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Batman and Robin (1949)
I've sat through this serial a number of times, trying to understand its appeal, even among hardcore serial fans. It's just very poorly done. Robin seems to be on tranquilizers, and looks more like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than the Boy Wonder. Wayne Manor is a middle class home and the Batmobile is a Mercury. It's not even black. All of which could be forgiven were the writing remotely coherent. But alas.
Take Professor Hamill...a scientist and "wheelchair invalid" (with a nicer house than Bruce Wayne) who frequently, albeit temporarily, regains the use of his legs through the use of a hidden "electric chair" device. We see this process time and again, and Hamill is clearly keeping both the device, and whatever the hell her does whilst mobile, completely secret, even from his servant, Carter. He maintains at all times the illusion of being permanently disabled, for whatever reasons, and would, I guess, prefer to dance the cha-cha by himself (or whatever one secretly does with their legs) than benefit mankind, win a Nobel prize, and make an inestimable fortune with his incredible machine.
All of which is incredibly goofy, but nothing compared to the fact that Hamill spends the penultimate chapter openly walking around...in full view of not only Carter, but also Commissioner Gordon, Batman, and Robin. And not one of them notices that he isn't in a wheelchair. Nor, in the final chapter, when he returns to his wheelchair, is it ever remarked upon that, hey, that guy can sometimes walk.
Not only does Batman - the world's greatest detective! - fail to notice a wheelchair-bound man, walking...he and Robin also spend a lot of time out of costume, basically doing the same routine as when they're in costume. Including consulting with Commissioner Gordon as Bruce and Dick, in a manner indistinguishable from their consultations as Batman and Robin, except that they spend a lot of time saying things like "Batman asked us to give you this, " rather than just wearing the damn costumes. Considering the fact that Batman also drives Bruce Wayne's car, the guy seems pretty cavalier about the whole secret identity thing.
Sure, the action is poorly staged and the acting variously hammy/anemic, but I cannot overstress the degree to which virtually nothing about the plot or character actions makes a lick of sense. In one early scene, the fact that diamonds are stolen, and that diamonds power the "remote control machine" that is the villainous Wizard's primary weapon (see, don't I sound like I'm having a stroke at this point?), is taken as instant and conclusive proof that the robbery was committed by the Wizard's gang, for the sake of powering the machine in question. It never even occurs to Batman - or indeed, to anyone - that diamonds might be stolen for any other purpose.
But most of all, above and beyond all else, never let it be forgotten...BATMAN DIDN'T NOTICE A DISABLED MAN WALKING.
Take Jeffrey Dahmer, make him heterosexual instead of homosexual, and you've got this episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. When it was revealed that the killer drilled into his victims' skulls and performed makeshift lobotomies in an attempt to create a "zombified" girlfriend who wouldn't leave him, I said to myself, "Ah...they borrowed that from Jeffrey Dahmer." Then we find the killer working in a chocolate factory...which they borrowed from Dahmer. He's a shy little nerd of a guy who wears rather unflattering glasses...kind of like Dahmer. The story follows the Dahmer line so thoroughly that when Carver's phone rang at the end, I knew before he even picked it up what he was going to tell Goren afterward.
While bolstered by some great performances, this is far too blatant a knock-off of a well-worn true story, which makes it painfully predictable, for the most part. Had this appeared as an episode of the original L&O, back in the '90s, it might have had more impact. For a program made ten years after the death of Jeffrey Dahmer, however, it seems quite stale.
A Christmas Delight
No Christmas season would be complete without watching this marvelous adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Blue Carbuncle.
This is such a wonderful episode that descriptions tend to fail me. Everything and everyone is at peak form here. Jeremy Brett's performance as Holmes is absolutely delightful (even by Brett standards), as is Burke's Watson, and their interplay in this episode is among the very best in the series.
There is a great deal of humor to be found here, including some genuine laugh-out-loud moments...and, of course, a nice little mystery at the heart of it. The production design, as always, is excellent, and the direction top-notch. There is a very authentic feeling of Christmas here, and it really shines through. And it's nice to see that even the dour Sherlock Holmes has a bit of the Christmas spirit in him...in his own way.
A wonderful episode, from start to finish. I can't praise it enough. I could say more, I could be more specific, but I don't want to ruin the fun for any first-time viewers. See it for yourself and it will quickly become a Christmas tradition, as it has for me.
A Scandal in Bohemia has its share of "firsts." It was the first short story to feature Sherlock Holmes (after Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the character in his novel, A Study in Scarlet), it was the first episode of the excellent Granada series, and as such, it was the first time the viewing audience had the pleasure of seeing Jeremy Brett in the role of Holmes. It was also the first Granada episode I ever watched.
I went into the Granada series not knowing what to expect. I'd heard many great things said about it, and particularly about Brett, but I had no real expectations. So I decided to give it a go, and to begin at the beginning. Within a few minutes of starting A Scandal in Bohemia, I leapt out of my seat and ran to grab my favorite collection of Sherlock Holmes tales. The reason being that, although I hadn't read A Scandal in Bohemia in some time, I found that it was all coming back to me as I watched the episode. I was literally shocked by how faithful it was, and had to check the story just to be sure that it really was staying as true to the source material as it seemed to be. And indeed, it was.
Throughout the course of the various Granada Holmes series, they would consistently remain true to the source material...or, in the instances where they strayed (mostly in the feature- length adventures), at least remain true to the SPIRIT. This was quite refreshing to me, as someone who loved the stories, and had seen countless adaptations that had strayed so far from what made them great. A Scandal in Bohemia was, to that time, the most faithful Holmes adaptation I had ever seen...and, along with many of the other wonderful Granada episodes, it's still among the most faithful.
