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Spotlight on: Jeremy Brett in The Master Blackmailer

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The Master Blackmailer DVD Cover Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in The Master Blackmailer

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 Master Blackmailer, in 1992, was the first feature 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.

There are no extras on The Master Blackmailer DVD, and 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, 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 film, however, has been digitally restored, and comes with a very informative booklet with fascinating tidbits about the film (some of which I have used in this review). The lack of extras 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.

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

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