Everyone has films that defy any reasonable critical appraisal, and which they will just love regardless. For me, the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films are well and truly in that category.
They are far from faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle originals, and yet for all the liberties that the 14 films take (including an early World War 2 setting) they still somehow do a better job in nailing the spirit and atmosphere of the original stories better than many faithful adaptations, opening them up to a popular audience without going as far as, say, the recent Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law version.
This is one of the later entries to the Universal B-movie career of Holmes and Watson, when the wonderful Roy William Neill was at the helm and the films tended more to atmospheric noir/Gothic horror tendencies. Hence we have the unmistakable visage of Rondo Hatton as the impressively scary Hoxton Creeper stalking the streets of London and killing people seemingly at random.
But the film also cheerfully plunders from the Holmes canon, basing its central plot on “The Six Napoleons” with tremendous success and creating a new foe for Holmes in the form of Giles Conover (played by the wonderful character actor of the day, Miles Mander) who is described using much of the dialogue verbatim from “The Final Problem” where Holmes talks of Moriarty, and it works both as superb movie dialogue and as a shiver down the spine of anyone well versed on the Conan Doyle writings.
Add to that lots of disguises, a wonderful femme fatale in the form of Evelyn Ankers as Naomi Drake, and endearing comic support from Dennis Hoey as a gormless Lestrade and you have one of the best, most fun and fast-moving of the Rathbone films, with everyone in the cast and crew on top form – just look at the wonderfully detailed sets and the lighting going on.
The problem most audiences have today is in the playing of Watson as a comedy sidekick by Bruce, and he certainly gets a long sequence here which is expressly used to showcase his dim-wittedness. But to all those outraged about the liberties taken over Watson, I would say this: before Nigel Bruce, most Holmes films couldn’t see the point of the character and wrote him out almost immediately. After the contemporary success of Nigel Bruce in the role, there could be no longer be a Sherlock Holmes adventure without Dr John H Watson.