Jeremy Brett, as Holmes, is superb from the word "Go." His magnificent performance in this episode engaged me instantly, and prepared me for the 40 adventures to follow...during which time, I would come to embrace his Holmes as THE definitive screen characterization of the world's greatest detective. Brett is the character of Sherlock Holmes come to life. Everything that he was in the stories, and everything that he often WASN'T in other adaptations, Jeremy Brett had it...and his presence alone made each and every episode a delight to watch.
David Burke also bears mentioning here, as a fantastic Watson to Brett's Holmes. Not at all in the Nigel Bruce mold, a characterization which has dogged many other adaptations throughout the years, Burke brings a charm and quiet intelligence to the role that complements Holmes's eccentric brilliance perfectly and, as with anything else in this episode, stays true to the essence of Conan Doyle's original story. Burke would serve as a faithful and amiable Watson throughout the run of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, before being replaced by the equally capable and likable Edward Hardwicke.
As an initiation into the Granada Holmes entries, A Scandal in Bohemia served its purpose admirably. I was struck by how faithful it was, how capable the direction and production design were, and how wonderful the performances were. It was as if someone had breathed life into Conan Doyle's story and raised it from the page for all to see. Suffice it to say, I was mightily impressed, and have been a devotee of the Granada Holmes series, and Jeremy Brett, ever since.
Victor Frankenstein (1977)
Not bad if you can see it cheap
One of the more faithful adaptations (though that doesn't say much) of Mary Shelley's novel, this film is worth a look if you can see it without spending much money...particularly if you're a fan of the book, as I am. It does, unfortunately, leave out some key points of the novel, but not as many as most adaptations.
Cinematically, the film is rather drab. Too many sustained static shots and a rather sparse score bog the film down a bit, and the acting is too uneven. Some performances are great, while others are mediocre, and a few are simply bad.
Overall, the film feels a bit uneven and minimalistic, but it doesn't stray into some of the ridiculous areas that many Frankenstein films do. If only the direction were a bit more lively and the running time a bit longer (in order to include more of the important notes from the novel), it could have been a great film.
One considerable step down from Kenneth Branaugh's 1994 adaptation.
The Sign of Four (1983)
Above average Holmes adaptation
This is not at all a bad adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel. Ian Richardson makes a fine (if too affable) Holmes, and David Healy (though portly enough to be Mycroft Holmes) is one of the screen's better Watsons. It's quite entertaining...and when I first saw it, I considered it the best Sign of Four adaptation ever made. In later years, however, I would discover the Granada productions...and their adaptation of Sign of Four, which far overrides this one in terms of faithfulness, style, pacing, direction, acting, and suspense.
There are a few problems with this adaptation which could have easily been rectified. First off, the plot structure is changed so drastically from that of the novel. Not necessarily a problem, in itself. But in this case, too much is revealed to us too early on, leaving little room for suspense, and making Holmes's deductions seem fairly anti-climactic. Rather than learning of the particulars of various events through Holmes's brilliant deductions, we actually SEE the events first, then watch Holmes work them out via deductive reasoning. The other major disadvantage to this structure is that the introduction (a representation of events that Conan Doyle didn't reveal to us until the final act!) is quite labored and unnecessarily delays the introduction of Holmes and Watson. By the time Holmes begins to seriously investigate the matter of the one-legged man and his strange ally, we are nearly halfway through the film. We already know far more than we should, and many of the events which follow are altered due to the shifting of later themes to an earlier point in the film, giving a very uneven feel to the overall piece. The first two acts are far too leisurely, and the final act plays out at breakneck speed.
Beyond that, some of the characters have been changed beyond all recognition. Again, this is a needless change, and does nothing to enhance the story. In fact, in some cases, notably the alteration of Thaddeus Sholto, the changes detract from the effectiveness of various scenes. Conan Doyle's Sholto was an extremely nervous little man...seemingly on the verge of a minor nervous breakdown at all times. This greatly enhanced the suspense of the story...as being in his presence made us, as readers, a bit jittery, as well. So, naturally, presenting him as a dashing young man with a fine gift for articulation deadens the impact of the scenes in which he appears.
I know I'm focusing on the negative here, but I find it difficult not to compare this film with the Granada production which usurped it three years later. That adaptation was practically perfect in every way...fantastic performances all around (including a spot-on Thaddeus Sholto, courtesy of Ron Lacey), extremely faithful to the source material...easily one of the best Holmes adaptations ever committed to film. Still, this version has a lot to offer, and is quite fun in its own way. Though I would have liked to have seen Holmes indulge in a few mood swings (and perhaps brandish his cocaine needle, just for the sake of accuracy), Richardson is one of the better Sherlocks. And Healy is no slouch as Watson, even if he doesn't match David Burke or Edward Hardwicke.
The truth is, I was duly impressed with this film the first time around, and I still quite enjoy watching it from time to time. View this and the Granada version back-to-back and debate the pros and cons for yourself.
One of the better adaptations
Prior to the 1988 adaptation from Granada Television, I would say that this was the best adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It stays close to the source for the most part...but most of the changes it makes are needless ones, which is somewhat puzzling. Why omit Arthur Frankland? Why introduce Lyons, when he clearly has little function in the story? Some of the changes do actually work, however...including the bit with the gypsy. And in total, this Hound is entertaining and certainly has its moments.
Ian Richardson is a fine Holmes, even if he seems a bit too good-natured. Perhaps this was a throwback to the old Basil Rathbone Holmes persona...and it works in this context. Richardson is hardly the moody Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle...but definitely fun to watch. Unfortunately, Donald Churchill is not one of the great screen Watsons. He is a definite step down from his immediate predecessor, David Healy, who portrayed the good Doctor opposite Richardson in The Sign of Four. As the films were produced in the same year, by the same producer, one must wonder why Healy did not reprise the role for Hound. Instead, we are presented with a rather too blustery Watson, almost reminiscent of Nigel Bruce, though not nearly as appealing. Churchill looks the part, but not much else.
