Sunday, December 21, 2003

REVIEW: The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes

* * ½ (out of four)

Seen 12 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I confess, I've never seen a Rathbone & Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. I grew up on the Jeremy Brett TV series, and read the books enthusiastically; I cherish my gigantic "Complete Sherlock Holmes" volume, with its Sidney Paget illustrations. From what I've heard of them, with Watson acting like a bumbling idiot and Holmes transplanted to the "present day" and fighting Nazis, I can't help but feel they'd strike me like the James Bond movies (entertaining on their own, but having little to do with the character from the books).

1935's Triumph came out four years before the first Rathbone/Bruce movie, and is part of another series, featuring Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Fleming (not the one who created James Bond) as Watson. It is based upon "The Valley Of Fear", although it does incorporate characters and dialogue from other stories. It's a mostly faithful translation, with Watson happily not being played as incompetent, though he does tend to function as comic relief. Lyn Harding is nicely reptillian as Moriarty.

Indeed, if not for Moriarty's presence, this might have been one of the most faithful translations of a Holmes story ever made. It's because of movies like this that the general public tends to overestimate his importance to the Canon. Moriarty only appears in one story ("The Final Problem") and is only directly referenced in one other ("The Adventure Of The Empty House"). The existence of someone like Moriarty is hinted at in "The Adventure Of The Red-Headed League" and one or two other stories leading up to "The Final Problem". Yet he appears in almost every Holmes film and many pastiches. Here, he serves only to make an already-complicated plot more convoluted.

That said, it is fun to see Harding reciting lines from "The Final Problem" when he makes his first visit to Holmes; it game me the impression that the screenwriter was a fan, forced to add Moriarty in by studio executives. Indeed, the rest of the movie is very faithful to the source material - perhaps too faithful. It matches the original work by cutting away from Holmes and Watson for an extended flashback in the middle, for backstory that's set in America (much like "A Study In Scarlet" - Conan Doyle wasn't afraid to re-use devices). This middle section is necessary, but not as interesting as the rest.

For the most part, though, the good outweighs the bad. The movie is somewhat stiff - as if the people involved were much more used to silents or the stage than talkies - but the story is good and Wontner plays a good Holmes, one who is basically annoying and does a lot of the forensic detection that made Holmes a character ahead of its time. I'd be interesting to see other movies in this series.

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