Saturday, December 26, 2009

"A Hundred Years of Sherlock Holmes On-Screen", part two: Rathbone, Bruce, and their shadow.

As I say down in the review for Voice of Terror, I'd never seen Rathbone as Holmes before, despite being a long-time fan of Holmes and film. I managed to miss this Summer's series at the HFA, as it overlapped quite a bit with Fantasia. But, I found a good deal on a collection of all the Rathbone/Bruce films, and the scheduling of the series on eFilmCritic encouraged me to slip a few more reviews in.

I am, as might be imagined, a bit conflicted over them - especially now, writing this introduction after I've finished the series. As I watched them, I found myself quite liking Basil Rathbone as Sherlock, as much as I despised Bruce as Watson. The change of settings to World War II didn't really bother me, although I suspect that you can't bring them much further forward; within decades, Holmes's fondness for undercover work and forensics would become the standard for criminal investigation, and he thus wouldn't be such a contrast to the police. But The Voice of Terror is a fine movie, although the series deteriorated a bit after that (and I didn't get to the later films, where Rathbone's lack of interest apparently becomes acute). Still, when I look back at the way Holmes is portrayed after watching later films, like Private Life and the Brett series, where Holmes becomes more than a set of mannerisms, the Rathbone portrayal suddenly seems rather thin.

Still, many of the Rathbone/Bruce movies are entertaining enough short features, and it's undeniable what sort of effect they had on the franchise: There wouldn't be another English-language Holmes feature for over a decade (the Hammer Hound), the television programs in the interval took their cues from the Rathbone/Bruce series, as would most versions of Holmes seen until Jeremy Brett made the role his own. But we'll take that up later...

(For one more review of films made between Rathbone and Brett, here's Alex Paquin's review of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

It kind of surprises me that this one was made by Fox, rather than Universal. We'll get into it in more detail down at the Hammer version, but just as Hound of the Baskervilles is a potentially great Hammer film, it seems like it would make a fine Universal Monsters film. Indeed, Fox seemed to be heading in that direction at times - Rathbone is billed second, after Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville, and his romantic interest is billed before Watson.

I must admit, knowing I wasn't going to review this one, I only half-watched it, just working my way through the first DVD of MPI's set. It's a passable enough version of Hound, not a great one. The controversial moment associated with it - Holmes's call for "the needle" at the end - is actually pretty strange, as it's a more or less complete non sequiter from what has come before. There's nothing in the movie to indicate what it refers to, and I imagine it must have puzzled moviegoers in the thirties who didn't know about Holmes's cocaine habit.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

Here's another one I sort of half-watched three weeks ago. In short, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't great, either. It's not terribly hard to see why the series lay fallow for three years before Universal revived it to set in then-contemporary times: It's got a mess of a plot, and even when it starts to get exciting toward the end, the actual events get confused and messy. It's not the sort of movie that compels the viewer to look for more.

It's also where Nigel Bruce's comic-relief Watson really started to drive me absolutely nuts. While Hound tends to really suffer if you make Watson a moron, this movie was designed around that performance, and really makes one wonder what the basis of Holmes's friendship with this guy is. In the good adaptations/pastiches, you can see Watson as a trusted companion and sounding board; here, it's as if Holmes keeps him around for the sole purpose of feeling superior. Seriously, can you imagine the Holmes from Doyle's stories or the post-Brett versions saying "Whatever Watson has found out, you'll know inevitably. I have unbounded confidence in his lack of discretion."? It's absurd.

(And why, after the following three, I proceeded directly to 1959 and Hammer rather than working my way through the entire set, even though the UCLA restorations and transfers look quite nice.)

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

Despite having been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since childhood and having never been afraid of movies made before I was born, I had never seen Basil Rathbone in the role until just a few days ago. The idea of Holmes fighting Nazi saboteurs during World War II seemed absurd; besides, much as others had a hard time imagining anyone other than Rathbone playing the part, I could imagine nobody but Jeremy Brett. Now that I'm a little more willing to accept them for what they are, I can acknowledge that Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is an entertaining adventure.