Ron Lacey is a treat to watch, as always...this time, playing it straighter than usual in his role as Inspector Lestrade, whose participation is greatly enhanced in this adaptation, for he appeared in the novel merely as a minor supporting character, showing up toward the end. Here, he is on the scene quite early, though behaving in an uncharacteristically antagonistic fashion. Ron Lacey would, of course, show up in another Holmes adventure before too long...appearing as both Thaddeus and Bartholomew Sholto in the 1986 Granada adaptation of The Sign of Four.
All things considered, this is a good adaptation. It is simply not the best. That honor goes to Granada's production. Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes was the very essence of the literary character and very little of the novel was changed for the sake of that particular adaptation. This production runs a distant second...though prior to Granada's Hound, this one was easily the best of the bunch. It may, in fact, simply be a matter of individual taste. Neither film can be considered bad, by any stretch of the imagination. The preference, I suppose, depends solely on what one may be looking for in a Hound adaptation. I suggest seeing both this and the 1988 Granada production, and making up your own mind.
Dressed to Kill (1946)
The final entry in the Universal Holmes series
This film has sentimental value for me. It was the first entry of the Universal Holmes series I ever saw. One might say I started at the end and worked my way backwards. Indeed, this was the first Sherlock Holmes film I ever saw. More than that, it was my introduction to the character of Holmes. This was the film that prompted my lifelong admiration for the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Holmes character, and his various on screen incarnations. And it was also the first videotape I ever owned.
It is also, all sentimentality aside, one of the better films in this series. Never quite reaching the heights of The Scarlet Claw or The Woman In Green, Dressed to Kill does manage to present Holmes with an intricate problem which allows him to display his reasoning powers and thwart the villains. In dealing with the main plot device of a secret code, it is similar in many ways to Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. But the lack of WWII subterfuge, Nazi agents, and flag-waving back-slapping propaganda sets it apart as a superior installment. In a way, it's a demonstration of how the previous film could have been better (much as Terror by Night was a demonstration of how Pursuit to Algiers should have been handled).
My only qualm is that, much like The Secret Weapon, Holmes stumbles upon the final means of unraveling the code when Watson makes an offhand remark. Indeed, the two scenes are strikingly similar, and one must wonder if this is coincidence. However, the rest of the film is so well-crafted that one can overlook this minor annoyance and enjoy this final entry for what it's worth.
As usual, cast and crew do an admirable job and manage to overcome their meager budget and time constraints. One might very well wonder what could have been if Universal had taken the Holmes franchise more seriously and upgraded the films to A-picture status. Roy William Neill and company worked wonders with what they were given. Imagine what they could have done with proper funding and more realistic shooting schedules. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Universal's Holmes was forever locked into the B-picture slot. Even when Universal announced that it was upgrading the series, it proved to be all talk. A pity, but the filmmakers managed to overcome this stumbling block time and again, producing a fairly consistent run of entertaining pictures, which are still enjoyed today, 60 years after the series' end.
Dressed to Kill was a fine end to the series, I think. Rathbone had already decided not to do another picture, despite the fact that Universal held the rights until 1949. Like Conan Doyle, he suffered from overexposure to the character (having played Holmes in 14 feature films, and in over 200 half-hour radio performances) and felt that, in Conan Doyle's words, Holmes "kept his mind from better things." It's great that the series was able to maintain the momentum that it did in its four-year run, and that at least eight of the dozen films managed to achieve some level of greatness. After a shaky start, the Universal series proved itself worthy of the Sherlock Holmes name with a string of wonderfully entertaining films. And I think it's only fitting that a series which started on a rather sour note managed to end on a reasonably high one.
Terror by Night (1946)
How to build a better mousetrap
Terror By Night takes most of the intriguing elements of the previous Holmes film (Pursuit to Algiers), leaves out the extraneous bits which hampered that particular film, cranks up the suspense, and roars out of the station on the rails of a complex and entertaining mystery.
The film follows Holmes and his friend/chronicler Watson on a train voyage, where Holmes has been commissioned to guard a precious stone. When the gem is inevitably stolen, with murder to accompany the theft, Holmes and Watson are thrust into yet another profound whodunit. With a gallery of suspects to choose from, Holmes must find the thief/murderer before the train reaches its final destination...at great risk to his own personal safety, naturally.
This film is far more effective than its predecessor on virtually every level. The suspense is palpable and sustained, the pacing quick and uninterrupted (thankfully, no musical numbers to detract from the overall ambiance). The cinematography is dark and moody, evoking film noir and the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock. The lead performances are, as always, great...Rathbone and Bruce play it up wonderfully here, though Bruce's Watson does seem to go out of his way to make a fool of himself. Dennis Hoey also puts in the last of his six performances as Inspector Lestrade here, and contributes his usual warm, if perpetually inept (the character, not the actor), presence.
Overall, I'd rate Terror By Night as one of the top five films in the Universal Holmes series. A vast improvement over Pursuit to Algiers, with a similar plot, but far better execution. If you haven't time to watch both, give Pursuit a miss and stick with Terror.
Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
Lesser entry in the latter Holmes Universal run
While it has its strong points, Pursuit to Algiers is a low point in the latter days of the Universal Holmes series. Though superior to the first three films, I'd only give this 5½ stars on a scale of 1-10. In many ways, it is, as some critics have called it "Sherlock Holmes meets Love Boat." An intriguing premise is largely overshadowed by numerous musical numbers, and a rather too drawn-out ocean voyage that never seems to generate the suspense it seeks.
