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The Pearl of Death (1944) August 9, 2013

Posted by badblokebob in : Crime, adaptations, 4 stars, 1940s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2013 , add a comment

2013 #15

My coverage of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies inches ever on with this shiny new review.

#46: The Scarlet Claw (1944) June 21, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, 1940s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2012 , add a comment

1944 | Roy William Neill | 71 mins | DVD | PG

The Scarlet ClawAccording to Wikipedia, “David Stuart Davies notes on the film’s DVD audio commentary* that [The Scarlet Claw is] generally considered by critics and fans of the series to be the best of the twelve Holmes films made by Universal.” That’s always a bold kind of assertion to make (it’s never trouble-free to define an entire fandom’s favourite), but I can still believe it’s true: The Scarlet Claw is marvellous.

When looking it up before viewing I was surprised to find it had a spot on the Top 500 Horror Movies (voted by users of IMDb’s horror boards, apparently), where it had a place in the lower 300s. I was surprised — Holmes is a detective series, not one I’d think of nominating for such a list. But there is one arguable exception to that — The Hound of the Baskervilles, of course — and it’s clear that Scarlet Claw draws significant inspiration from that preeminent entry in the Holmes canon. Lists of similarities are available for them that wants them, because I think Scarlet Claw does enough to merit consideration in its own right.

And it really is a horror movie too. There’s not just the elements of occult in the myth of the Canadian town Holmes and Watson find themselves in almost by chance, which you always know will be debunked in a Sherlock Holmes plot, but also the way the production is staged. Indeed, the film’s scariest sequence occurs after it’s revealed that the killings are being committed by a mere human — The Black and White Mista properly chilling murder scene, quite out of step with the film’s age and PG certificate.

A lot of this is thanks to director Roy William Neill. On a previous review of mine, Ride the High Country’s Colin noted that Neill “turned out some quality low-budget stuff for Universal. He had a real knack for creating a spooky and mysterious atmosphere that’s evident in his horrors and thrillers.” This film demonstrates that fact more than any Holmes yet. His direction is incredibly atmospheric, from a wonderful mist-covered opening scene, replete with an incessantly tolling bell, to regular instances of shadow-drenched photography afterwards; not to mention various pleasing camera angles and moves.

The story — in which townsfolk believe a mythical beast has returned to murder its residents — presents a well-constructed mystery all round, though as it moves into the second half some of its twists become all too guessable. There simply aren’t enough supporting characters to provide any meaningful sense of having to ponder who the villain might be (because, as I noted, you know it’s not really a beast). Holmes and WatsonThere’s also a hefty dose of coincidence that everyone involved, both on screen and off, conveniently ignores.

If we’re looking at the flaws, there’s a return for the painful closing speech from Rathbone, this time a Churchill-quoted ode to the wonder of Canada. Ugh. Still, you half expect it from this series, and it’s very easy to ignore.

The other little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.

4 out of 5

* I could verify this for myself, but I haven’t, so… ^

#44: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) May 14, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, Adventure, Sherlock Holmes, 2010s, 2012 , 2 comments

Guy Ritchie | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Sherlock Holmes A Game of ShadowsIf 2009’s Sherlock Holmes was Batman Begins — a re-introduction to a well-known hero and his entourage of secondary characters as they tackle a (second-string/unheard-of) menace in their home city — then A Game of Shadows is The Dark Knight: a globe-trotting epic against the famous, formidable nemesis attempting to drive the world to destruction. Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t extend to the film’s extraordinary step-up in quality.

Before the first film’s release, accusations flew that Ritchie’s take on Holmes wasn’t faithful enough. Some of these persist, but as I noted in my original review I think they’re pish: yes, this series gives a blockbuster action/comedy spin on the character, but it remained a Sherlock Holmes tale. This is less true of the sequel. There’s still some detective work, but it comes in brief flashes here and there. The big denouement does pick up on scattered (deliberately-)easily-missed clues from throughout the film, but only to provide a standard Explain The Villain’s Grand Plan scene. A ballroom scene where Sherlock looks around the room, seeing “everything” through a series of quick-pan fast glimpses of stuff, highlights an inferiority to other current versions — where those certain others let us in on what Holmes is learning from his quick glances, here we just see some stuff. In short, it’s not Sherlocky enough.

Most of the other elements that made the first film a success are present and correct though. The banter between Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson zings as well as it did first time, though perhaps not always as memorably, A game of smokeand Ritchie crafts an array of interesting action sequences. Some still accuse it of being a sub-Matrix rip-off, which I personally think shows a lack of attention or imagination on the part of those viewers — there’s more to what’s going on here than that. There’s a wit The Matrix films never had, for one thing, and more twists on the format. The trick of having Holmes explain what he plans to do as we see it in slow-mo, before executing it at full blistering speed, is repeated but also subverted in multiple ways.

