Even when it’s pretty easy to figure out the solution to the mystery, as is the case here, the Sherlock Holmes pictures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are well-oiled machines; exceedingly well-made, and a joy to watch. Directed by Roy William Neill, The House of Fear is loosely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Five Orange Pips,” and is the tenth film that Rathbone and Bruce made together in the Sherlock Holmes series. It tells the farfetched story of a group of curmudgeonly old friends who call themselves “The Good Comrades,” and spend most of their time together as a club in a remote area of Scotland (in a creepy old castle, natch). After one man receives a single orange seed in an envelope at dinner one night, he is murdered. And then it happens again to another member of the club. And again. Oh, and did I mention that each member of The Good Comrades has an insurance policy with all the other members listed as beneficiaries? Sounds like a job for Sherlock Holmes…
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) was the first film that featured Rathbone as Holmes and Bruce as his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson, and it set the tone for the series beautifully. If you’re a fan of English mysteries, I can’t recommend it highly enough (even though it’s an American production, it gets most of the details right). Their second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) is also a doozy. It’s probably my favorite in the series, owing in no small part to George Zucco’s brilliant performance as the cunning Professor Moriarty. After the first two, I found the next few Rathbone/Bruce films, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), a bit of a letdown. The setting was changed to the present day, and the films contained a good amount of World War II-era propaganda. Worst of all, someone decided that Rathbone’s hair should be combed forward. This might seem like a minor detail, but Rathbone, with his aquiline nose and intense gaze, is the very embodiment of Holmes when his hair is slicked back. With his hair combed forward he looks as if he’s wearing a curly pageboy wig.
The series hit its stride again with Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). Not only was Rathbone’s hair restored to its full Holmesian glory, the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” was adapted to a more temporally indeterminate setting. It may have been “the present day,” but the wartime propaganda was jettisoned, and aside from automobiles and telephones, it could have been the Victorian era. Holmes was Holmes again. This film and the three that followed in 1944, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of Death, are all fantastic.
In total, Rathbone and Bruce made 14 full-length features together as Holmes and Watson, and they appeared together for years on the Sherlock Holmes radio show. For many people, Rathbone and Bruce simply are Holmes and Watson. Rathbone was often cast as the villain, a role he played well (e.g., in The Adventures of Robin Hood  opposite Errol Flynn), but when I think of Rathbone, I think of a brave, brilliant, and heroic detective.