Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The House of Fear” (1945)

“Viewed today however, one is inescapably reminded of a ‘reality TV’ format: seven diverse housemates are nominated one-by-one for permanent eviction until just one is left to scoop a prize of exactly £100,000. So if The House of Fear fails as both a Sherlock Holmes film and a properly satisfying murder-mystery, its premise is at least enduring.” (Alan Barnes, 92)

Occasionally, I think that Nigel Bruce gets a bad rap. Once in a great while, his performance as Dr. John Watson touches a soft place in my heart. I find myself susceptible to moments like his rendition of “Loch Lomond” in Pursuit to Algiers (and from the same film, his recounting of a recent adventure with Sherlock Holmes using a celery stalk as the Detective and a hunk of cheese as himself); or his utterly crestfallen expression in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when the Detective snappishly refers to his companion as “an incorrigible bungler” (though he is soothed by a gentle pat on the shoulder). For all his foolishness and sometimes blatant stupidity, there is warmth and openness in Bruce’s interpretation, with a certain guilelessness that goes a long way towards explaining how he has managed Holmes’s peculiarities for so long – perhaps it is simply because he sees no malice in the Detective’s actions, no animosity, and cannot bring himself to harbor any resentment or bitterness towards his friend.

But in the 1945 film, The House of Fear, such moments of softness and affectation are notably absent. Despite one rather astute and crucial observation, and one poignant moment between the two friends at the conclusion of the film (Holmes does seem rather touchingly grateful for his friend’s survival), Bruce’s Watson is at his vaudevillian worst. It’s hard to find any redemptive qualities in a scene in which Watson – unearthing a grave while Holmes stands about smoking a pipe – finds himself embroiled in an Abbott and Costello-style argument with an owl. Holmes’s comment of “Having a nice little chat, Watson?” is the only one of his many needle-like barbs throughout the film that is utterly deserved. According to Alan Barnes:

“Despite furnishing Holmes with the one last vital piece of evidence, Nigel Bruce’s Watson does not fare well, being a source of irritation to the detective (Holmes loudly informs the entire household that Watson snores ‘like a pig’) and the butt of a semi-jokey five minute sequence in which, guarding downstairs on his own, he flaps hither and thither while attempting to track down the source of a number of strange noises. (He shoots a suit of armour and a cat before asserting, ‘They’ve got me completely surrounded!’)” (94).
To be fair, Rathbone’s Holmes does not come across at his very best in this film either. As Barnes points out, the Detective makes a rather pointed, public and personal joke at the Doctor’s expense: “You snored like a pig!” Later, Watson is attacked in the sitting room while Holmes investigates upstairs. Watson screams rather ardently for his friend, to which Holmes responds by descending the stairs at a pace that could best be described as a “saunter,” or perhaps a leisurely stroll. There is no urgency in his manner, while Watson, for all appearances, has just escaped a brutal death. Holmes’s most animated moment comes only when his own life is in danger – as well as the Doctor’s – at the hands of a falling boulder.

However, Basil Rathbone might have been as much to blame as the film’s screenwriters for the Detective’s apathetic characterization in this film. According to David Stuart Davies: “It was becoming noticeable that Rathbone was beginning to tire of the role of Sherlock Holmes. After nine features and numerous radio broadcasts, the character was so familiar to him that he felt there was nothing fresh he could bring to the part. The reviewer in the New York Times called his performance in this movie ‘as pedestrian as a cop on patrol’” (59). There is a tiredness to Rathbone’s performance in this picture, as if he is trying to summon energy and enthusiasm for the role that he simply does not have. In response, Bruce’s Watson and Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade (inexplicably present in Scotland in his role as a police inspector, despite being rather clearly out of his jurisdiction) appear to move ever further into the role of caricature, seemingly becoming mere parodies of their roles. Lestrade, for example, loudly and brazenly takes credit for the capture of Professor Moriarty.
To its credit, The House of Fear has much going for it in the way of atmosphere – an eerie, gothic manor seated on top of a high cliff in Scotland, a morose and sinister housekeeper who acts as the harbinger of ill-tidings and death, and a strange men’s club shrouded in secrecy and strange ritual. Even the manners in which the “Good Comrades” are murdered demonstrate a distinct variety and creativity. They are gruesome and evocative, summoning an array of horrifying images with the simple phrase: “No man goes whole to his grave.” The House of Fear’s link to the Canon story “The Five Orange Pips” is tenuous at best – the only reference to the source material being the orange pips each Good Comrade receives prior to his death. But the film does manage to invoke the violence of the original story, the grim and sometimes coldhearted nature of humanity.

There are elements of The House of Fear that are reminiscent of the earlier Rathbone/Bruce picture, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943). As Davies says, “…Sherlock Holmes Faces Death brings Holmes back to the world of creepy old houses, wild windy nights and mysterious unsolved murders. The mood is Victorian Gothic but the presence of the Second World War is still in evidence…” (50). Unfortunately, The House of Fear demonstrates little to none of the strength of its earlier counterpart. Perhaps, this is demonstrative of how much of a Sherlock Holmes film’s success is derived from the strength and vitality of the actor in the title role, and how much the film suffers if he finds himself indifferent.

