C. Aubrey Smith, who, with Nigel Bruce and Cedric Hardwicke, once perpetrated this piece of “music” upon the American public.
Powell and Pressburger’s Sherlock Holmes (1947) is one of the great lost films of British cinema.
Made at Pinewood Studios, it was a lavish Korda production, designed to be even more definitive than the recently-finished American Universal series starring Basil Rathbone. Where the Universal films had been made in crisp black and white, Korda’s production was shot in lavish Technicolour. Where the Universals had been 70 minute B-pictures, this was an epic two and a half hours long, taking Holmes and Watson from their first meeting in 1881 to the brink of the First World War.
For this big-budget operation, Korda chose his star writing and directing team, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who brought technical mastery, an eye for spectacle and an ear for dialogue (previous work included A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). Powell had loved Conan Doyle’s detective since childhood, later writing in his autobiography,
“Both my grandfather and my uncles told me that on the City platform at Forest Hill Station, crowded as usual with businessman, with umbrellas, gloves and top hats, waiting for the 9.15 to London Bridge, they had seen every man of them, on the day of publication with his head in the Strand Magazine devouring the latest Adventure. In the crowded carriages six a side, every man was either reading Sherlock Holmes or discussing him. Just as with Jules Verne the pictures, as much as the text, created the immortal folk figure. The lean face, the deerstalker, the Inverness cape, captivated the world. (…) I am convinced that Holmes and Watson would never have become household heroes without pictures. For the first time, and all over the world, a storyteller’s images, as well as his words, were known and recognized. Sidney Paget and Arthur Conan Doyle were the parents of the silent film, the sound film, the colour film, TV, video tape, of all the audio-visual storytelling inventions of the next ninety years.”
Pressburger’s screenplay lovingly recreated that bustling Victorian world, cleverly showing us the gaps between Holmes the man and Holmes the ‘folk figure’. This was quite unlike any previous film interpretations of the character – setting Holmes firmly within a larger social picture of Empire innovation and expansion. Most daringly of all, Pressburger chose to make the narrative fragmentary and episodic, giving us many overlapping cases and events, set over a forty-year period.
For their Holmes, Powell and Pressburger chose Eric Portman. Suitably aquiline and direct, it was hoped that Portman would challenge the public’s attachment to Basil Rathbone. Sadly, Portman’s warm Yorkshire accent was criticized in many contemporary reviews as inappropriate for the role. Despite this, his steely intelligence (previously seen in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale) was universally praised.
Perhaps the film’s masterstroke was in casting the husky-voiced, gentlemanly Roger Livesey as Dr. Watson.
As far from Nigel Bruce’s bumbler as it was possible to imagine, Livesey was utterly convincing as the compassionate military man, bringing humanity to Holmes. One of the great pleasures of the film was to hear Livesey’s comfortingly growly voiceover introducing each case. No other actor has managed to invest the words ‘Giant Rat of Sumatra’ with quite as much comedy.
Another fortuitous piece of casting came with Francis L. Sullivan as Mycroft Holmes. Fresh from playing Mr. Jaggers in David Lean’s Great Expectations, Sullivan brought mystery and swagger to the part of the enigmatic government official.
In many ways, this is the ultimate Sherlock Holmes film. It’s such a shame that it doesn’t exist.
While the Michael Powell quotation above is genuine, everything else is invented. You could say that this is my fantasy film, a movie that could have happened (I’ve tried to make the casting and production details as plausible as possible) but just didn’t. There’s a charming sequence in Colonel Blimp in which characters excitedly discuss the forthcoming installment of The Hound of Baskervilles in The Strand Magazine. Imagine what Powell and Pressburger might have done with a location shoot on Dartmoor, and with Conan Doyle’s “spectral hound”! Imagine their Reichenbach Falls (I’m seeing a Jack Cardiff matte shot, filmed in Wales)!
Oh well, it’s a happy daydream…
The last Universal Sherlock Holmes film is something of a mixed bag. As usual there’s plenty to enjoy but, thirteen films on, there are real signs of strain and repetition here. Basil Rathbone, worried about typecasting, had elected not to renew his contract before shooting began. There’s a flatness to the film that may have resulted from a general winding down and, unfortunately, this isn’t quite the last hurrah that the series deserved.
- Dressed to Kill might seem like a strange title for a Holmes movie. While Basil and Nigel are impeccably turned out as usual, it’s the female villain Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) that’s the subject here! The working title had been Prelude to Murder, somewhat more atmospheric and appropriate given that the plot concerns a musical cipher.
- A lot of plot elements are reproduced from previous films. There’s the multi-part cipher from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, the tracking down of antiques from The Pearl of Death, and the formidable female villain from The Spider Woman and The Woman in Green. As in The Pearl of Death, there’s a hint of perversity in the obsession of henchman Hamid (Harry Cording) with Hilda Courtney.
- Being an old schoolfriend of Dr. Watson is, once again, shown to be a perilous occupation. Here, poor old Julian ‘Stinky’ Emery (Edmund Breon) soon gets a knife in the back.
- We begin as Watson proudly looks over his latest publication in The Strand magazine – A Scandal in Bohemia. He mentions that the case occurred two years ago (in 1944?) and goes on to talk about Irene Adler, the woman who bested Holmes. Clearly, we are supposed to see Hilda Courtney as a new Irene Adler.
- Later in the film, Hilda will fool Watson by using a smoke bomb, as in A Scandal in Bohemia. She goes on to prove her mettle by trapping Holmes, cleverly baiting him through his knowledge of tobacco ash. In a very thrilling sequence, Holmes is handcuffed and hung from a girder as poisonous Nazi gas pumps out of a car engine. Not just poisonous gas, folks. Poisonous NAZI gas. Needless to say, Holmes escapes!
- Watson attempts to cheer up a frightened child by quacking like a duck. Unfortunately, this brings her to the verge of tears.
- The film ends at Samuel Johnson’s house with a nice example of Rathbone being a badass. Having shot Hamid, he deadpans, “I believe this fellow on the floor could use some medical attention. We must see that he looks his best, you know, when he’s hanged.” The emphasis that Rathbone places on that final word is just beautiful.
- Holmes gives Watson all the credit for solving the case; Watson chuckles, puffs out his chest and says, “I don’t think I could have done it entirely without Mr. Holmes’ help!” It’s a charming note on which to end the film, and the series.
After enjoying Pursuit to Algiers so much last week (read my review here), Dolly Clackett and I picked out another film from the Rathbone and Bruce box set last night. Like its predecessor, Terror by Night takes place over the course of a journey, this time on an express train to Edinburgh.
- As you can see from the rather magnificent poster above, the case concerns a precious stone, the Star of Rhodesia, that Holmes must guard. Once his client is murdered and the jewel stolen, Holmes must discover which of the train’s passengers is guilty.
- Drawing on Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the film begins with a voiceover explaining that the jewel has brought death to all who have owned it. Later, Holmes finds that the murderer has been hiding in a coffin with a secret compartment, a twist on The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.
- As in Pursuit to Algiers, there are no Baker Street scenes in this film. This means we miss out again on one of the series’ treasures, Mary Gordon as Mrs. Hudson. This time round, though, we do have the pleasure of Dennis Hoey’s wonderfully slow-witted Inspector Lestrade.
- A lot of attention is paid to the glamourous character Vivian Vedder. She’s one of the film’s most persistent red herrings – as shown by the undue prominence given her on the film poster. Vivian is supposed to be a Cockney but actress Renee Godfrey (born in New York) can’t manage the accent. A merciless mangling ensues.
- There’s some fun stuff with Nigel Bruce attempting to solve the case on his own and suspecting all of the wrong people.
- One of the reasons that I love thrillers set on trains is for the always exciting situation of characters falling out of trains or climbing along roofs. See Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951) for a couple of fine examples. A particular highlight of Terror by Night is its version of the hero-fighting-not-to-get-kicked-off-the-train trope. An unidentified assailant furiously lashes out at Holmes, hanging on for dear life with only one hand. Rathbone looks wonderfully strained in this scene as his head falls back, dangerously close to the tracks. A triumph of back projection.
- It’s a shame that the distinctive Skelton Knaggs doesn’t have more screen time. He’s very sinister!
- This is the only Rathbone film to feature Colonel Sebastian Moran, henchman of the late Professor Moriarty, his infamous airgun updated to a streamlined “airpistol”. His identity is concealed for most of the film, so I don’t want to give too much away!
- Unlike Holmesian scholars David Stuart Davies and Alan Barnes, I think Pursuit to Algiers has just got the edge on Terror by Night. Still, this film is another enjoyable entry and far better than I remembered. No doubt the restored prints have a great deal to do with my increased enjoyment!
- One of my favourite aspects of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films is the rousing speech that Rathbone delivers at the film’s conclusion. Sadly, neither Pursuit to Algiers nor Terror by Night end in this way. Perhaps the studio felt it was unnecessary with the war over. It’s a shame; those moments between the two friends ended the films satisfyingly, and were always beautifully delivered by Rathbone. Perhaps, then, my next selection from the box set will be a wartime Holmes!
Last night, Dolly Clackett and I sat down to watch one of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films. I suppose they’ve been on my mind recently from thinking about the BBC’s current updating of the characters. Anyway, here are some casual thoughts on the twelfth Rathbone-Bruce film.
- Holmes and Watson have to protect the King of Rovenia from assassins on a cruise ship bound for Algiers. Confining the action in this way nicely ramps up the tension.
- It’s one of the Rathbones that I always forget, and am always surprised by its virtues. The next Rathbone, Terror by Night, repeats the format on a train – I think we might watch that one next!
- We begin in foggy London as Holmes and Watson are lured to a meeting in Fishbone Alley. Just down the road from Squeezegut Alley, no doubt. This is probably the only Sherlock Holmes film that has a scene in a chip shop.
