As some of you may know, over the past few years I’ve been researching and writing my PhD in Film at the University of Warwick. One of the real benefits of this long and arduous process has been the opportunity to teach undergraduates, and to try to convey some of my enthusiasm for the subject.
I’m really excited about next week, when I’m assisting Michael Lightborne on his Adaptation course. He’s asked me to teach a two-week module on transmedia Sherlock Holmes. Planning this work has been very pleasant indeed: I’ve been trawling through all my DVDs, books and comics finding examples of Conan Doyle’s immense influence on culture.
Next week, I’m going to be showing my students Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon alongside Brett’s The Dancing Men, two very different riffs on the same source material. We’re also going to be running a workshop which will project three different reels of Sherlockian material, allowing the students to explore the space, making their own connections between different adaptations.
Putting together these reels has been tremendous fun. We’re using clips from the Rathbone films, the Brett series, the Wilmer and Cushing BBC episodes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Murder by Decree, Without a Clue and the recent Cumberbatch and Downey Jr. versions. We’ll also have a slideshow running displaying illustrations, advertising material and pages from comic books.
In the second week, I’m going to be lecturing on a more focused case study, comparing the approaches of the Cumberbatch and Downey Jr. Sherlocks, and asking what prompted their creative decisions.
I think it should be a stimulating couple of sessions and I can’t wait to see what the students make of it all! Needless to say, I shall report back on our findings here at Squeezegut Alley…
Some set photos have been appearing for Guy Ritchie’s sequel to Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I’d post them and get your opinions.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first film. The relationship between Downey Jnr and Law was nicely pitched and the script was very confident at translating Sherlock Holmes into an action movie franchise. Granted, there were some longeurs and, predictably, the action sequences were sometimes too enthusiastically brutish. Still, I thought it worked well as a comic spin on Conan Doyle. In many ways, it reminded me of Without a Clue.
I’m pleased to see that Holmes and Watson are getting out into the countryside this time. So far all we know is that this film introduces Stephen Fry as Mycroft and Jared Harris as Moriarty. There have also been rumours of location shoots in Austria – doubling for Reichenbach, perhaps?
Well, over to you. Are you looking forward to this next installment of the franchise, and what do you make of these photos?
There’s an interesting piece on the New York Times website about Harvey Pekar’s legacy (read here), which raises the question of his posthumous work. It seems there are a number of books to come, stories which Pekar had written and sent out to his illustrators. It’s especially upsetting to read of conflict between Joyce Brabner (Pekar’s wife) and artist Tara Seibel, which may scotch plans to release strips from The Pekar Project.
In order to alleviate any gloom brought on by reading the above, here’s a marvellous poster for the first (yes, there were two!) Sherlock vs. Jack the Ripper movie A Study in Terror (1965). I particularly like that “Elementary, my dear Watson” gets its own speech bubble after the onomatopoeic punch-up noises!
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…