It's 1942, and England is under siege. "The Voice of Terror" regularly appears on the radio, giving orders to Nazi agents for devastating attacks that are carried out immediately. The Intelligence Inner Council - Sir Evan Barham (Reginald Denny), Alfred Lloyd (Henry Daniell), General Jerome Lawford (Montagu Love), Admiral John Prentiss (Olaf Hytten), and Captain Roland Shore (Leyland Hodgson) - find themselves stymied, and opt to call in Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone). Soon, a man with a knife in his back arrives at the door of Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce), gasping only the word "Christopher" before expiring. Holmes tracks him back to his wife Kitty (Evelyn Ankers), and they soon find one of the leaders of the Voice's London operations, a Mr. Meade (Thomas Gomez) - but Holmes is sure that he's not the ringleader.

Though Sherlock Holmes naturally seems most at home in the Victorian era where he was born, there is nothing about the character that must place him there specifically, and he proves to be a strong enough concept. Indeed, to a certain extent, placing the movie in then-modern times seems somewhat liberating for all involved. Rathbone gets to play Holmes as simply a brilliant detective, rather than worry about portraying a man of another time. The costumers put him in snappy suits and hats rather than the cloak-and-deerstalker getup that looks like a Halloween costume, no matter the time or actor; Rathbone's wild hair looks more fitting for an eccentric genius than the slicked-back look others would have him favor. And cinematographer Elwood "Woody" Bredell uses the excuse of a blacked-out London to shoot the movie with beautiful, noir-like shadows.

Full review at EFC.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

Sherlock Holmes stories, and mysteries in general, sometimes treat the audience unfairly, holding the really key bits of information back until the last minute, to be sprung on the audience without warning. Sherlock Holmes in Washington, on the other hand, arguably goes too far in the other direction: It more or less presents the solution to the case not much more then twenty minutes in, before Holmes and Watson have even left London, and then spends the next forty-five minutes or so stalling for time.

An English diplomat has been dispatched to Washington, but he is only a decoy for the real agent, Alfred Pettibone (Gerald Hamer), who has been charged with delivering a two-page document of great importance. The ruse is deduced, though, and Pettibone is kidnapped from the train between Washington and New York. The Home Office dispatches Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) to find him and the papers, which Holmes deduces must have been passed to one of the other passengers. Is it Senator Henry Babcock (Thurston Hall)? Pretty young Nancy Partridge (Marjorie Lord)? Or elderly Miss Pringle (Margaret Seddon)?

The scene on the train where Pettibone knows that he is being tracked down is clever and suspenseful; it invites the audience to watch the agent's every motion carefully. It's a tense little scene, and it kicks off a series of nifty little scenes that will recur throughout the movie, as the audience is tasked with tracking the hidden MacGuffin as it is passed around by people oblivious to its importance. There's something about those scenes that is, if not inventive, then at least a clever combination of tension and mischief, that certainly grabs the audience's attention.

Full review at EFC.

The Spider Woman

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted MPI DVD)

The Spider Woman is the sort of movie that seems as if it would be quite useful in filling out a double feature. Clocking in at just over an hour, it won't extend the total running time too late into the evening or too far in the other direction for matinees. It's got a brand name, so it will attract a bit of interest on its own. And there is very little chance that it will outshine the main feature.

It starts with a series of suspicious deaths in London being dubbed "the pyjama suicides" by the press - a half-dozen well-to-do young men have suddenly committed suicide in the middle of the night, which seems too clear a pattern to be mere coincidence. The people wonder where Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is when such a mystery is going on. It turns out that he's in Scotland, fishing with his friend Doctor Watson (Nigel Buce), ready to give up the detective business, as it seems to be bringing on a cerebral hemorrhage. That malady soon takes him, but he's no more actually dead than he was at Reichenbach; he's just setting up the opportunity to capture the murderess - a "female Moriarty" by the name of Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard) - without being expected.

The opening credits describe The Spider Woman as being based upon a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but don't specify which one. The main ingredient seems to be "The Devil's Foot", but there's also bits of "The Empty House", The Sign of Four, and perhaps even "The Speckled Band" in there. It's not a smooth mixture, though; the story feels like it jumps from one story to another: It's as if writer Bertram Millhauser wasn't really getting anywhere with Holmes faking his death, so then it was on to this other thing, but that didn't really make for an exciting last act, so shift the action over here.

