Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes!

Another crazy Italian silent. Hmm, was Holmes known for being particularly strong? Maybe in Italy he was.

Like Enrico Guazzoni, Giovanni Pastrone seems to have alternated between the super-epics for which he is best known (exemplified by CABIRIA) with smaller, quirkier fare. At least from what I can see of his oeuvre, which is a limited selection.

PIU FORTE CHE SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916) is a Melies-style trick film, but with interesting stylistic variations. It may originally have had intertitles — the IMDb gives the two leads character names, but doesn’t make it easy to work out which is which. I’m going to assume that the comic copper is Emilio Vardannes, who made a bunch of short comedies as the recurring character Bonifacio, and then as Toto (but not the one we’re thinking of). He’s Toto Travetti here, apparently. He also plays Hannibal in CABIRIA, though, which doesn’t fit that image. The smooth criminal would be, by elimination, Domenico “Childish” Gambino, but he had his own series of later comedies, as Saetta. I may have the two muddled.

The film is photographed by the legendary Segundo de Chomon, who had been making his own Melies knock-offs in France, and did special effects on some Roman epics in Italy, also building the first custom-made camera dolly. He and Pastroni would co-direct the extraordinary WWI animation LA GUERRA ED IL SOGNO DI MOMI the following year.

In photographs, Segundo looks EXACTLY like I imagined him.

We begin with Toto (I think) nodding off while looking at the Italian version of Illustrated Police News — a double page spread opposes a crook type on one side with a Keystone Karabiniero on the other. Mrs. Toto (I think) is also present. Fiona thinks she’s played by a man but I’m not even 100% sure of that.

Lapsing into a dream via double-exposure and a double taking his place (before SHERLOCK JR did a variation on this trick), Toto (I think) is tempted to pursue Saltarelli (I think – Gambino) who emerges from the fallen newspaper and keeps winking in and out of existence as he passes through the wall. Might be a double exposure but might also be Pepper’s Ghost — all done with mirrors.

Things get even more interesting as the chase goes al fresco and the fleeing criminal starts doing handstands on the surface of a lake, a sportive Jesus. Then, by reverse motion, the twosome scales a high building, and there’s a striking bit of chiaroscuro in a dimly-lit room. The exploitation of locations and dramatic lighting are very unlike the greenhouse exploits of M. Melies.

Lots more hi-jinks, lo-jinks and med-jinks. Strange bit where Saltarelli (I think) wipes a roomful of people away by pressing a button, causing a black vertical bar to pass across the screen like the eraser of an Etch-a-Sketch™. Also some inexplicable business with levers to be pulled, their purpose a mystery, shades of ERASERHEAD.

Toto has trouble with magic sacks which keep embracing him in their hessian grasp.

Another roomful of respectable-seeming people dope Toto (I think) with a funny cigarette, and then there’s a wrestling bout in which one opponent is squashed paper-thin and another explodes into fragments, the limbs and torso reuniting by stop-motion (and I believe Chomon was the first to combine live action with animation on the same set).

Surprisingly, for an adventure so random, it has a pretty satisfying conclusion, or as satisfying as “it was all a dream” ever gets.

5 Responses to “Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes!”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Harry Dickson by Jean Ray was much stronger than Sherlock Holmes. “Les Adventures de Harry Dickson” was a passion project Alain Resnais (alas) never got to make. The massive scenario is available for purchase however.

    (Resnais at one point hoped to star Dirk Bogarde and Delphine Seyrig in the film and shoot it in 70mm)

  2. One of the great unmades, along with Fellini’s Mandrake the Magician (which may never have got as far as a script).

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In Fellini’s “Intervista” Marcello appears as Mandrake the Magician..

    Resnais also wanted to make a film of Lee Falk’s “The Phantom” But Franju was way ahead of him with “Judex”

  4. The poor Phantom had such a comedown as Billy Zane, or “Chubby Purple Jungle Boy” as a friend christened him.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: