Having already been restored over a ten-year period, the films now get their full 1080p upgrade, and the results are certainly clear to see. The first two films in the series, the 20th Century Fox films, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, have not been restored by the UCLA, whilst all the rest of them, the Universals, have. Now, this isn’t to say that these first, and possibly best two instalments, look horribly inferior to their companions – the prints do look in worse condition, especially Hound – but simply that there is more evidence on display of the digital tinkering they have received. Having said that, The Scarlet Claw has some pretty rough looking scenes too. And in The Spider Woman we even have a faint yellow taint to a portion of the image. You'll find that all the films have some element that betrays their vintage, but there is nothing that is unacceptable. The last of the series, Dressed To Kill, which had actually come from a problematic source, looks outstanding, though, with its original grain beautifully resolved. Grain is apparent on all the titles.
The films are kept in their original 1.33:1 ratio, although due to the restorative work that necessitated the Universal titles having to be replaced, as well as few other, tiny, assorted clean-ups, some very slight re-jigging of the frame occurs, such as the window-boxing of the opening titles for Dressed To Kill. Damage is obviously still in evidence right across the board but, in the majority of cases, it has been kept to a minimum. Some fare worse than others. Vertical lines, scratches, pops and flecks are par for the course, and you really cannot expect otherwise. Pursuit To Algiers, as well as elements from other entries, had to be culled from 16mm prints and blown up. Barring The Hound, which does suffer from wobbles, staining and smudges, the prints really hold up well. They are clean, crisp, detailed and sharp, and they are brighter than their SD counterparts. Contrast can vary, but this is more an issue with the source and the possibly very limited remedies that can be afforded it. Blacks, with only a few very forgiveable exceptions, are strong and deep, reliably enforcing the visual drama with good, nicely defined shadow-play which, of course, leads to an increased sense of atmospherics. Interiors have fine distributions of shadows which, in turn, help to deliver a greater sense of visual depth. The Hound, though, comes up short. Here, blacks are easily infiltrated and diluted by greys, and contrast a little fuzzier on the whole. The glowing of the “monster” in The Scarlet Claw looks fantastically dazzling without being too bright or smudgy. In fact, it now looks so clear and crisp that it may even lose some of the mystique that it originally had.
Detail is very good and certainly greater than on the DVDs. Books on the shelves, bric-a-brac and accoutrements and clutter on desks, the pattern on coats and hats, the flickering of flames, the bark on trees all seem defined more sharply. Look at the texture of the sand as Holmes and Watson follow some large footprints in House Of Fear, for example. Far-away detail is naturally more hampered, and films such as The Hound, do lack that substantial definition and strength that you find in some of the later films, but this is still a very fine presentation.
Now, I would say that DNR has definitely been used in the hi-def process, most certainly in the first two Fox instalments, which suffer from some artefacts and smears. Across the rest of the series, this is much, much less of a concern. When comparing these images to those found on Optimum’s SD discs, I noticed a smoother, blander complexion to faces and brighter, cleaner elements that looked lighter in terms of texture than the same elements on the SD discs, but only a couple of the transfers. In part, this may be attributable to the altogether brighter aspect that the BDs have, but there does seem, to me at least, to be slightly too much of the natural veneer shorn away in these rare instances. But the essential thing, though, is whether or not this is actually detrimental to the overall picture. Well, all things considered, I would have to say that it is not. The extra information in the frame, the greater detail, the enhanced depth and the improved condition of the transferred image all conspire, my dear Watson, to produce a picture that looks robust and excitingly revitalised. And the overwhelming majority of the films look very impressive and faithful.
No fan will be disappointed by how these classic films have turned out.
In contrast to the detail about the image transfer, there isn’t really much that I can say about the audio side of things. Each film now carries a PCM Uncompressed mono track that has also undergone something of a restoration, but these are still exceedingly limited audio sources that offer nothing other than crisp, clear dialogue that is nice and central and consistently handled, a shrill blast of orchestral flourish whenever it is called for, vintage atmospherics aplenty, and only a modicum of hiss and crackle. Actually, this last element is more in evidence on certain titles than it is on others, but it is never a problem. These are from the forties and although they don’t sound like they hail from any other period, it is doubtful that they could sound any better than this.