Full review at EFC.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

It is, in retrospect, a little bit surprising that Sherlock Holmes was one and done with Hammer Films; though Holmes's foes were never supernatural (at least, in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories), he was no stranger to the macabre, and on a practical level, they could reuse many of the period costumes and sets constructed for their popular Dracula series. Audiences didn't go for this first Hammer Holmes, though, so no more were made. That's a shame, for although this was neither the greatest Sherlock Holmes adaptation or the best Hammer Horror movie, it was a fine combination of the two.

Legend has it that there is a curse on Baskerville Hall, stemming from 1740, when Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley) ran down a woman who would not give herself to him with his hunting hounds, only to fall down dead himself. A hundred fifty years later, his descendant Sir Charles Baskerville has died on the very same moors, and family friend Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) has asked Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) to prevail up on young heir Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) not to return to Baskerville Hall or step out onto the moors at night. There seem to be more concrete concerns, though - one of Henry's boots has been stolen, and a tarantula found in the other. Holmes prevails upon his friend Watson (Andre Morell) to accompany Sir Henry back to his ancestral home while he sees to some obligations in London, and upon arriving, Watson finds that not only is nearly everyone in the area a bit odd - there's the tippling bishop (Miles Malleson), the family's butler (John Le Mesurier), the local farmer with a deformed hand (Ewen Solon), and his beautiful Spanish daughter Cecile (Marla Landi). On top of that, an escaped prisoner is said to be hiding in the moor.

Hound of the Baskervilles is the most frequently adapted Sherlock Holmes story, and it's not hard to see why. Though its initial popularity was due in large part to the time when it was published (after "The Final Problem" but before "The Empty House", when it was no certain thing that Doyle would ever write another story featuring the great detective), Hound is one of the few that works equally well as a mystery and as a horror story. It's got subplots and red herrings enough to fill out a feature-length movie, but does not leave any loose ends or stray too far from the main story. And even though Sherlock Holmes is absent for a notable period in the middle of the story, it gives us both a chance to appreciate him all the more upon his return and to gain some respect for Dr. Watson, who all too often can be taken for granted.

Full review at EFC.

The Private LIfe of Sherlock Holmes

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2009 in Jay's Living Room (upcoverted DVD)

Paperback mysteries are not generally thought to be the most nourishing literature, but devouring them in junior high and high school taught me a few things. Aside from the vocabulary expansion 19th century books like the Holmes series offer, they were my first exposure to the device of the unreliable narrator. The most obvious example was in a certain Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie, but also in Arthur Conan Doyle's work. Within the stories, Holmes would occasionally mention that Watson's accounts were not necessarily wholly accurate, usually accusing him of sensationalism. It was seldom a factor in the story, but it did leave open the idea that we didn't fully know these characters - an idea which Billy Wilder uses to intriguing effect in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

It comes up almost immediately, as Holmes (Robert Stephens) complains to Watson (Colin Blakely) upon their return to Baker Street that he is not as tall or misogynistic as Watson has portrayed him, and then there's the ridiculous costume ("blame the illustrator!" says Watson). A pair of women will soon throw Holmes's life for a loop - prima ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who wishes his services not as a detective but as a man, and an initially-unknown woman (Genevieve Page) fished out the Thames with temporary amnesia and a card with their address. Sherlock soon deduces that she is Gabrielle Valladon, wife of an engineer who has disappeared. However, Sherlock is soon warned off the case by his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee), and Mycroft's words should carry some weight; after all, he not only represents the British government, occasionally he is the British government.

Billy Wilder (who produced, directed, and co-wrote with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) originally envisioned Private Life as something of an anthology film, with a number of shorter stories and an intermission in the middle of its three hour run time. The studio wound up cutting it down to a bit over two hours by removing episodes, and perhaps could have cut further by removing the story of Mme. Petrova, but it remains because it is an amusing bit and does a nice job of showing how Holmes is extremely tentative around women. I can't say whether this cutting improves the film from the hypothetical roadshow edition - it simply doesn't exist in its complete form - but even though Wilder was reportedly upset by the cuts, they do hit a good balance between the film being focused and simply being another Doyle pastiche ("The Adventure of the Loch Ness Monster", perhaps).

Full review at EFC.

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