Nigel Bruce has a fine moment as Watson in this installment, however...perhaps his finest in the series...a touching, if brief, glimpse into the good doctor's depth of feeling for his renowned friend. Still, a similar moment can be found in The Spider Woman...which, in all other regards, is a better film than Pursuit to Algiers. So take that for what it's worth. Still, it is a high point in the film, and deserves mention.
Overall, the film is similar in many respects to the entry which immediately follows it...Terror By Night. Terror By Night is, however, a much more satisfying installment, and could even be viewed as a superior alternative to Pursuit to Algiers. For completists, this entry is, of course, compulsory viewing. But for those who are simply looking for an entertaining Holmes mystery, I'd suggest The Scarlet Claw, The Woman In Green, The Spider Woman, The House of Fear, or The Pearl of Death as a better choice. Or, for a similar story to that presented in Pursuit to Algiers...a voyage, a missing gem, several suspects wrapped up in a traditional whodunit...I'd suggest Terror By Night.
This is, by no means, a bad film...it just fails to live up to the standard set by many of the films that came before it (and carried on by the two which followed it). It is head and shoulders above the first three Nazi-busting spy films in the series, which seem nonsensical in the context of Sherlock Holmes cinema, but is perhaps the least of the latter films.
The Woman in Green (1945)
One of the best...
This was one of the first Universal Holmes films I ever saw. I believe I was ten at the time, and the film kept my attention fixed on the screen from start to finish. Fifteen years later, it still has much the same effect.
Without doubt the most gruesome entry in the series, The Woman In Green presents us with a shocking series of murders. The bodies of young women are being found all over London, their right forefingers inexplicably severed and absent...as if the killer (who is compared more than once with Jack the Ripper, invoking Holmes's Victorian roots) is taking them with him as morbid trophies of his senseless crimes. When Sherlock Holmes is called in to assist Scotland Yard, however, he soon finds method in the madness...and the ultimate criminal mastermind pulling the strings.
The story is an original, but pulls key moments from The Final Problem and The Empty House in order to punctuate the action...and very effectively. Rich in atmosphere, with magnificent performances all around, I would actually rate this film at 7½ stars...placing it just below the best entry, The Scarlet Claw. Rathbone's Holmes is in top form, Bruce's Watson manages to be sensible at least half the time, and Henry Daniell's Moriarty (cited by Rathbone as his favorite of the three Professors who played opposite him) is a sinister delight to watch...cold, calculating, and emotionally anemic, he is the perfect counterpoint to Rathbone's Holmes.
On the technical side, the film is on a par with most of the series...very capably made, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. Roy William Neill and company showed amazing skill and tenacity in producing as many Holmes films as they did, in such a short span of time, with extremely limited resources...and this is one of their finest efforts.
The House of Fear (1945)
Excellent example of how to make updated Holmes work
By this time, Roy William Neill and the other creative forces behind the Sherlock Holmes series at Universal had learned how to make an updated version of Holmes work...by pushing the updated elements into the background and letting the character of Holmes take center stage. The House of Fear is a fine example of this philosophy, featuring Holmes in a story that would play just as well in Victorian Britain as in the WWII era.
Indeed, the film is based (albeit very loosely) on Conan Doyle's Holmes story The Five Orange Pips. Only the main device is borrowed for the film...the foretelling of violent death by the mysterious delivery of orange pips (that's "seeds" for all us Yanks)...but the main thrust of the otherwise entirely original script is quite Holmesian, in itself, and gives the character of Sherlock Holmes plenty of room to utilize his singular gift for deductive reasoning.
This cinematic reworking of Conan Doyle's tale has Holmes at the home of the Good Comrades Club, a suitable location for the mystery which unfolds. The members of said club are frightened out of their minds (hence, the "House of Fear") as, one by one, they receive the ominous warning of the orange pips, then soon after, die horrible deaths...their corpses, mangled beyond all recognition, then to be discovered by the surviving members of the club. No one knows who will be next, and it seems very likely that the killer is, in fact, one of the club's own members. Sherlock Holmes must solve the mystery, hopefully before the club's roster dwindles any further.
There are ample twists and turns along the way...and also, this being a traditional whodunit, red herrings galore. The cinematography and direction are on a par with the best of the series' films, and the performances are of the usual admirable quality (especially given the brief shooting schedules and appallingly low budgets afforded the filmmakers). The atmosphere, I'd say, is most comparable to that of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death...but is slightly more effective here. As always, Sherlockian purists may be offended by Nigel Bruce's bumbling portrayal of Watson. But these are the little things we allow to slide in order to enjoy this film for what it is...a fun and entertaining mystery which, even if it defies some of the principles of the Holmes canon, at least follows in the tradition of the original Holmes character. A definite improvement over the first three films.
Overall, one of the top entries in this series...which started out with little promise, and went on to deliver great things. 1944 was the best year for the series, but 1945 delivered the goods more than once...this being the first example. Definitely recommended for series fans, or anyone with an appreciation of Sherlock Holmes or classic whodunits.
The Pearl of Death (1944)
Another good Holmes entry from Universal
The Universal Holmes series was on a roll at this point, having just released what is probably the best film in the series, The Scarlet Claw, earlier the same year. This one is a bit of a step down, but on a par with earlier films like Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and The Spider Woman...and on a much higher level than the first three flag-waving WWII propaganda films.
This entry is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story, The Six Napoleons. And while numerous changes were made, it actually follows the original story more closely than any of the other Universal pictures did. Most of the films were either very loose adaptations, amalgams of several different Holmes stories, or original scripts that were merely inspired by the Conan Doyle canon. This one, however, follows the general outline of the original story, while adding various subplots along the way. Overall, it works, even if it does seem to veer off-track at a few points.
