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…