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Craig's Movie Club
Movie Reviews

Spotlight on: Jeremy Brett in The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection

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The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection DVD Cover Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection

Each generation has its own Sherlock Holmes. With all due respect to William Gillette and Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett is my generation's, as well as my personal favorite (though I must admit the radio series from the 1950s starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, with Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty, runs a close second). With his beak nose and piercing blue eyes, brimming with barely-restrained mania, he is the closest to the troubled detective as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Brett personifies the character who, when not on a case, was so starved for mental stimulation that he had to inject it intravenously, and who denigrated his adventures as set down by his friend and companion, John H. Watson, M.D., as "[tinged] with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid." (Conversely, Brett the actor was quite the humanitarian and, upon learning of Holmes' popularity with children, sought permission to have the character overcome his cocaine addiction.)

Similarly, Edward Hardwicke is closer to the canonical Watson than the bumbling doctor played by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films and radio series. Hardwicke's eyes display a certain level of intelligence that not only makes him believable as a doctor, but also lets on that he is often both amused and frustrated by his brilliant friend's erratic behavior. This gives the audience its focus of identification as well as adding another layer to the relationship. The two have amazing chemistry onscreen, which belies the great difference in their personalities (as displayed in an interview with the two actors included in the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes DVD set).

The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection gathers the five feature-length installments of the Brett/Hardwicke series, giving the viewer an opportunity to see these two actors together over a more leisurely period of time. Some are better than others, of course, but all of them allow us to further get to know this Holmes and Watson, without being rushed by the necessity of getting the story told in an hour's time.

Understandably, the novels would be the ideal starting point for longer adaptations. Due likely to all the location shooting that would be required, and the fact that dramatizing the meeting of Holmes and Watson would be going back in time after three seasons (two of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and one of The Return of Sherlock Holmes) of programs, they chose to skip right over A Study in Scarlet and make the first feature adaptation the second novel in the series, The Sign of Four. (Also called The Sign of the Four in some circles, Granada has chosen to eliminate the repeated definite article.)

First telecast in 1987 to satisfy viewers waiting for season two of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of Four first concerns the disappearance, ten years prior, of the father of Miss Mary Morstan (the lovely Jenny Seagrove, who also appeared in the unrelated Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls). Her subsequent annual receipt of an exquisite pearl, accompanied by a note proclaiming her status as "a wronged woman," piques Holmes' interest and brings him into contact with the title marking.

As was often the case with the Sir Arthur's early novels (and in some of the stories especially), characters have a tendency toward longwindedness in the telling of their backstories. Despite this, Ronald Lacey is enthralling as the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto (and his twin brother Bartholomew -- a dual role in name only, since Bartholomew is silent throughout), a character reportedly based on Oscar Wilde. (The novel itself was apparently inspired by a dinner that Doyle had with Wilde and a magazine publisher, and that also resulted in The Picture of Dorian Gray. That must have been one damned satisfying meal.)

The question of Captain Morstan is solved early on, but the case gets immensely more complicated upon arrival at Norwood (Bartholomew's house). The connections between a treasure chest, a wooden-legged man, and a boat called Aurora result in the first appearances of both a dog named Toby and a ragtag bunch of street urchins called the Baker Street Irregulars, two resources at Holmes' disposal that were seldom used, but which are indelible in the minds of Holmes enthusiasts. (They show up more often in pastiches like The Seven Per-Cent Solution than in the actual canon.)

The small (he is only in the final half-hour) but pivotal (he dominates his time onscreen) role of Jonathan Small is played by none other than John Thaw, who would soon cement his place in the minds of British mystery fans as the irascible (and rather Holmesian, come to think of it) Inspector Morse.

This adaptation of Sign veers from the novel's storyline in one vital way. In the canon, Miss Morstan later becomes Mrs. Watson, but since the television series depend on the cohabitation of the two men, this was omitted, though traces of their mutual attraction remain, allowing Hardwicke to show his romantic side. The addition of an Andaman Island aborigine is a bit silly, but on the whole The Sign of Four is a phenomenal adaptation of what is probably Sir Arthur's most popular work, and stands among the best of the set.