These films were produced at breakneck speed (it was not uncommon for three Holmes films to be released in a single year) with fairly low budgets, but Roy William Neill knew how to achieve great results with his limited resources. As with its immediate predecessors, the camera-work in The Pearl of Death is strong and evocative, the direction is confident and effective, and the performances are, at least for the most part, fine to excellent. Rathbone's Holmes is once again in his proper element here, and Rathbone makes the most of the character.
The Pearl of Death is just a step below The Scarlet Claw, in my estimation...which still makes this outing quite enjoyable. Anyone who liked The Spider Woman, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, or The House of Fear will definitely appreciate this one. Out of the dozen Holmes films that Universal churned out between 1942 and 1946, this is one of the eight that I would say deserve to be called "great."
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
First glimpse at a new Holmes...or the resurgence of the old one
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is the first film in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series (1942 -1946) to abandon the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a prototypical 007 spy-hunter, battling Nazi agents and keeping Britain safe from the Axis powers. The bizarre experiment which began, apparently without a shred of irony, with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was brutally maimed when Sherlock Holmes in Washington flopped. And so, the direction of the series changed (for the better) with the fourth outing, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death...to the point that it can almost be viewed as the starting point of a completely new Holmes series.
Here, the allusions to WWII are vague, at best. Gone are the overt references to the Nazis and the intrusive patriotic speeches...which merely impeded upon the proceedings in the previous films. Holmes is in his element here, solving a dense mystery by using deductive reasoning. The film is still modern, making use of such devices as automobiles, telephones, and electric lights. But this is all incidental. If we overlook the updating of the surface elements, the story itself is rather timeless. Telephones and automobiles were present in Conan Doyle's later Holmes stories, anyway...and the Gothic tone of this film (and several of those which followed) gives it an almost Victorian or Edwardian feel, despite being obviously set in the mid-20th Century. And most importantly, Holmes is back to the business he should never have abandoned.
Loosely based on The Musgrave Ritual, the film is entertaining and certainly of higher technical quality than its predecessors, despite the fact that the series was forever doomed to the ranks of the low budget B-picture. The camera work is evocative, with fluid motions and intriguing angles...which would become a staple of the Holmes series...and the direction is excellent, with Roy William Neill (who also began his role as Associate Producer with this film) really coming into his own as the driving force behind the franchise. Rathbone's Holmes (whose hair has, thankfully, undergone quite a transformation) is in better form here than in previous entries...detached and focused, he relies on reasoning, rather than chance, in order to solve the mystery that's presented to him. Nigel Bruce, as Watson, turns in his usual bumbling-yet-lovable performance. Dennis Hoey once again manages to out-bumble Watson as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard...a canonical character who made his first Universal appearance in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, and would go on to appear in a total of six of the twelve films.
Overall, not the best film in the series, but a step in the right direction. Once the filmmakers got their proper footing, in regard to the series' new and improved direction, they produced much better work...peaking, many (myself included) would attest, in 1944 with The Scarlet Claw. Other subsequent Holmes titles, such as The Spider Woman and Terror By Night, also outshine, in my estimation, this fourth Universal venture. But this film marked the great change that heralded all the treasures to come...and as such, has amassed much favor among fans and critics alike. And rightly so.
The last gasp of Sherlock Holmes, Nazi-Buster
In this, the third entry in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, Holmes is once again doing battle against Nazi agents...thankfully, for the last time. The film itself, despite the tired device of forcing Sherlock Holmes into a WWII espionage plot (the "Square Peg in a Round Hole" syndrome), has its moments. Superior to the first entry in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, it's more on a par with the second, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. Again, the direction of Roy William Neill is an asset, and he's more sure-handed this time. Still, the film is hampered by the same patriotic claptrap and tedious spy-chasing that permeated the first two films, and which, after this one performed miserably at the box office, was quickly dropped.
The very idea of Sherlock Holmes traveling to Washington D.C. to recover microfilm before it falls into the clutches of Nazi spies is enough to illicit more than a few giggles. In the most direct and honest terms, the entire plot is completely ridiculous. Perhaps not for a standard espionage pot- boiler...but as Sherlockian fare, it's utterly ludicrous. Once again, Holmes's deductive powers are put on the back burner for this one, showing up only occasionally...seemingly to justify this character being called Sherlock Holmes. There are a few shining moments, but not enough to save the film from its overall premise. There is entertainment value here, if one can get past the disregard of the true Holmes persona and the laughable situation he's been placed in by the writers. Again, we are reminded (via a disclaimer tag at the film's outset) that the Holmes character is timeless and unchanging. And yet, once again, we see a Sherlock Holmes who is greatly changed, shoved into a very timely story (the Nazis pretty much date these early films) in which he has no rightful place.
The next film in the series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (loosely based upon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tale, The Musgrave Ritual), was the start of a new trend in the Universal Holmes films...placing the detective and his faithful companion/biographer, Dr. Watson, in the middle of a seemingly incomprehensible mystery, with very little allusion to WWII (certainly no enemy agents), and a setting which, even if it is modernized, is at least somewhat reminiscent of what made the character of Holmes such an enduring icon in the first place. This initial trilogy in the Universal series should be viewed mainly as a curio...the best of the series is yet to come.
Amazing that the series continued...but fortunate
This is certainly among the worst efforts put forth by Universal in their "updated" Sherlock Holmes series. Oddly enough, it was also the first. What amazes me is that, following this debacle, the series continued to include 11 more films. It's quite fortunate that it did, however, since I'd venture to say that all of the subsequent entries were superior to this initial outing.
Here, we see for the first time...Sherlock Holmes, Nazi Basher! It's a strange occupation for "the world's foremost consulting detective." Here, Holmes acts more in the manner of a government agent...a proto-James Bond kind of character...ferreting out enemy spies and fighting WWII on behalf of the British government. Indeed, in this film (and the two entries which immediately followed), one might get the impression that Holmes is on the government payroll.