The clatter of hooves and carriages across cobblestones, the bark of firearms, the whiz through the air of thrown knife or a bola, and the hue and cry of onlookers all come across with a keen enthusiasm and certainly no lack of clarity or presence within the limited soundfield. For clarity, listen to the strings being plucked on Holmes' violin in Adventures, or the tune played on the music boxes in Dressed To Kill. And the swirling wind, the rumble of thunder and the crack of lightning in The House Of Fear, say, come over very well, with some appreciable presence. The dialogue is amplified and there isn’t a moment that I noticed when it becomes swamped, drowned-out or merely dropped amidst the mix. Well, that's not entirely true. The final words from The Scarlet Claw are lost as the music swells and the end titles appear, but this has always been the case with its home video presentation.
No complaints here.
The Optimum boxset was certainly more attractively packaged, and it really felt as though you had gotten your money’s worth when you hefted it down from the shelf, but despite not carrying the elaborate fold-out design or the glorious poster-cards, or, quite sadly, the extensive production notes, this collection actually does have something that the SD set doesn’t have – in the form of an extra commentary track. This adorns the final film in the series, Dressed To Kill, and boasts star Patricia Morison in the vocal driving seat, although frequently prompted.
Elsewhere, we have the five other chat-tracks with notable Holmesian enthusiasts and scholars such as David Stuart Davies that have been ported over. These can be found gracing The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Claw, The Woman In Green and Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, and a dry experience much of these make. There is a preponderance to describe the on-screen action, and to name-drop players and their associated careers, but there is still a fair old chunk of trivia and production detail on offer in-amidst the narrative.
There is the familiar 4.30 minute featurette in which UCLA's Robert Gitt tells us about the process of restoring Sherlock Holmes. This is a nice little piece that seeks to address the various trials and tribulations that had to be overcome in order to bring life back to the series.
A nice new extra is the all-too-brief (a couple of minutes is all) archival footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as he attempts to provide some answers regarding his most famous creation.
And we get a series of five motion galleries that cover the films with gorgeous stills all set to some sublime classical music. Each of these lasts around two minutes, and a strangely eloquent and hypnotic treat they are too.
Considering the time and effort that has gone into restoring these films, and now the process of transferring them to Blu-ray, I'm surprised that MPI haven't gone out of their way to add a little bit more to the set in the way of extras. The restoration featurette is now dated and I'm sure that Robert Gitt and his team could have been allowed to discuss more of what went into the saving these films from the ravages of time. Plus, a retrospective documentary about the series would have been awesome. The commentaries go some way to providing valuable information, but this still just seems like it is merely scratching the surface.
One of the longest and most consistently entertaining film-franchises in Hollywood’s history, the complete Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes collection is entirely desirable and endlessly entertaining. The character has appeared numerous times since, with a variety of faces and mannerisms, but this series, which marked the transition from the Golden Age to the Silver Age of Cinema, remains remarkable in its energetic, witty and intriguing adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation. Without Rathbone leading the way with his clipped heroism, arch incisiveness and undiluted vigour, it is doubtful that the super-sleuth would ever have entered the mass public consciousness with such long-lasting appeal. Bumbling, harrumphing Bruce becomes an indelible part of the set-up, too. And the sets, the mood, the supporting cast and the sheer style of the show works in perfect tandem with the convoluted (yet happily spelled-out) plots. This is a series that you can dip into without any loss of theme or character – the starting and ending point quite agreeably removed from any overarching story, which comes as a refreshing ingredient when compared to today’s long-running mystery/character serials like Cracker, 24, Lost and even BSG which need constant tweaking and modifying to keep on-track.
The black and white photography is not particularly audacious, nor is the direction from stalwart Roy William Neil, but the tone is marvellously consistent and atmospheric, whether the plot places Holmes and Watson in the moors and mansions of Victorian menace, drops them on epic train trips or ship voyages that involve them in a cocktail of skulduggery, or pits them against the nefarious might of the Nazis. There is a great Saturday Night double-bill vogue about them – they feel both cosy and thrilling at the same time. The formula is played out, to be sure, but there are still plenty of curve-balls pitched in to this winning pattern that list the momentum from side to side, maintaining the intrigue and the excitement.
MPI haven't added anything significant to the package that fans haven't already seen or heard before, which is something of a shame, but the big thing, here, is the transfers themselves. Hailing from troubled source material, these 1080p transfers really do reveal the extent of all that painstaking restoration work. Age-related issues may still flare up, but they only add to the charm, and the picture quality, overall, is wonderfully satisfying.
Even if it could have done with more special features, this is an awesome boxset that I recommend wholeheartedly.
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