If there is a story more popular than The Sign of Four, it would have to be The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the latter may in fact be the most read of the Holmes tales. Published after the "death" of Holmes and Moriarty on the Reichenbach Falls, but before Holmes' triumphant "resurrection", Watson labels it as a "reminiscence" that occurred years before.

In any case, it gets an exceptional treatment at the hands of the Granada crew (following the second season of Return -- these installments have never been in the "right" order as regards the canon stories, and it is generally best to think of them as separate entities). Always one of the more horrific stories, previous adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles have been distinctly lacking in menace; I'm thinking of the 1939 Rathbone/Bruce outing in particular, which seems disappointingly safe in comparison.

Assuming the reader is familiar with the narrative concerning the strange titular canine that haunts the moors surrounding Baskerville Hall (including its current tenant, Sir Henry Baskerville), and the adjacent and treacherous Grimpen Mire, I'll simply go on to mention that, like the later "Case of Lady Frances Carfax" from Casebook, the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles is one in which Holmes' participation is seemingly less than usual. As such, any filmed adaptation is a showcase for the actor playing Watson. Edward Hardwicke steps up to the challenge and performs admirably, bringing steadfastness to his already intelligent portrayal. Hardwicke only gets better as the series progresses, even showing fine ability in taking up the slack created by colleage Jeremy Brett's illness, especially during the episodes of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

For the first time in my recollection, the actor portraying Henry Baskerville actually makes a memorable impression. Kristoffer Tabori (who went on to become a director in television) offers up a sympathetic rendition of the lord of the manor that actually makes the viewer care about his safety (and his heart). When the Hound finally does appear, glowing in the twilight, it is quite a frightening sight, surprising the viewer in the midst of an already tense conversation.

Predictability aside, especially for those who have read and seen Hound in its various manifestations numerous times, director Brian Mills (from a script by T.R. Bowen) has done a terrific job in making this classic story entertaining to modern audiences. Both Hound and Sign are vital acquisitions for all fans of this series of Doyle adaptations. They streamline their respective novels' storylines down to the necessities, without having to stretch a plot out past its breaking point, a fault some of the later short-story features would be unable to shake.

There was quite a gap between the Casebook series and the final (and often sad to watch, due to Brett's declining health) Memoirs, during which time the final three features were broadcast. The Master Blackmailer, in 1992, was the first of these to be based on a short story instead of a novel. Screenwriter Jeremy Paul said that this did not pose a problem, even though it comes from one of the shortest stories in the canon, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton." All Paul had to do was expand upon ideas that Sir Arthur merely touched upon in the text. Read the story again, and you'll see what a splendid job of extrapolation he has done.

Featured in The Master Blackmailer is "the love that dare not speak its name" and a colonel whose engagement is broken when some incriminating letters make their way into the hands of his betrothed. Left with little option, he decides to "take the gentleman's way out." Colonel Dorking is played with subtlety by David Mallinson, who has made quite a career for himself in the British mystery field, having appeared in episodes of Poirot, Midsomer Murders, and Rosemary and Thyme, just to name a few.

Director Peter Hammond, who previously helmed The Sign of Four, is not content to remain in the background, and he once again makes his presence known with confident directorial flourishes. In one Blackmailer scene, a shadow on the wall appears to reach directly into a fireplace to retrieve a burning letter. In another, he shows Holmes staring at a drawing of what must be the Reichenbach Falls (reminding us that this story comes from The Return of Sherlock Holmes and that this event would have been fresh on his mind). Also, the title character's face is hidden or shaded for all of his early appearances. When Hammond does finally allow us to see him, I wished he hadn't; Robert Hardy exudes an uncomfortable creepiness in his "insincere smile" that would shock those who know him primarily as Fudge in the Harry Potter films.

The true joy for Holmes fans comes from watching the great detective at his most tender and sensitive, in disguise as a plumber who a young housemaid falls for (the unfortunate girl is played by Sophie Thompson of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Emma). It is the closest to romance we are ever likely to see from this character, and a truly inspired choice of expansion from Paul, based on only a few lines in the text.

