I just watched The Great Mouse Detective (great movie) with my family last night and felt moved to write about one of my favorite black and white actors: the great Basil Rathbone. He brought urbanity, poise, and energy to whatever roles he played in. He played formidable villains in Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro, but to me he will always be the man who played Sherlock Holmes.

He started with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939. Mostly true to the novel, this film brims with atmosphere and hooked me to the point that I had to see the other 13 Rathbone/Holmes films. I love a good mystery that combines detective work with elements of terror and this story brings both with consummate skill.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a more traditional mystery in which Holmes thwarts a murder and prevents the crown jewels of England from being stolen. There are a couple of elements of horror in this one when the murderer stalks his victims in the London fog.

As far as horror is concerned, it reaches its pinnacle in The Scarlet Claw in which Holmes solves a series of grisly murders in the misty bogs of a Canadian village. Without a doubt this is my favorite of the Rathbone/Holmes films. The plot is dark, fast, and uncompromising.

The Pearl of Death is another memorable one. This one is memorable and eerie because it has Rondo Hatton as one of the villains, the Creeper. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a little hoky but its gothic atmosphere is a good example of what you don't see in movies anymore. I become more and more convinced that gothic movies have to be in black and white.The House of Fear is another creepy mystery but this one has an especially twisted ending. All the while, I'm rooting for Holmes every time and Rathbone's consistently dynamic performances make these movies a lot of fun to watch.

Of course, Rathbone played in several straight-up horror movies. The Son of Frankenstein has a complex story and awesome production value. The combined prescience of Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff make this mandatory viewing. This movie will also help you appreciate Young Frankenstein even more than you already do.

Near the end of his life, Rathbone played in some of Roger Corman's movie Tales of Terror as well as Comedy of Terrors (directed by one of my favorite directors Jacques Tourneur). From what I've read, he still had considerable energy and could run circles around his co-stars.

Aside from the Three Stooges, it was Rathbone made me fall in love with black and white film. In some ways, I think it was a purer form of film-making than nowadays. I will always regard Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes, and this era with affection.

Written by Nicholas Montelongo

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