Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is a good example of the way that women, by how they think and what they do, are portrayed as key in the plot of a spy noir in the Second World War era.
Director: John Rawlins. Screenplay: Lynn Riggs and John Bright, based on the story “His Last Bow” by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Robert D. Andrews. Producer: Howard Benedict. Cinematographer: Woody Bredell. Music: Frank Skinner. Art Director: Jack Otterson. Editor: Russell F. Schoengarth. Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson), Evelyn Ankers (Kitty), Reginald Denny (Sir Evan Barham), Thomas Gomez (R.F. Meade), Henry Daniell (Anthony Lloyd), Montagu Love (General Jerome Lawford), Olaf Hytten (Fabian Prentiss), Leyland Hodgson (Captain Roland Shore), Robert Barron (Gavin, uncredited), Hillary Brooke (Jill Grandis, driver, uncredited), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson, uncredited), Edgar Barrier (Voice of Terror, voice, uncredited). Released: Universal Pictures, September 18, 1942. 65 minutes.
Of all WWII spy noirs, the opening sequence in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is exceptionally malevolent. As I explain below, the confidence of the Third Reich and the vulnerability of Britain are time-sensitive representations based on the historical context in which the film was created. In fact, because of this context the film seeks to make its American viewers undeterred – either by Germany’s strength or Britain’s weakness – in giving their full commitment to an Allied victory. The film uses various methods to do this, including stark propaganda, the authority of Sherlock Holmes and, especially, the leadership and sacrifices of a working class woman.
In her overall brilliant study, England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes, Amanda J. Field describes the opening sequence as follows.
“The Voice of Terror begins with a map of Europe bearing a superimposed graphic of a wave-emitting radio mast and a voiceover that would have been immediately recognizable by contemporary audiences as alluding to Lord Haw-Haw, the British fascist William Joyce who worked for Goebbels, broadcasting messages to Britain…As he speaks…the shadow of the mast moves across the Continent like an invading army until it reaches Britain. The opening shot gives way to a montage sequence that cuts between various groups of wireless listeners including working-class men in flat caps gathered around the radio in their lunch break; nurses; professionals; and middle-class men smoking cigars in their clubs. The ‘voice of terror’ forms a constant background to this montage, which includes scenes of dams collapsing and ships being torpedoed [and a different calendar page appears and dissolves as the next group of listeners and disaster is shown]….” (pp. 121-122)
The narration of the Voice of Terror is below. The pages of the calendar in the montage are indicated in parentheses at the point they appear during the narration.
Germany broadcasting. Germany broadcasting.
(February 5 Sunday) People of Britain, greetings from the Third Reich.
This is the Voice of Terror you have learned to fear. This is the Voice of Terror.
Again we bring you disaster, crushing, humiliating disaster.
It is folly to stand against the mighty wrath of the Fuhrer.
You need more testimony of his invulnerable might to bring you to your knees?
Very well. Are you ready operative number 7?
This is the Voice of Terror.
A secret airplane factory somewhere in England. Listen. The screams of the dying can still be heard.
This is the Voice of Terror.
(March 23 Thursday) Are you there, people of Britain, shivering in your cellars?
Listen. Operative forty-one. The fuse is lighted. Oil to fuel your navy, to feed your tanks. There it goes up in smoke by the millions of gallons.
This is the Voice of Terror.
(May 12 Friday) Do you still believe that there are secrets still unknown to the Führer?
Listen. Tonight at 7:10, an important diplomat boarded a train at a little station outside Liverpool. Each split second is accounted for. The rails divide. The train hurtles through the air. The diplomat will make no report in London.
This is the Voice of Terror.
(July 1 Saturday) Englishmen, do you still await your doom in your stupid, stuffy, little clubs? It will come, I promise you.
Operative twenty-three, the time is now.
(August 8 Tuesday) We strike you on the high seas, as well as on the land.
This is the Voice of Terror.
(September 19 Tuesday) Englishmen, the Führer strikes you now as he pleases. Water pours through your greatest dams, smashing everything before it, even as our invincible armies roll toward their objectives.
As the narration ends, the screen shows a close-up of a newspaper poster that says:
TERROR CAMPAIGN GROWS IN FRIGHTFULNESS!