Plus the action is just finely staged full-stop — there’s a fun alleyway fight to open proceedings, a sprawling brawl around a London gentlemen’s club, a fun duel around a moving train (much seen in the trailers), and a stunningly unusual race through some woods away from a German munitions factory (coincidentally (I imagine) a bit like Captain America, but with better CGI; and also much seen in trailers). Those are the big numbers, but smaller-scale sequences come and go throughout. In many ways it pings from one action scene to another, a plot cropping up occasionally to provide a link between them.

A game of beardsYet for all that, that climax is a game of chess: Sherlock and Moriarty come face to face while in the room next door Watson and gypsy Simza try to spot an assassin. It’s one of a couple of scenes where Downey Jr.’s hero comes face to face with his nemesis, played by Jared Harris, and these scenes are definitely some of the film’s high points. Harris makes a perfect addition to the cast, the only disappointment being that we don’t get to see even more of him. Downey Jr.’s become such a Movie Star recently that it’s easy to forget he’s a multiple Oscar-nominee, and he and Harris give as good a hero-villain act-off as you’re likely to find in a blockbuster.

Other big-ticket cast additions include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself, Noomi Rapace, seriously underused as the aforementioned gypsy fortune-teller Simza, who turns out to be central to the plot. The size and scope of her role actually fits the story, pretty much, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d cast a European ‘unknown’, but by making a fuss of casting That Acclaimed Actress From Those Acclaimed European Films and giving her third billing attention is drawn to how little she has to do.

A game of cameosBetter served is Stephen Fry as Mycroft, a role normally rendered as a brief cameo. And indeed it’s little more than that, but there’s more of him than I was expecting (certainly so in one (pointless aside of a) scene that I’m sure you’ve heard about), and Fry of course excels — it’s the kind of role he was made for. Meanwhile the award for best agent goes to Eddie Marsan’s: Lestrade appears late on for all of two shots, but Marsan is still billed high enough to be on the poster, above most of the cast.

A quick mention also for Hans Zimmer’s score. I enjoyed his work on the first film and he delivers again here. Zimmer’s one of those big Hollywood blockbuster composers whose work can all sound the same (I watched The Lion King just the other day and could definitely hear Piratical elements in there), but here he injects a bit more variety into his oeuvre. It’s not just the departure from his usual style that works, it’s that there’s a mixture of styles within the movie itself, each well suited to their own sequence while still blending as a whole.

A game of drinksA Game of Shadows comes out as a fun ride with stand-out moments, but not as a particularly exceptional version of Sherlock Holmes. It’s very enjoyable as a comedy-action movie with amusing characters and entertainingly-staged action sequences, but while my affection for the first has grown to make it one of my favourite movies, this is just an entertaining follow-up.

4 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from today, and in the US from June 12th. Ha-ha.

#96: The Spider Woman (1944) January 15, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, 1940s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2011 , 2 comments

It’s the second season finale of the brilliant Sherlock tonight, so what better time to post a review of another Holmes adaptation that’s based in part on the infamous The Final Problem

1944 | Roy William Neill | 60 mins | DVD | U

The Spider WomanThe seventh feature starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr John Watson is the first since Hound to drop Holmes’ name from the title and, at under an hour (59 minutes 33 seconds in PAL, to be precise), is the shortest yet.

It’s previously been asserted (in this blog’s comments) that The Spider Woman is “one of the best of the series”, and it’s certainly a strong effort. Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser (who also wrote the previous two films, and would go on to pen two more) skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales — while I spotted two or three, Wikipedia says the full list includes The Sign of Four, The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot and The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

As they’re combined here, the story sees Holmes fake his own death to help tackle the Irene Adler-esque titular woman, apparently his intellectual match, who’s somehow causing a spree of suicides. Several of these borrowed elements — the faked death and The Woman — lead to some delicious scenes, such as when Holmes reveals he’s alive to Dr Watson, offering one of those occasions where Bruce’s comedic rendition of the role actually works; or when an incognito Holmes meets the woman, who is actually aware of his true identity. Indeed the woman, played by Sherlock Holmes vs the Spider WomanGale Sondergaard, is so good that they crafted a sequel around her, albeit Holmes-less. I’ve not seen it and don’t own it, so I’ve no idea what that does for its quality.

The mystery itself is solid enough, but that’s not necessarily the point of these Holmes adventures. They’re not play-along puzzles like an Agatha Christie adaptation, where there’s a set of definite clues and a finite number of suspects, but rather exciting tales that whip you along their incredible path — adventures indeed. You can certainly see the (deliberate) tonal link between these ’40s films and the modern-set Sherlock, or indeed the pair of Robert Downey Jr. films.

At the halfway point of the Rathbone-Bruce films (it’s only taken my four years to get this far), the series is still producing exciting, good-quality re-arrangements of Conan Doyle’s works. And I’m assured there’s more to come. Fantastic.