A shocking revenge finale assists Holmes and Watson in their meting of justice, but almost gets them in hot water. Though it was straight from the story, I didn't foresee this development. Paul and Hammond together offer a marvelous retelling of one of the drier tales.

If only the remaining two features had benefited from their combined presence, instead of just one each (Paul wrote The Last Vampyre while Hammond directed The Eligible Bachelor). These final two discs in The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection were broadcast in early 1993, with just one week separating them. Whether this was a way of quickly getting them out, and out of the way, is unknown, but they are the weakest of the quintet by a considerable measure. Only Brett's performances, which had gotten increasingly moodier by this time due to his illness, remains as a reason to recommend them.

The Last Vampyre is based on the story "The Adventures of the Sussex Vampire," which is probably most famous for its mention of the untold adventure of the giant rat of Sumatra ("a tale for which the world is not yet prepared"). Unfortunately for the filmmakers, modern Sussex was a little _too_ modern for their periodic needs, so Glastonbury, though very recognizable, was substituted along with a plea from the production designer to change the title of the production.

Adapting short stories to feature length poses problems, the greatest of which is that there is generally not enough story to go around, and additions need to be made. Screenwriters like Jeremy Paul, however, are generally devoted enough to the project to take what they need to make it work from other Conan Doyle stories. In this case, Paul even deviated from the canon to tap the non-Holmesian "The Parasite." He also is confident enough in his ability to stay true to the essence of the series that he did not hesitate to create an entirely new character who may or may not be an actual bloodsucker (unlike the vampire in "Sussex," which was explained away by the skeptical Sir Arthur), but who definitely exerts a sort of emotional drain on Holmes.

Sadly, none of this really matters a whit as Vampyre is overlong and, the worst insult imaginable for this production, boring. Roy Marsden, the actor playing Stockton (the vampire in question) does not even seem sure of his own identity, merely giving the occasional threatening look from a distance every so often. I quickly lost interest.

The Eligible Bachelor is loosely adapted from "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor." Here, Holmes is tormented by a recurring nightmare involving waterfalls, a quagmire, and cobwebs. Looks like the work is finally getting to him, and he shows some signs of ennui, even going so far as to express that he missed the challenges that Professor Moriarty, "the Napoleon of crime," offered Holmes in his day. There has simply been no one else since that has truly tested his faculties. Sadly, based on this film, his problem is unlikely to get better.

The weak case (as expanded by Hound scripter Bowen) that Holmes is offered concerns a young rich American girl (played by the charming Paris Jefferson) who sets out to marry an English lord whose family home is mortgaged to the hilt. She disappears soon after the wedding and, to make things more complicated, was last seen in the company of the lord's mistress. It's all a bit overwrought, and secrets abound, showing that it all could have been prevented had their relationship involved open communication.

Extras on The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection DVD set are limited to drawings that accompanied the original printings of the source stories in various magazines, notably The Strand. They are included as slideshows on their respective discs: Sidney Paget's work appears with Hound, Richard Gutschmidt's with Sign, and Howard Elcock's with Vampyre.

Sadly, once again MPI's subtitles are consistently the worst I've ever encountered -- so bad, they border on the ridiculous. Someone deaf or hard-of-hearing would have little or no chance at actually understanding what was being said by the characters. Not only is the dialogue constantly mislabeled, often completely changing its meaning (for example, "live wretchedly" is subtitled as "live richly"), but far too many easily discernible lines are marked "(unintelligible)." That marking should be a last resort in any case, but here it appears to have become a crutch for a lazy transcriber.

The films, however, have been digitally restored, and the set comes with a very informative booklet with ten pages of fascinating tidbits about the five films (some of which I have used in this review). The lack of extras (in comparison to the Casebook and Memoirs sets) and viable subtitles is disappointing, but those primarily interested in a bright clean picture and terrific sound will find that MPI has indeed delivered the goods yet again on that point. My recommendation for the average viewer would be to purchase his or her individual favorites, while enthusiasts will undoubtedly be unsatisfied with anything less than the full set.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.


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