The film could have been interesting, on its own, as a piece of stand-alone wartime propaganda. But as a Sherlock Holmes film, it's an abject failure. Deduction takes a back seat to espionage in a most unflattering fashion. With as much as Arthur Conan Doyle's detective admonished Watson for dramatizing and romanticizing his cases, instead of focusing on the science behind his reasoning, I wonder what he'd have to say about The Voice of Terror, which all but ignores the principles of deductive reasoning, in favor of wartime intrigue and sappy back-slapping patriotism. Methinks the good detective would not be kind in his choice of invectives.
Purporting inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle's tale, His Last Bow, the film takes only the name of one character and a brief speech by Holmes from the story in question. The rest is the invention of the film's screenwriter, and for the most part, is decidedly un-Holmesian. Though the disclaimer at the beginning of the film tells us that Holmes is unchanging...and thus, the perfect man to solve the world's modern problems...and that "he remains the master of deductive reasoning," it seems that this Holmes is very much changed, indeed...and that deductive reasoning is scarcely his stock and trade. Surely, he relies as much upon chance as he does upon logical deduction...lucking his way through the picture, as it were. A pity as Conan Doyle's stated reason for creating Holmes was: "It always annoyed me how in the old-fashioned detective story, the detective always seemed to get at his results by some sort of lucky chance or a fluke." Indeed, this film...and to some extent, the two which immediately succeeded it...personified everything that Conan Doyle seemed to dislike in detective stories. As such, it is a perversion of the character to the utmost extent.
This did not go unnoticed among critics and noted "Sherlockians" at the time of the film's release. There was considerable criticism of the film on those grounds...and also because Watson, though always well-played by Nigel Bruce, had been transformed from Conan Doyle's "everyman" into a bumbling fool. This latter condition would, unfortunately, prove permanent throughout the course of the series...but the former was soon remedied. After the dismal critical and box office failure of the third entry, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, the direction of the series was changed. The Nazi agents disappeared, overt wartime references dwindled, and eventually vanished from the series, and Holmes returned to solving baffling cases through the science of deduction.
A great deal of credit must go to Roy William Neill for guiding the series throughout its run. In fact, it's interesting to note that the series took its turn for the better once he was named Associate Producer (on the fourth film)...and also, that this first venture, The Voice of Terror, was the only film in the series which he did not direct.
The Scarlet Claw (1944)
The best of the Universal series
This sixth entry in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series was the third which defied the initial conception of the franchise. Universal had envisioned Sherlock Holmes as a sort of archetypal hero who, transported into the modern era of WWII, could be put on the government payroll, as it were, to work as a contract agent to hunt down Nazi spies on behalf of the Allies. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, this idea met with a great deal of consternation, not only from serious Sherlockians, but also from film critics whose knowledge of Doyle's work was marginal at best.
Granted, most of the Holmes films made up to that point had been updated to their respective eras (in fact, only Fox's two Holmes features with Rathbone and Bruce had taken place in their appropriate time period), but in those cases, the modernization was all on the surface. Automobiles, telephones, and the fashions of the day were all on display...but that was, for all intents and purposes, scenery. The stories, though changed (sometimes drastically) from their original forms, had a timeless quality about them. The first three Universal films, however, were very timely, with plots focused explicitly on the events of the Second World War. This took Holmes out of his element...not only in the literal sense of removing him from Victorian/Edwardian London (as previous films had done), but in transforming the character of Holmes from a consulting detective into a spy-hunter. Indeed, at times, there is more James Bond than Sherlock Holmes in this character. This trend peaked (or bottomed out) with Sherlock Holmes in Washington...the final straw for critics and audiences alike. The film was a critical and box office flop and Universal saw fit to alter the series' direction from that point on.
Though still taking place in the 1940s, the subsequent films did their best to place Holmes back in his proper role, solving intricate mysteries with deductive reasoning...rather than the pure chance and intuition that often guided him in his forays into international espionage. This may (or may not) be accredited to the director Roy William Neill (who directed all but the first entry in the series), who, with the fourth film, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, became the associate producer...a title he would retain throughout the series' run. From that point on, the films became more Gothic in tone, in many ways more closely resembling the Universal horror films of the era than the first three Universal Holmes pictures. This decision yielded immediate positive results. Sherlock Holmes Faces Death was easily the best of the first four entries, and subsequent films topped one another until peaking with The Scarlet Claw.
Oddly enough, the film is set in a French province of Canada...for no discernible reason. The setting is completely superfluous to the plot, which could easily have played out anywhere (ideally Great Britain). This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that the predominant accent present in the film is British, rather than French Canadian...even American actors threw on Brit accents, despite the fact that American accents would have been more sensible in Canada. But no matter. This slight idiosyncrasy aside, The Scarlet Claw is the ultimate Rathbone/Bruce Universal outing. Not adapted from any of the original Doyle tales, (though borrowing heavily from The Hound of the Baskervilles), The Scarlet Claw is dripping with atmosphere. Fog-wreathed marshes are the setting as Holmes tracks a ghostly apparition that has graduated from sheep mutilation to murdering humans. The local villagers believe the culprit to be supernatural, but level-headed Holmes rejects the idea out of hand, and sets himself to the task of finding the murderer.
Rathbone, as Holmes, is at the top of his form here...cold and detached, clinical in his reasoning. And Bruce's Watson, even in this dumbed down incarnation, is a pleasure to watch. Crisp direction, beautiful cinematography (particularly for a B-film), plenty of twists and turns along the way, and no small amount of deductive reasoning from Holmes, make this the strongest entry in the Universal series. The later films were often good, but none ever matched the achievement of The Scarlet Claw...which is simultaneously Gothic, suspenseful, and very, very Holmesian. It is not without its logical flaws, but the flaws are justified by the picture's enormous entertainment value. And of all the films in the series, this one is, by far, the most entertaining.