- At one point, Watson believes that Holmes has perished in a plane crash. It’s an affecting moment, beautifully played by Nigel Bruce, giving the lie to the cliche that his Watson was just a bumbler. As a steward speaks to him, he stands looking out to sea, and says distantly, “I can’t see anyone now.” Critic Alan Barnes observes, “It’s as if his life has ended too.”
- Of course, there’s plenty of great comedy from Bruce too. I especially liked his recounting of The Giant Rat of Sumatra (naturally, the film keeps cutting away at important moments) and his rendition of ‘Loch Lomond’.
- There’s a nice turn from Morton Lowry (Stapleton in Hound of the Baskervilles) as a steward who’s not quite what he seems…
- In one of those off-hand jokes that make these films such a delight, Holmes observes that “the late Professor Moriarty was a virtuoso on the bassoon”.
- At one point, Holmes breaks an assassin’s wrist in a porthole and then wishes him goodnight. What a badass.
- Holmes is rewarded at the end of the film by a kiss on the cheek from the heroine. “Elementary my dear Watson,” he tells the dumbfounded doctor, “and quite pleasant!”
This review contains spoilers.
A Study in Scarlet is one of the least adapted stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Like most of Conan Doyle’s novel-length adventures, its bipartite structure resists dramatization. The first half of the story depicts Holmes’ investigation; the second half, the murderer’s confession, the tale of a past wrong avenged. Consequently, there are very few screen portrayals of Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time.
So I was surprised that Steven Moffat’s script for last night’s Sherlock followed its Doylean source material so closely. We got John’s meeting with Stamford, Sherlock’s beating of corpses, his deductions around Afghanistan, John’s gradual comprehension of his room-mate’s profession, the murder in Lauriston Gardens, the fruitless chase after a cab, the identification of the cabbie as the murderer, and his terrifying choice of poison pills. Also, I failed to notice a particularly skilful pun on the word ‘ring’, noted by Tom Sutcliffe in today’s Independent here.
For the obsessive aficionado (that’s me), there were a wealth of Holmesian in-jokes, often playing with Conan Doyle’s notorious inconsistency. So we found out that Mrs. Turner lived down the road from Mrs. Hudson, that Sherlock knew a waiter called Billy, and that John’s wandering war wound was a symptom of his PTSD. There were more straightforward quotations as well, like naming one victim James Phillimore and using the wonderful telegram from The Creeping Man : “Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same S.H.” Sadly, these quotations were sometimes diluted by the updating. Slice it where you like, “The game is on” just isn’t as dramatic as “The game is afoot”!
Like the Universal Rathbone-Bruce films which inspired this series, A Study in Pink boldly stole and reframed detail from the original adventures. However, it also demonstrated its awareness of previous adaptations. In interview, Moffat and Gatiss have mentioned their love for The Spider Woman (1944) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). From the former comes the idea of serial suicides, from the latter Mycroft’s recasting as a sinister representative of the government.
I was especially impressed by the two central performances, and am excited to see how they will develop over the coming weeks. Freeman was intelligent and empathetic as John Watson. By structuring his entry into Sherlock’s world as a move from ennui to action (wonderfully realized in the transference from crutch to service revolver), the script gave us a compelling reason for his becoming part of this partnership.
Cumberbatch is potentially one of the great Sherlocks. Physically perfect for the role, the planes of his face convey the detective’s strangeness and inscrutability. Importantly, though, Cumberbatch isn’t a cold fish. We frequently see Sherlock excited and amused, allowing us to understand his passion for the grotesque. Also, I covet his coat enormously.
Unsurprisingly, Moffat chose to leave the second part of A Study in Scarlet alone. However, this left the motivation of the murderer weak. While Conan Doyle’s cabbie was full of pathos, Moffat’s is an arrogant psychopath bordering on cliche. It was difficult to believe the connection to Moriarty, which came off seeming like a tenuous attempt at arc-building.
While I liked the use of Mycroft, I had a major problem with the casting of Mark Gatiss. Maybe it’s just that I can’t separate him from The League of Gentlemen in my head, but I felt that his performance was horribly arch. It was as though he was playing ‘sinister’ in a comedy skit. And giving Gatiss the final line of the episode smacked of self-indulgence, which certainly wouldn’t have been the case if they’d just used another actor.
Some of the hyperactive editing and emphatic ‘whooshing’ on the soundtrack during action sequences (I’m thinking of the chase after the cab) was annoying, and I think this might have been better as a 60-minute episode. Nevertheless, I don’t want to end on a negative note. The next two episodes take The Dancing Men and The Bruce-Partington Plans as their starting points, both of which are much better stories than A Study in Scarlet. I’m looking forward to seeing how the series progresses!
I’ve chosen to avoid talking about the updating of the character in this review as I’ll be writing a guest blog on the subject for the indispensable Sherlocking later this week. Please do let me know what you thought about A Study in Pink by leaving a comment below!