Archive for Sherlock Holmes

The Palm Sunday Intertitle: Baker St Irregular

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 17, 2011 by dcairns

“It’s really quite simple, Watson. You see, I’m an opium fiend, and I find opium dens the best place to procure my fix of the stuff.”

“You astound me, Homes!”

“Whatever.”

Not really, of course. This is from THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIP, produced (and presumably directed) by Maurice Elvey in 1921, in which Eille Norwood plays Holmes — I enjoyed the way he sits.

Maybe Holmes wasn’t ideally suited to silent cinema — I even find the Barrymore version a little dull. The Great Detective’s cogitations require an excess of title cards to be elucidated, or maybe it’s just that the filmmakers concerned didn’t figure out enough strategies to make his thought processes visible. At any rate, there’s no excuse for the way this one begins, with a flurry of title cards stacked end to end, minus any actual intervening scenes. I’d have guessed that parts of the film had been lost and the titles reconstructed from censor’s records (about the only use film censors have ever served), only the titles look as old as the surrounding footage, when some eventually appears. Until further research confirms or disproves my suspicions, I’m looking at this as further proof of the British cinema’s traditional over-dependence on verbiage at the expense of visuals. Very honorable exceptions are of course made for Hitchcock, Asquith, and a few others…

Holmesick

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2011 by dcairns

Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES may be one of the few films to contain a spelling mistake in its title shot — not counting deliberate mistakes like BIUTIFUL or PET SEMATARY.

The title manifests itself from a news headline, but we can still read the lettering around it — SHERLOCK HOLMES AIDES POLICE. Maybe Ritchie thinks that an extra E will give things an Olde Worlde quality. He should’ve called his film SHERLOCKE HOLMESE. Or maybe he was terrified of having the word AIDS anywhere near his title. Can I suggest a few synonyms, such as HELPS or ASSISTS?

I’m stunned to think of how many hands and eyes this sequence must have passed through without, apparently, anybody taking any interest in it. A later newspaper blunder, showing a photo of Holmes on a newspaper in a period when newspapers could not print photos, is piddling compared to this.

The film itself? About what you’d expect from a movie that dumbs down Holmes to make a kick-boxing action hero out of him. Downey, with a rather uneven Noel Coward impersonation, is amusing. Jude Law plays Watson as a cockney. Mark Strong is authoritative as a baddie, Rachel McAdams is, as ever, like a thin translucent film dropping before your eyes and obscuring your view of the production design. She uses her eyes very well, in one shot: so there’s hope. Elsewhere, she extends the corners of her mouth as if trying to make them meet at the back of her neck, detaching her cranium. Her character is a sufficiently obscure Holmesian figure to make one suspect that one of the huddle of writers actually read some Doyle, but there’s always Wikipedia, so probably not.

The weirdest directorial touch concerns the early fight scenes — Ritchie, always a fan of messing with camera speeds, presents these partly in ultra slo-mo, with a Holmes VO that shows him analysing each punch and assessing the strategic damage it will inflict. Ritchie uses CGI to enhance the impact of each wallop, so we get rippling flesh effects impossible to achieve normally without actually injuring an actor. It’s reasonably impressive, and does at least attempt to address the mismatch between Holmes’s famed intellectual prowess and his status in this movie as an action hero. But after showing this, Ritchie then proceeds to show the entire fight AGAIN, at normal speed, without the VO. How he could ever have imagined this would be anything other than ludicrously redundant is impossible to conceive.

Bernard Hill turns up as a river rat, and looks like he might be about to say something entertaining, but nobody’s thought to write anything.

Me: “It’s a long way down from Captain of the Titanic.”

Fiona: “Wasn’t he in LORD OF THE RINGS too?”

Me: “Yes. As a king. And look at him now.”

Also letting herself go is Bronagh Gallagher, dragged up as a gypsy fortune teller with a small moustache. Good to see her. I’ve liked her ever since THE COMMITMENTS, and always found her oddly attractive, even though her head is the shape of a claw hammer.

Two things I have to say in the name of fairness: the production design (Sarah Greenwood), costumes (Jenny Beavan) and cinematography (Philippe Rousellot) are fabulous, conjuring a detailed, idiosyncratic, dramatic and grungy Victorian London. And Ritchie reportedly won the respect of the whole crew by shepherding the production through while amid a veritable media shitstorm over his divorce from some singer. OK, three things: he shoots action sequences that you can actually follow.

Unfortunately, the climax involves everybody climbing to the top of the Tower Bridge (under construction) for no reason, and concludes by having all the major resolutions occur by coincidence: falling objects defeat bad guys, fortuitous ledges save falling heroines… Might as well just have God swing down on a rope and shove a lightning bolt through the villain. A shame, because star charisma, busy plotting, cool design and frenetic punching might otherwise have seen the movie through, on its own dumbe termes.

Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.

The Phantom! In THE SCARLET CLAW.

These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.

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