The Sign of Four (1987)
One of Conan Doyle's best Holmes stories is adapted to perfection in this, the first feature length Holmes adventure from Granada Television. Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are fantastic (as always) and the supporting cast are quite good, not to mention appropriately quirky (especially important in this adventure).
The adaptation itself is, as was typical with the Granada series (and at least the first two feature length outings), quite faithful to the original story. It's well crafted and beautifully directed, with all the twists and turns of the Conan Doyle original (one of his most remarkable tales).
In short, this version of The Sign of Four manages to outshine all previous adaptations, and hasn't been rivaled since. The 1983 television version with Ian Richardson was certainly passable, but doesn't come close to this. Once again, Granada prove that their Holmes is without equal.
One of the best Hound adaptations
Though some may find Holmes's long stretches of absence disappointing in this adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (the most celebrated of all Conan Doyle tales), it should be understood that these absences are in keeping with the original novel. Watson does much of the footwork here, and is separated from Holmes for most of the story. And since Watson was the man who penned the memoirs, he recorded his own experiences. When he was away from Holmes, he could not divine what Holmes was doing, and would only record Holmes's own account of his actions during their separation once they'd been reunited. So, in this respect, this version remains more faithful to the original story than any other. There is, after all, tremendous pressure to pack as much Sherlock Holmes as one can into what is ostensibly a Sherlock Holmes film. It takes guts to keep him out of the picture for as long as this adaptation does...but this adaptation shows its courage in staying true to the text, even if it means leaving Sherlock Holmes out of it, for the most part.
Really, this was the only one of the Granada feature films that could have been made at this time, as Jeremy Brett was (quite noticeably) ill and could not have taken part in a two hour film in which Holmes was on the main stage...the strain would have been too much. As always, Brett's Holmes (when he's around) is a remarkable performance, and Hardwicke's Watson proves yet again why he was a more-than-suitable replacement for David Burke. Overall, a fine adaptation of Sherlock Holmes's most famous adventure. This and, to a lesser extent, the 1983 television version with Ian Richardson are, to my mind, the definitive Hounds.
The Spider Woman (1943)
Kiss of "The Spider Woman"
One of the best in Universal's Sherlock Holmes series, The Spider Woman dispenses, for the most part, with the overt WWII subject matter (which was also reasonably sparse in the previous outing, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death). The climax does make use of the image of Hitler and other Axis figures, but this was (aside from a brief mention in Dressed to Kill) the final direct war reference in the series. This bears mentioning because the film benefits strongly from the general lack of wartime subterfuge. Rather than battling Nazi agents, Rathbone's Sherlock is embroiled in a truly Holmesian mystery, surrounding several apparent suicides...which Holmes, naturally (and correctly), deduces to be homicides.
Though the opening credits proclaim "Based on a Story by Arthur Conan Doyle," The Spider Woman adapts (quite freely) major incidents from no less than five of Conan Doyle's tales...The Sign of Four, The Speckled Band, The Final Problem, The Empty House (also referenced in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon), and The Devil's Foot. False advertising, maybe...but the script (courtesy of Bertram Millhauser) manages to weave them all into a framework that makes for a fun and intriguing mystery.
Other assets include the performances, which are better than in some of the earlier films (though Rathbone and Bruce never disappointed), and the more sure-handed guidance of regular directer Roy William Neill...by this time, a vast improvement over the direction in his first Holmes outing, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. It's also appropriate (if somewhat superficial) to note that Holmes's hairstyle, which changed for the better in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, thankfully does not revert in this one (nor at any time for the duration of the series) to the shambles that it was in the first three films.
All in all, one of the best made, and most entertaining, films in the Universal series. It doesn't quite rise to the heights of The Scarlet Claw, but it's easily one of the best.
Sherlock Holmes versus...the Nazis?
It was an interesting enough idea, I suppose, to set a series of Sherlock Holmes films in the "modern day"...at the time, the WWII era...but those who are familiar with the first two Rathbone/Bruce films might be thrown off by it. When the rights passed from Fox to Universal, the two stars were retained, but apparently our two heroes stepped through a hole in the space-time continuum. The Fox films were Victorian period pieces, whereas Universal took the opportunity to utilize Sherlock Holmes in the series of modern-day B-movies into which this entry falls, several of which were fairly standard wartime propaganda...pretty much the order of the day for Hollywood films circa 1942-1945.
While the film may boast some entertainment value, the plot is actually quite silly. Sherlock Holmes (sporting a remarkably bad haircut) has been charged with the task of guarding Dr. Franz Tobel, the inventor of a bomb sight (which, when you see it, will give you an idea of what the film's budget was) that will apparently revolutionize airborne warfare. Holmes's task is to keep Tobel safe (at which he fails) and to keep the bomb sight out of the hands of the Nazis. When Tobel is abducted, Holmes must unravel a coded message before his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty does. Though the credits state that the film is an adaptation of Conan Doyle's story, The Dancing Men, only the code itself is taken from said story. And a small reference to another story, The Empty House, also shows up early in the film. Apart from that, you'll find no Conan Doyle here.
Interestingly enough, what makes Tobel's bomb sight so remarkable, apart from the fact that the bombs seem to land where they're supposed to, is never expounded upon...leaving the viewer to assume that both Allied and German bomb sights were abysmally inaccurate, as both sides are clamoring to get their hands on one that actually works. Probably not the best way to bolster confidence in the Allied fighting machine...but then, logic is scarce in this outing. Holmes relies just as heavily upon chance and educated guesses as he does upon deduction, and it's the bumbling Watson (who was never bumbling in the original stories) who inadvertently provides the solution to the major stumbling block (despite the fact that the solution should have been obvious to someone as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes).