INTELLIGENCE INNER COUNCIL PROMISES ACTION
To solve the mystery of how the Voice of Terror can broadcast each event as it occurs, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are asked to meet with the members of the Intelligence Inner Council. An ominous noir visual style distinguishes the first scene. Across the rear wall of the council’s chamber is a shadow of windowpanes, stretching like a huge spider’s web.
Holmes tells the council that the attacks “are only a prelude, a smokescreen to cover up a more diabolic plan. And I intend to find out what that plan is.”
Soon afterward, Gavin, a man bringing Holmes vital information, is murdered. Before he dies, he gasps one word, “Christopher.” Considering his legacy of solving cases in print, on stage and on screen, it would be fair to assume that the great detective himself would conduct the investigation to discover the meaning of that word. After all, he is Sherlock Holmes, and his knowledge of London, and seemingly everything else, is peerless. However, such an assumption wouldn’t take into account the historical context before the film’s US release on September 18, 1942. At that time it was widely considered an open question as to whether the Allies could defeat the Axis.
For example, also in the summer of 1942, James Reston’s Prelude to Victory was published. The New York Times journalist, who specialized in diplomatic and foreign affairs, opens Chapter I as follows.
“It is necessary now that we admit the facts: many things we have laughed at, or taken for granted, or minimized, or despised in the last few years have risen up to plague us. The little man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache who merely wanted living space for the Germans and could not attack us even if he wanted to is the master of Europe whose submarines are taking pot shots at our East Coast. The little grinning yellow men, the growers of our vegetables, the makers of our cheap toys, the imitators of the West whom we brought into the modern world and could vanquish in three months, are the conquerors of the East. The people we revered, the immortal French, are stricken down and silent; the people we counted out, the plodding English, are still alive; the great mysterious peoples of the East, the Chinese, who were good enough to wash our shirts, and the Russians, who were not, are helping to save our lives. What is this phantasmagoria? How did this come about? What can we do about it? Where do we stand late in the year 1942?” (p. 3)
The rest of the book is both a wake-up call and a clarion call to Americans that they must dedicate themselves to fighting back. Reston begins Chapter IV unequivocally, “The alternatives before the American people in the closing months of 1942 are both simple and desperate: we must conquer or be conquered; we must learn the lessons of our mistakes or be destroyed by them.” (p. 54)
Reston’s writing may not be as dramatic as the opening sequence of Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, but his intent is no different: to alarm if not frighten.
As Reston insists, the world is turned upside down, and it is possible that the outcome of the war will be the defeat – the conquering – of the US. Therefore, it stands to reason that the character, Sherlock Holmes, as of early to mid-1942, would lack his normal unrivaled prowess. The historical context would justify that Holmes, by himself, cannot solve the riddle of “Christopher.” (For a companion analysis of film noir and the working class in the Second World War, see the page Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs Postwar.
Holmes and Watson venture into “the dark and sinister alleys of Limehouse,” an East End district in London populated by the working class as well as criminals. A tough guy recognizes Holmes and warns him to go away because “we don’t fancy your sort of bloke in these parts.” A thrown knife narrowly misses Holmes. (This is how Gavin was killed.) Watson is eager to leave Limehouse, but Holmes refuses. They enter a beer hall, which is literally and figuratively underground. An old man takes them to a table, and Holmes asks him, “Where’s the girl, Kitty, Gavin’s sweetheart?” “His wife,” the man responds. Holmes says, “Can you get her? It’s urgent.”
Holmes needs Kitty to find out the meaning of Gavin’s last word. He believes that only she can persuade the men and women in the beer hall to help out with the investigation. In other words, unwillingness to join the fight against the Nazis must be overcome.
The Voice of Terror is different from other spy noirs in which a lead character is ultimately converted to supporting the Allied cause. The most famous of these conversions occurs with Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. In contrast, the people who are converted in The Voice of Terror are nameless and sitting together in a large dimly lit room, similar to those watching the scene in a movie theater. Given the difference in release dates between The Voice of Terror and Casablanca, in the film created in mid-1942, the Nazi threat is understandably more sinister and formidable. (The New York premiere of Casablanca was November 26, 1942, and its general release was January 23, 1943.)