4 out of 5

#66: A Study in Terror (1965) October 4, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Thriller, Crime, 3 stars, 1960s, British films, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2011 , add a comment

James Hill | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

A Study in Terror“Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper” would be the easiest way to describe this pulpy ’60s effort. It’s far from the only example of this sub-sub-genre: Murder by Decree did it 14 years later, and goodness knows how many novels and short stories have attempted it. But I’ve not seen or read any of those, so I’m afraid I can’t compare.

Judged in its own right, then, it’s a decent Holmes movie, with an atmospheric rendering of Victorian London and a passably intriguing plot. However, the relatively light basis in the true story of Jack the Ripper may grate with some who approach it from that angle: there’s a Holmesian plot grafted onto a smattering of Ripper facts, as opposed to using Holmes to deduce one of the posited real solutions. As entertainment, though, that doesn’t hold it back.

That said, I didn’t feel it all all quite made sense — someone sends Holmes a clue at the start of the story, with no explanation as to what it’s got to do with anything, and though by the end it’s explained who sent it, I was none the wiser what they’d been intending. Whore killin'And I watched the revelation scene twice too. Still, at least the important bit — who the murderer is ‘n’ all that — is quite neat.

Also watch out for Judi Dench in a small early role, and Barbara Windsor getting killed. Marvel, with hindsight, at which one’s got the bigger role and is higher billed.

3 out of 5

#64: Valley of Fear (1983) September 26, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, adaptations, 2 stars, 1980s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2011 , add a comment

Warwick Gilbert, Alex Nicholas & Di Rudder | 48 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Australia / English | U

Valley of FearI don’t recall how exactly I came across these animated Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring the voice of Peter O’Toole as the eponymous detective, or how I came to decide to view all of them, but it’s been almost four years since I reviewed the first… and three years since I reviewed the third. Now, finally, I get to the final episode. Such is the erraticism of using LOVEFiLM. (At least I have an excuse for my dawdling here — my incredibly slow viewing of all the Rathbone/Bruce Holmses is entirely my own tardiness.)

This series started decently for me, with a moderately promising adaptation of The Sign of Four, but then slid gradually downhill to an atrocious version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Valley of Fear isn’t as bad as that, but nor does it represent a massively significant increase in quality.

The negatives of the previous films still remain, primarily the weak ’80s TV animation. It’s not as badly designed as the bright-and-colourful version of Baskervilles, at least. O’Toole’s performance is nothing to write home about either. The story is perhaps the least-well-known of the four Holmes novels, and while it has its moments — mainly in clever deduction, often the best bit of any Holmes tale — this version is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on that fact.

Having quite liked the first of these adaptations that I saw, it’s a shame the other three haven’t lived up even to those expectations (it was only a three-star effort, after all). Ah well.

2 out of 5

Valley of Fear featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.

#79: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) October 6, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, 1940s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2010 , 1 comment so far

After a shockingly long absence, I’m finally getting on with watching the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmeses. (I started this series over two-and-a-half years ago now — I think I’m watching them slower than they made them!)

1943 | Roy William Neill | 65 mins | DVD | U

He’s put down the hound of the Baskervilles; silenced the voice of terror; uncovered the secret weapon; had, um, some other adventures; and, uh, been to Washington… but now, Sherlock Holmes faces death!

Not a man in a black robe with a scythe, just, y’know, the threat. Of dying. Except there’s no threat, really. I suppose Sherlock Holmes Does Some Investigating With No Real Threat To Himself doesn’t sound quite as dramatic.

Nor, it would seem, does The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, the popular Conan Doyle story on which this film is loosely based. It’s not a tale I’m familiar with so can’t accurately comment on the faithfulness of screenwriter Bertram Millhauser’s adaptation, but it concerns the Musgrave family and their ancient ritual, so as the Rathbone/Bruce films go it’s practically word-for-word. It isn’t actually, of course, because the ritual at least has been changed significantly. Whatever the qualities of the original, the chess-based screen variant works marvellously.

…Faces Death leaves behind the proto-Bond WW2 spying of the last three films (”it can almost be viewed as the starting point of a completely new Holmes series” asserts one review I’ve read) to involve Holmes in a genuine detective mystery (though still set during the war, it’s less front-and-center). The story is packed with proper deduction, which is excellent, and to top it off Watson isn’t as bumbling as he could be, not that Bruce’s characterisation improves. Most of the humour comes, more appropriately, from a typically useless Lestrade, as well as frequently-drunk butler Brunton.

Relocated in the war years, the Musgrave manor is currently a home for convalescent soldiers, providing no end of potential suspects. Some may guess the culprit from the off, others will land upon them at other places throughout proceedings, but it seems to me there’s still enough going on to keep us guessing.

The film ends with another of Holmes’ speeches, this time less patriotic and more about the duties of man to his fellow men. It’s quite naively optimistic about mankind’s ability to care for others, though any analysis of humanity’s propensity or not for charity, and how that may have changed in the last 70 years, seems somewhat misplaced in discussion of a ’40s detective adventure.

The sixth film in the Rathbone/Bruce series is one of the best so far. And Rathbone finally has a sensible hairstyle to boot!

4 out of 5

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