All in all, this film has its moments, but fails to live up to the legend of the world's greatest detective. Rathbone is a fine Holmes and Bruce (despite the almost unforgivable dumbing down of the Watson character) does a good job, as well. But much of the supporting cast seem to be phoning in their performances. The production values are rather noticeably low and the script is fairly ludicrous. I still watch this one from time to time, and certainly prefer it over Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (the first Universal Holmes entry)...but I can't help but think that Sherlock Holmes deserves better than this.
Interesting sidenote - This film contains the series' one and only reference to Sherlock Holmes's hypodermic cocaine usage. As Holmes is describing to Moriarty an elaborate hypothetical death scenario involving an intravenous needle, Moriarty interjects "The needle to the last...eh, Holmes?" How this managed to slip by the censors at the Breen Office (which, at the time, strictly forbade such references) is perhaps the one great mystery to be found in this film.
The Last Horror Movie (2003)
Henry: Portrait of a Dog-Biter
This is one of the most innovative horror films I've seen in years. In many ways, it's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer meets Man Bites Dog. I won't include any spoilers (though many people already know all the spoilers, anyway)...because I personally wish I'd seen this without knowing what it really was. By reading the big Fangoria article, I spoiled this movie for myself. Then again, if not for that article, I probably wouldn't have rented this movie. Oh well...it's a lose/lose situation for me. But I highly recommend this film to any fans of real horror movies...though I don't recommend reading the summary on the back of the box before renting...it includes major spoilers.
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
The Definitive Rock Doc
I've seen my share of rock documentaries, but this one levels them all. This is a film for anyone who's ever seen "The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle" and said "Oh, for f***sake! Could we get some f***ing TRUTH in here?!" Julien Temple apparently felt the weight of guilt upon his shoulders after aiding and abetting Malcolm McLaren in his insipid attempt to take credit, not only for every single thing the Sex Pistols ever did, but for the creation of punk rock (which goes all the way back to the end of the '60s, if you wanna get technical...so get stuffed, Malcolm).
Here, Temple interviews the band in silhouette and throws at us a barrage of great clips from the hundreds of hours that he shot during the making of "Swindle"...included are several bits that were featured in the aforementioned film, but they're given a different spin, which actually has a ring of truth about it...as well as a great deal that we've never seen before, no doubt because that footage undermines the whole concept of the first film...namely: "I am Malcolm McLaren...the Sex Pistols were nothing...it was all me...worship me now."
It's quite refreshing to hear Steve Jones (the only member of the band who ever really liked McLaren to begin with) musing as to how "everyone in the world knows Malcolm's full of s***." That's right...we do. And especially enjoyable were the band's recollections of how McLaren was panicking after the infamous Bill Grundy incident. Funny, when you watch "Swindle," it seems like it was all his idea...just like everything else. Oh, Malcolm...can your own life be so meaningless that you feel the need to take credit for everyone else's actions? Nevermind...that's rhetorical.
What this film gives us that its predecessor lacked (aside from the absence of staged McLaren ego-trip material) is a historically accurate account of the band's existence, from its inception to its inevitable self-destruction.
Not to mention that it actually contains genuine human emotion...something which "Swindle" lacked altogether. Especially touching are John's recollections of Sid Vicious's death...and how it was turned into more money in McLaren's pockets. "You can't get more evil than that, can you?" This was someone that John cared for like a brother, and his absence still hurts, even 20 years later.
Overall, this film delivers the goods in every conceivable way. It is not only the ONLY worthwhile documentary about the Sex Pistols...it's also the best rock & roll documentary I have ever seen. Anyone with an interest in the musical evolution of the 20th century should miss this film at their own expense.
Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1988)
This is one of those films that come along very infrequently. It's incredibly powerful and profoundly disturbing. It has a clear message, but never preaches. It is very involved, yet oddly distant. And it is the most extreme, unpolished depiction of prison life that you will ever see, should you be lucky enough to find it.
Co-written by acclaimed singer/songwriter/musician/novelist Nick Cave, this film carries his mark. It is every bit as dark, gritty, chaotic, and brutal as his music (or his novel, the cult favorite "And the Ass Saw the Angel"). The story itself is quite loosely plotted, but extremely layered. It's hard to take it all in with one viewing...and each repeat viewing is an experience unto itself.
Cave also plays a pivotal role in "Ghosts" as Maynard, an unconscionable psychotic whose violent raving pushes the already worsening conditions of the prison to full-scale chaos. Cave's performance is searing, bringing every bit of rage and hatred and bile to the surface...and his entrance into the film is truly unforgettable.
The film-making here is top-notch, from a cinematic point of view. It certainly wouldn't meet Hollywood's "standards," but I mean that as an extreme compliment. The cold, distant cinematography sometimes brings to mind Kubrick's film version of "A Clockwork Orange," and the way the brutality is handled visually makes "ACO" look like "Bambi" by comparison.
Certainly, this is one film that you should not miss. It is, unfortunately, quite rare...but it can be found if one looks hard enough. I will stress quite strongly, however, that this film is NOT for everyone...but for those with strong stomachs and an appreciation of challenging cinema, this is a definite must-see.
As inspiration for "Lawnmower Man"...
I think it's funny that someone actually thought this was an inspiration for "The Lawnmower Man," which was actually loosely based on a story published by Stephen King five years before "Wacko" was made.
So...inspiration for "The Lawnmower Man"? No. Damn funny horror spoof? Yes. Check this out, along with "Student Bodies"...the only two good horror spoofs to date.