Kitty, because she is of the working class, can succeed where Holmes would fail. In the series of Sherlock Holmes films in which, according to Amanda J. Field, he is “England’s Secret Weapon,” only in The Voice of Terror does he have to rely on someone else to solve a mystery. But this situation shouldn’t seem, as Reston might say, phantasmagorical. The Voice of Terror is different because its timing was close to the nadir of the prospects for the Allies’ victory.
Kitty arrives at the beer hall looking for Gavin. She goes to the table where Holmes and Watson are sitting. Learning that Gavin is dead, Kitty accuses Holmes of killing him. At first she refuses to help Holmes find Gavin’s murderers because it would mean aiding the police. Holmes pleads with her.
“I’m sorry. I’m deeply in his debt…I’m not asking this for myself. Our country, England, is at stake. Gavin was killed not by his own enemies, not even mine, but by the enemies of England…The Nazis killed him. Think, Kitty. The cutthroats of the world menace us all. You can help stop this savagery. Yes, you, Kitty. It would take the police weeks, months perhaps, to find out a certain piece of information we must have. That’s not so with you and your friends. You know every nook and corner of London. Get them to help us. We need their help. Your friends will become an army. You understand? Secret. Invisible and mighty. And you will be their head, Kitty. You will be their leader.”
Kitty leaves Holmes and Watson and walks from one table to another asking people what “Christopher” means. No one helps her.
Standing before everyone, she makes a speech. What Kitty wants to do with her suspicious listeners is also what Reston wants to do with his skeptical readers: convince them that their country and, indeed, their very lives are at stake. Furthermore, Kitty and Reston have the same audience. Although they are East End proletarians in the beer hall, the people in the movie theaters were Americans of all walks of life. That is, at one level, for the British in the film, Kitty’s speech is class-collaborationist and nationalistic propaganda. At another level, for the Americans watching the film, it is a post-Pearl Harbor rallying cry.
“You gotta help me find out…Are you gonna creep in the corners all your life? Are you gonna sneak away at the very sight of a man like this [referring to Holmes] and show him what cowards you are? What are you afraid of? All right, don’t help me, then. Cut your own throats, that’s what you’re doing. Help me or help the Nazis. Sure, the Nazis killed Gavin. They might be your friends, protecting them the way you are. Don’t you know all the crimes they commit are being blamed on you? Well, they are. And I hope you hang for them. You can have ‘em. As for me, I’m British, and I’m proud of it…I’m not asking this for myself. England’s at stake. Your England as much as anyone else’s. Got no time to think about whose side we’re on. There’s only one side – England. No matter how high or how low we are – You, You, You, and You – we’re all on the same team. We’ve all got the same goal – Victory!”
People stand up. Voices cry out to Kitty asking what she wants to know.
She answers, “Spread out all over London. But find out what ‘Christopher’ means.”
Holmes goes to her and says, “Thank you, Kitty.” Watson adds, “Well done, my dear.”
Kitty accomplishes the mission and gives the information to Holmes. But the lengths that she will go to get Gavin’s killers and safeguard her homeland are just beginning. She seduces a top Nazi leader, R.F. Meade, into falling for her, and she becomes his mistress. Thoroughly deceived, Meade takes Kitty with him to the place on the southern coast where the Germans are going to invade Britain. One of her recruits, a cab driver, learns the location by following Kitty, and he reports back to Holmes.
Holmes, Watson and the members of the Intelligence Inner Council race from London to a bombed out church on the coast. Inside its ruins they find Kitty as well as Meade and his accomplices. The invasion is thwarted, and “the scattered Nazi agents all over the Commonwealth [are] unceremoniously clapped into prison.”
Holmes then reveals that the ringleader behind the Voice of Terror is the chief of the council, Sir Evan Barham. What matters aren’t the details of the deus ex machina in Holmes’ exposure of Sir Evan as a German imposter, who replaced the real British aristocrat as far back as World War One. (It is just one example in spy films of Germans’ long-term planning.) What is significant is that the denouement reverses a common plot device in WWII spy films, in which a “double” turns out to be a good spy. This film flips the classic espionage deception of The Great Impersonation. (E. Phillips Oppenheim’s novel was published in 1920, and a spy noir based on the book was released three months after The Voice of Terror, which was also directed by John Rawlins.)