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Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen. (September 2011).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

“The Meaning of This Extraordinary Performance” (COPP): Granada Television’s “The Dancing Men”

Jeremy [Brett] was always in danger of playing some kind of grotesque if he wasn’t directly properly. I remember [Jeremy] Paul saying to him one day, “Jeremy, isn’t there going to be anything of you in this portrayal?” Brett responded well, replying, “What a good thought. You’ve pulled me up short and made me realize that I could be going too much into the area of a bizarre character.” Paul agreed, noting, “Don’t, because there is a place in this for things of your own, Jeremy – your magnetism, your ability to charm people, to deal with people – use those in playing Holmes. Don’t put them aside. Don’t think this man is a wierdo [sic] because he’s not” (David Stuart Davies).

Perched anxiously on the edge of the sofa in the sitting room of 221B Baker Street, Hilton Cubitt (Tenniel Evans) bristles at a pointed question directed at him by Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett): “You have a way of putting things, Mr. Holmes,” he says. Dr. Watson (David Burke) has already apologized once for his friend’s gruff behavior, and now he can do nothing except shake his head and look back down at his notes, hoping that Holmes will not irreparably offend their client. Brett often commented on the nature of the relationship of his Holmes to his Watsons: “And so I've had wonderful Watsons – I’ve had two who kind of go [groans], ‘Holmes is doing it again.’ And, I mean, I've even had people in the studio, when I had suddenly crawled across the floor, say, ‘Not another of those’ [laughs]. And that's the lighter side.”
Holmes, will you please stop playing "Keep Away" with the cipher?
And there are a lot of both elements in Granada’s adaptation of “The Dancing Men.” Viewers successfully seek and find the physicality and vitality that Jeremy Brett so famously brought to the role, as well as a Watson that seems equal turns flabbergasted and charmed by his eccentric friend. Brett’s Holmes is at his charming, vivacious best, and Burke’s Watson is at his most endearing and earnest. The episode opens with one of Granada’s most enduring scenes: Holmes successfully outlines how he was able to deduce that Watson has declined a new investment opportunity, to which Watson responds that the deduction was an “absurdly simple” one – despite the promise Holmes had secured just moments earlier that he would not say precisely that. Holmes looks petulant, but not surprised, and Watson looks briefly contrite – until a moment later when he correctly deduces that Holmes has found himself a new case.

Granada’s 1984 adaptation of “The Dancing Men” was the second episode in their Sherlock Holmes series, airing just after their adaptation of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” It is notable that the studio chose to adapt this story very early in the production, when the original tale was, in fact, the third story in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and according to William Baring-Gould’s chronology, took place in 1898. Despite this chronological deviation, the episode reaches out to the Canon in interesting ways. For example, there is Holmes’s mention of his monograph on secret ciphers, which Watson uncomfortably confesses he found “rather heavy going.” But the episode is at its most riveting when Brett is at his most dynamic. Audiences remember this episode’s Sherlock Holmes with a telegram between his teeth, leaping about in a vigorous demonstration of the various “Dancing Men” figures, in a desperate bid to convey their meaning to Dr. Watson. Less memorable, but no less powerful, is the scene in which Holmes and Watson receive the final telegram from Hilton Cubitt (unaware of the man’s death), revealing the partially decoded message: “ELSIE - RE – ARE TO MEET THY GO-.” Watson is still in his shirtsleeves and Holmes in his dressing gown, but in a brilliantly acted moment, the pair need only exchange a meaningful glance before rushing off in aid of their client.

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But the death of Hilton Cubitt takes the wind out of the Detective’s over-inflated sails in a very obvious way. When asked how he could have possibly known about the crime and come down to Ridling Thorpe Manor from London so quickly, Holmes replies: “Mr. Hilton Cubitt… was my client” [emphasis mine]. There is so much effort in that pause – in admitting to his client’s death, and therefore his own perceived failure in the matter – and it weighs visibly on his face. Even the police inspector’s kind words about the pleasure of working with Holmes and his hope that he should have the Detective at his side again one day, seemingly fail to register with Holmes in any meaningful way. He gives only the merest nod to this compliment. The words do not register, and Brett’s performance manages to manifest physically for the viewer, everything that Holmes has already managed to internalize.

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Likewise, the death of his client seems to soften Sherlock Holmes, making him more susceptible to Dr. Watson’s improving influence. While Holmes is interviewing the household staff about the night of the murder, Watson whispers a mostly unheard suggestion to the Detective that he invite the elderly housekeeper to sit down. If Holmes seems slightly annoyed by the suggestion, it should be noted that he does comply. Furthermore, in a later scene, Holmes goes out of his way to inform the same housekeeper that her mistress – Mrs. Cubitt – is quite innocent, a kindness which appears to go a long way towards easing the woman’s troubles.

The episode ends with Watson attempting to decode the “Dancing Men” cipher sent by Sherlock Holmes, which had brought Abe Slane to Ridling Thorpe Manor and neatly ensnared him in Holmes’s trap. Watson stumbles for a moment before reading: “COME HERE AT ONCE.” Holmes smiles at the Doctor’s successful attempt at decoding and says, “How absurdly simple.” His words echo back to the episode’s opening scene, but this time there is no bite or petulance in the words. Only the easy understanding of a comfortable companionship, colored by the spent energy of a case concluded – if not in an entirely satisfactory way for all parties. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson ran the gamut of human interaction in Granada’s adaptation of DANC – from magnetism to charm to shear physical undertaking – but every element has a place, every point perfectly plotted.

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