Old Sherlock

Some more SH films that I have watched recently.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were my first introduction to the characters of Holmes and Watson (I caught up with the books much later). Rathbone with his finely chiselled features and patrician manner was the perfect Holmes. About Bruce as Watson I’m not so sure, with his portrayal having about it something of the self-important buffoon, as if the actor was channelling Colonel Blimp. This adaptation of Doyle’s most famous work doesn’t set a foot wrong, deftly melding together suggestions of the supernatural and a horrific denouement. With its remote setting the film captures perfectly the unsettling atmosphere that Doyle aimed for, the idea of a landscape where the walls wear thin and a spectral hound is a genuine possibility, albeit ultimately science and the laws of cause and effect are confirmed, with Holmes unravelling the mystery at the heart of this convoluted story. With the subplot involving an escaped convict and the addition of a séance (not part of Doyle’s original text) this production does the material proud and is eminently watchable even now, over seventy five years after it was made.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

A second outing for Rathbone and Bruce (in all they starred in fourteen Sherlock Holmes films). This story is not based on a Doyle original but fashioned from new cloth. Holmes investigates a series of murders, only just realising in the nick of time that they are all a distraction provided by his arch nemesis Moriarty, who is plotting to pull off the crime of the century. Rathbone is as convincing as ever, and Bruce is just as annoying, with the atmosphere of Victorian London suitably bleak and shrouded in fog. From a plot perspective, the distraction crimes seem a little too abstract, while the main heist feels all a bit too obvious. Perhaps the best thing about this production is the appearance of Moriarty, played with a suitably urbane sense of menace by George Zucco, with some sparkling dialogue between him and Holmes in the opening scene. It’s also the first time that Holmes gets to speak the immortal catchphrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson”, though Watson gets the last word in a delicious end twist (mostly the Watson based humour is misjudged, but here it works splendidly, by way of showing that Holmes is prone to overthink matters). It was good fun overall.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000)

A Canadian television production of the classic Doyle story that I caught on the Horror Channel a while back and now can’t recall anything much to distinguish it. From memory it was faithful to the plot of the Doyle original, with an appropriately minatory end game on the borders of the Great Grimpen Mire and a savage version of the hound that put me in mind of the fearsome beast in Brotherhood of the Wolf (and the central plot conceit of that film owes much to Doyle, I believe). Matt Frewer takes on the role of Holmes and makes a passable fist of it, though to my mind he projects detachment a little too much to be totally convincing, or at least to be somebody the viewer can connect with. He always seems to be staring at something just out of camera shot. It’s not a great version of the classic tale, but passed muster as distraction activity for a wet Sunday afternoon. Yes, I am damning with faint praise. If you’re going to revisit the classics you need to bring something strikingly new to the table, and this didn’t.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Something new is exactly what this film offers. Ian McKellen plays Holmes as a ninety three year old man living at a farmhouse in Sussex where he cares for bees and fights memory loss. There are domestic tensions courtesy of his housekeeper and her young son, who idolises Holmes and in doing so drives a wedge between himself and his mother, who considers the detective to be a bad influence. In flashback we learn of two cases whose resolution left Holmes dissatisfied, one involving a young woman who was thought to be planning the murder of her husband and the other concerning a Japanese associate. Holmes drives himself to remember the details, but what he recalls only leads to unhappiness and self-doubt. At heart this is a character driven drama, one in which we learn that the great detective has feet of clay, but as a result are drawn to him all the more. McKellen’s Holmes is not a machine for solving mysteries, but human and fallible, and the fact that even he can fall prey to dementia connects the story with our own lives. It is, for the detective, a journey of self-discovery on which he learns to accept that even he can make mistakes and that sometimes emotions are more important than facts. It’s a lesson learned late in life but a sound one. McKellen’s performance is superb, showing the problems attendant on a genius mind trapped in a failing body, and then with even the mental faculties dimmed. He is human, and this endears him to us. And I want to watch this film again, as it has so much more to offer than the resolution of a mystery, far more than my synopsis suggests.

Okay, anyone else have any favourite Holmes and Watson films? Who do you feel performed best in the roles?

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