Although Holmes has promised “to find out what [the Nazis’] plan is,” what he actually does is hatch a scheme whereby Kitty and the Nazi who knows the plan “accidentally” meet. Bravely and cleverly, she succeeds on the far side of patriotism. Thus, it is Kitty, at least as much as England’s Secret Weapon, who saves Britain.
Avenging himself for being duped by Kitty, Meade grabs a gun and kills her. It might be said that Kitty’s death is Hollywood’s retribution for her sexual code-breaking. Amanda J. Field considers it evidence that Kitty is “dispensable” and “expendable.”
“In the Holmes films…[before 1943], success had depended on a supreme being: the little people, like Kitty in Voice of Terror, were seen to be dispensable once their purpose had been served.” (p. 137)
“[T]he narrative concentrates on her ‘use-value’ in rallying the criminal classes against the Nazis,” and “sleeping with the enemy in order to get information…Kitty is a working-class woman and the underlying message in her portrayal is that these women are expendable in a way that middle-class women are not: they serve their country with their bodies, through sex or dying….” (p. 180)
As I have argued above in terms of the historical context of the film, Sherlock Holmes is certainly not “a supreme being” in The Voice of Terror. If he were, he wouldn’t have to beg Kitty to get her friends to solve for him the mystery of “Christopher.”
Besides Kitty, other women in spy noirs sleep with the enemy. However, first they marry him. Kitty is the only one who is a mistress, not a wife; and she is the only one who is working class. The other women are, as Field would say, middle class. They are in Paris Calling (1941), First Comes Courage (1943), The Man from Morocco (1945), and Notorious (1946).
Even ignoring the pro-Axis “bad” women, the list of pro-Allies “good” women who die in spy noirs is lengthy. They are not only working class but also “middle class.” I don’t consider any of their lives as dispensable or expendable. There was a war on, and dealing with death was something that movie-goers had to come to grips with. Kitty is an example of one of the aspects of my definition of the WWII spy noir: “In many crime noirs, characters that die may be unfamiliar or unsympathetic to audiences. In contrast, during a time when so many film viewers had lost loved ones, characters in spy noirs are regularly killed off after audiences have come to understand and admire them.”
Field sees Holmes’ reaction to Kitty’s murder as callous. “[W]hen she is shot, Holmes barely pauses to pay tribute to her before stepping around her corpse to deliver his Shakespearian ‘East Wind’ speech.” (p. 180)
In an earlier scene, after Kitty finds out the meaning of “Christopher,” she comes to the headquarters of the Intelligence Inner Council. A guard announces her, “Mr. Holmes, there’s a person outside asking….” Holmes says, “A lady?” The guard replies, “Umm.” Holmes stands up and says, “Ask her to come in.” Throughout the film, Holmes shows respect for Kitty, whether at the beer hall or in front of the council members. In contrast, commentators about the film degrade her. For example, Field cites, without disapproval, Bernard Dick’s view of Kitty and Holmes’ relationship. “Dick is disturbed by Holmes’ manipulation of Kitty, the East End bar girl.” (p. 135) In the booklet for the DVDs in The Sherlock Holmes Collection: Volume One, Richard Valley says, “Most likely Holmes is right and Kitty is the dead man’s lover – and quite possibly a prostitute.”
I disagree that Holmes “manipulates” Kitty. She comes to the beer hall looking for her husband. Holmes tells her the truth: Nazis murdered Gavin. That riles her up, and she wants to get even. Additionally, there is no evidence that Kitty is a streetwalker. Or could it be her attire? Are the clothes of Hollywood’s version of an East End working class woman what makes her appear to commentators as a bar girl, a prostitute?
Field’s belief that Holmes is unmoved by Kitty’s death fits in with her idea that, as far as Holmes is concerned, Kitty’s life doesn’t count. But Field’s view isn’t supported by what Holmes says in memoriam of Kitty: “This girl merits our deepest gratitude. Our country is honored in having such loyalty and devotion.” A member of the council responds, “We’ll remember.” Also, Holmes isn’t shown “stepping around her corpse.” Rather, he turns away from it and walks to the rear of the church. Watson follows him and, with their backs to the camera, the two of them look toward the English Channel.
