Directed by Sidney Lanfield [Other horror films: N/A]
Perhaps one of the most famous versions of the story, the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles is a fantastic movie that has a great cast, a quality moody atmosphere, and the most well-rounded mystery of the adaptations thus far.
So to put this in context, the same day I watched this version, I also watched the two silent versions (1914 and 1929) along with the 1937 German talkie. All of those had their strong points, of course, but along with the 1959 Hammer adaptation, this version is one of the strongest out there, and it really shows.
The setting, being the British moors, are great in all the movies, but it’s not really until this one when they really start to pop and stand out. That scene in which the butler is signaling from the castle (or, in this movie Baskerville Hall) to a mysterious person across the moors really shows just how eerie (and captivating) the landscape is, even in black-and-white.
And that cast – Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein, The Black Sleep, The Black Cat from 1941, and Queen of Blood) does a fantastic Sherlock Holmes, and though I thought that Bruno Güttner did well in the 1937 version, Rathbone here takes the cake, especially with that impersonation of the salesman on the moors – while he had done a similar thing in multiple versions before (1929 and 1937), this is the first time he’s intentionally ran into Watson in disguise, which leads to a decently amusing scene.
On that note, playing Watson, Nigel Bruce was decent. I will admit to thinking more of Fritz Odemar’s 1937 version, as this one is more of the bumbling side-kick, but he’s still a good character. Morton Lowry isn’t a name I know, but he does pretty swell as Stapleton, and though he lacks some of the most interesting aspects of previous actors who’ve taken the part, his performance at the end was strong. Henry Baskerville was never a character I much cared for, but Richard Greene (The Black Castle) does a great job with him here, and really gives the character more life.
John Carradine played Barryman (a replacement of the previous adaptations’ Barrymore) and did so well, though I don’t feel he’s as distinctive as the character’s been in the past. Lionel Atwill is really the first actor to give prominence to Dr. Mortimer, and him being a big name in the genre (Island of Lost Souls and The Strange Door), he’s nice to see. Playing Frankland (a character who had a small role in the beginning of the 1929 version, but wasn’t really seen in any others), Barlowe Borland was pretty fun, in a cantankerous way.
Of course, being a film from this time, much of the dialogue is pretty pithy and amusing, and while that holds true for the 1937 German version, it’s a bit more memorable here. And likewise, that scene in which Sherlock Holmes is examining the cane, and using deductions to find out about the doctor, was both in this version and the 1937 version. I think it’s a good scene in both, but because this dialogue felt a bit more close to me, I’d give this one the edge.
And that ending reference to Sherlock Holmes’ heroin use – just beautiful.
When it comes to this story, I do believe this is one of the most enjoyable versions out there, and if you’re a fan of classic horror, you should do yourself a favor and check this gem out.