The contemporary settings of the Universal films are not generally too much of a problem. The wartime background was a less successful experiment which Universal mercifully abandoned after the first few films.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was based, very loosely, on Conan Doyle’s short story His Last Bow. This 1917 story, which in my opinion is one of the weakest of all Conan Doyle’s stories, had pitted Holmes against a Germany spy during the First World War. The spy theme is the only element of the short story utilised in the screenplay by John Bright and Lynn Riggs.
Britain is being demoralised by a series of propaganda broadcasts from Germany. The broadcasts predict acts of sabotage. What really worries the British intelligence chiefs is that the predictions are always accurate. They are so worried that they are prepared to resort to desperate measures - they have called on Sherlock Holmes for help. Holmes has one clue to work with - the dying words of one of his operatives. He also has the assistance of the dead man’s girlfriend Kitty (Evelyn Ankers) and can also count on assistance from London’s underworld after Kitty delivers a stirring patriotic speech to them.
It is obvious that the Germans have a sophisticated espionage and sabotage operation in place in Britain and that they have access to secrets that can only come from sources in high places. They are determined to safeguard their spy ring and attempt have been made on the lives of several senior British intelligence chiefs - and on the life of Holmes as well.
Kitty will play a vital role in uncovering this network, having attracted the amorous attentions of one of the Nazi ringleaders.
The German spy network is set to pull off its greatest coup and it appears that they have the British thoroughly bamboozled. Holmes however is not so easily fooled.
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had settled into their respective roles very well by this time. Bruce plays things fairly straight this time, as he was alway perfectly capable of doing. In fact there’s virtually no comic relief in this film. Thomas Gomez is a subtly menacing villain. The very underrated Henry Daniell provides fine support as does Reginald Denny. Evelyn Ankers shines as Kitty.
I personally have a strong dislike for wartime propaganda movies. The more hysterical the propaganda the less I like them and the tone of this film is very hysterical indeed.
On the plus side this movie is very impressive visually. The look of the movie is reminiscent of both the great 1930s Universal gothic horror movies and the film noir style although in fact the noir style was only just beginning to emerge in 1942. Director John Rawlins is very fond of extreme close-ups which he uses to excellent effect. This was unfortunately the only Universal Sherlock Holmes movie that Rawlins directed.
There was nothing outrageous about having Sherlock Holmes hunting spies. Several of Conan Doyle’s original short stories are in fact espionage stories. Pitting the great detective against Nazis though just seems too anachronistic. The stridently propagandistic tone doesn’t help at all and there are way too many political speeches.
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is not a complete success. Critics at the time were unenthusiastic but it did great business at the box office. The best thing about this movie is that its success ensured that there would be more Universal Sherlock Holmes movies. It marked an uncertain start to what would be one of the great B-movie series. Recommended, with reservations.