Field’s mention that Holmes delivers a “Shakespearian ‘East Wind’ speech” conflates two different authors, two different speeches and two different films. Several months after The Voice of Terror, the next entry in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, was released. (The Los Angeles premiere was December 25, 1942, and the general release was February 12, 1943.) It is a spy film, not a spy noir, and it concludes as follows. Watson says, “Well, this little island is still on the map.” In response, Holmes quotes from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act II, Scene 1): “This fortress built by Nature for herself…This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
Not from Shakespeare, the East Wind speech is taken word for word from the end of “His Last Bow,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story on which The Voice of Terror is (loosely) based.
“Watson: It’s a lovely morning, Holmes.
Holmes: There’s an east wind coming, Watson.
Watson: I don’t think so. Looks like another warm day.
Holmes: Good old Watson. The one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same. Such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less. And a greener, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”
“His Last Bow” was first published in Britain in The Strand Magazine in September 1917, a year after the battle of the Somme and before the battle of Passchendaele – another public shocker of ghastly carnage – was finished.
As noted by Lawrence Sondhaus in World War One: The Global Revolution, the first day of the battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, was “the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army…[with] a staggering 54,470 casualties including 19,240 men killed, most of them by machine-gun fire…The action at the Somme finally ended on November 18.” Total British and Imperial casualties were 420,000 including 146,000 killed. (pp. 213-214)
The battle of Passchendaele (also known as the third battle of Ypres) lasted from July 31-November 10, 1917. Sondhaus says, “Other than the Somme, Passchendaele ranked as the British Empire’s costliest battle of the war.” (p. 257)
The context in which Americans heard the lines by Holmes and Watson in the film echoes the context in which British read them in the story. Holmes’ speech acknowledges and commemorates the sacrifice of lives, like Kitty’s, that has to be endured. For the audience in each World War, the message is the same: as dark as the times are now and may remain in the days ahead, hope and resolve to win the war must not waver.
From my analysis of Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, I have a different interpretation of Kitty than Amanda J. Field. I don’t find Kitty to be merely use-value, dispensable or expendable. Instead, I see her as among a cross-class British-American sisterhood, comprised of a wide range of female characters in spy noirs, in which women match men as doers, leaders and thinkers.
For more about women in spy noirs in the WWII era, see the page Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir.
After its release in the US, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was not released in Britain for over a year, until October 1943. For this reason I have associated the film’s historical context (mid-1942) solely with an American audience.
Of the 14 films starring Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror has the strongest and most consistent noir visual style. For example, in the series the noir style is never more impressive than the sequence in the streets of Limehouse and inside the beer hall. The achievement of the film’s mise-en-scène is mainly attributable to the director, John Rawlins, and the cinematographer, Woody Bredell. This is the only film in the series that Rawlins and Bredell worked on.
Rawlins’ film noirs are all spy noirs: Mister Dynamite (1941), Bombay Clipper (1942), Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), Unseen Enemy (1942), and The Great Impersonation (1942).
Among cinematographers, Bredell’s film noir credits are outstanding: Phantom Lady (1942), Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), Christmas Holiday (1944), Lady on a Train (1945), Smooth as Silk (1946), The Killers (1946), Tangier (1946), The Unsuspected (1947), and Female Jungle (1956).
Underscoring my perspective about Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror is the following entry for the film in Blacklisted: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner.
“John Bright co-scripted this most class-conscious story of a present-day Holmes, discovering a Nazi spy is a ruling class imposter, brought down with the help of the subterranean masses of London.” (p. 199).
Bright was a founder of the Screen Writer’s Guild.
Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Blacklisted: The Film Lover’s Guide to the Hollywood Blacklist (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
Amanda J. Field, England’s Secret Weapon: The Wartime Films of Sherlock Holmes (Middlesex University Press, 2009)
James B. Reston, Prelude to Victory (Alfred A. Knopf, 1942)
Lawrence Sondhaus, World War One: The Global Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2011)