were in, so Universal decided to update the setting to 1940s England. According to Rovi this was pretty common practice for film adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories up to that point; the two Fox films being notable exceptions. That’s hard to verify, but a quick look at IMDB shows that Holmes films were made long before Rathbone and Bruce came along, going as far back as 1905 and including an extremely prolific silent series in the early ‘20s. If Rovi is accurate, many of those were contemporary updates, possibly for cost reasons.
What’s apparently unique about The Voice of Terror is its use of the new time and setting as integral elements of its plot. Universal had rights to some of Doyle’s short stories and had originally planned to adapt some of them, but perhaps decided that Holmes’ chasing down blue carbuncles in Christmas geese would be a weird activity for wartime London. If they were going to modernize Holmes, they’d have to go all out and give him modern villains too.
Not only did they have him fighting Nazis, they did it with a ripped-from-the-headlines approach. The Voice of Terror has Holmes’ being called in by British Intelligence’s Inner Council to help them discover the source of a series of Nazi radio broadcasts. As acts of terrorism are being perpetrated all over England, the Voice of Terror announces and describes them, warning England to give up and accept the rule of benevolent Germany. The country’s morale is plummeting and the Inner Council is helpless to stop it. Not all of them agree that it’s the best idea to call in a consulting detective who typically works from his sitting room, but left with no other leads, even the dissenters come to accept Holmes’ help.
The plot is loosely based on the activities of William Joyce, an American fascist who fraudulently obtained British nationality before fleeing for Germany just before war was declared in ’39. From there, he and other English-speaking Germans broadcasted propaganda messages to Britain, relating the destruction of Allied aircraft and ships. Since that kind of information was strictly controlled by the British military, Joyce and Company’s Germany Calling broadcasts were widely listened to by people anxious for news of loved ones serving in the war, even though they hated the program’s mocking tone.
Though the broadcasts in The Voice of Terror all relate events happening on British soil, it’s not hard to imagine the compulsion to listen in and find out what the Germans are up to, especially if the British government is suppressing that kind of news. Even today, with our easy access to a wide variety of news sources, people crave information, regardless of the emotional and spiritual affect it will have on them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking about any of that while I was watching the movie. I would have enjoyed it more if I had, but I was too busy grieving the loss of gaslights, cobblestones, and hansom cabs.
The film prepared me up front for the shift. It opens with text about Holmes’ being an “immortal,” “ageless,” and “unchanging” character. That was partially effective, because I do tend to think of Holmes as all those things, but only in the sense that Doyle’s stories are well-crafted enough that they’re still exciting to contemporary readers over a hundred years later. I have a difficult time separating him from Victorian England though, mostly because it was my love of Holmes that directly created my love for that time period. I imagine it would be easier if Holmes was working on the kinds of cases I’m familiar with (one of the reasons I’m eager to see the recent adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch is to test that theory), but the spy stuff was a difficult adjustment.
Not that espionage is completely foreign to Doyle’s Holmes. “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” and “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” both have spy elements, as does “His Last Bow,” the story that The Voice of Terror credits as its inspiration. In fact, the last line of Voice of Terror is a nearly word-for-word repeat of the last line in “His Last Bow” where Holmes describes the coming war (WWI in Doyle’s story) as a cold, bitter, East wind that will wither “a good many of us…before its blast,” but leave England “a greener, better, stronger land…in the sunshine” once it’s cleared.
“His Last Bow” itself though demonstrates how difficult it is to marry detective and spy fiction. It’s not impossible of course, because there are similar elements in the two genres, but one of the biggest criticisms in “His Last Bow” is that it ends like a detective story and not like the spy story it actually is. In classic detective fashion, Holmes reveals to a German agent that he’s been working undercover and feeding the agent false information. At that point, the police show up and cart the agent off to jail. In a real spy story, that tactic doesn’t make any sense. Holmes (and Britain) would be much better off letting the agent escape with his bad intelligence; none the wiser.
The Voice of Terror errs in the other direction. It’s a fine spy story, but not much of a Holmes film. There are some nods in Doyle’s direction, but it’s mostly cutesy, hard-to-buy stuff like Holmes’ knowing where someone’s been walking by visually identifying the mud on his pants leg. I did though enjoy one gag when Holmes and Watson are leaving their apartment and Holmes instinctively reaches for his deerstalker cap. “Holmes,” Watson says, “You promised.” So Holmes grabs a fedora instead. I felt like the movie was sort of making fun of the version of Holmes I like, but unlike the similar gag in the Clash of the Titans remake in which Bubo is rejected, this was actually funny. I like the idea that Watson and Holmes have some long-running disagreement about the deerstalker.
Holmes spends most of the movie not solving things, but using his human assets. His first lead comes from a spy he’s had nosing around the case who dies uttering the single word, “Christopher.” Holmes can make no sense of it, so he recruits the agent’s wife (Lon Chaney’s girlfriend in The Wolf Man) and has her in turn recruit others to learn the meaning of the mysterious word. It’s the wife and her informants who do all the real work in the story: discovering where the German agents are meeting, going undercover to get close to one of them, and learning the location of the invasion the Nazis have been planning all along. Holmes steps in at the last minute to use one last flashy deduction and reveal the true mastermind behind the plot, the Voice of Terror himself (who also ties the movie into “His Last Bow”), but it’s just a flourish on an otherwise Holmesless investigation.