Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less. I recently finished up "The Retired Colourman," in which Sherlock Holmes investigates the disappearance of Mrs. Josiah Amberley, and offers a bleak outlook on human existence: "But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery.”

The current story is "The Red-Headed League," in which Sherlock Holmes investigates a seemingly irreverent case, with rather more sinister designs, and in which the Great Detective reminds the reader: “I begin to think, Watson, that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid."

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, although I am usually inspired to post more than once a day. And don't forget you can read through the original canon online.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

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

“Now let me endeavour to show you the different steps in my reasoning. To begin at the beginning.” (“A Study in Scarlet”)

"It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” (“A Case of Identity”)

There is no better place to begin a discussion of Granada’s adaptation of “The Six Napoleons” than at the beginning. The episode opens on an odd note: a young woman sensually washes herself at an open window while an old man watches lecherously from across the way. The camera pulls back from the depraved onlooker to reveal a young man (Pietro Venucci, played by Vincenzo Nicoli) and a young woman (his sister, Lucrezia, played by Marina Sirtis of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame) arguing heatedly in Italian. The argument takes a sudden, violent turn as the man strikes the woman across the face, but their argument carries on without pause. The elderly voyeur finally intercedes, but the young man eventually devolves into hysterical screaming before he runs from the room – the young woman chasing after him, sobbing, her hair falling out of its neat arrangement and blood running from her lip. The first five minutes of Granada Television’s adaptation of SIXN could be quite accurately described as bizarre, with dialogue almost entirely in un-translated Italian and the opening sequence ending with the episode’s main antagonist laughing maniacally while being taken away in a straitjacket. Topped off with a well-filmed fight scene and a strange ritualistic moment involving a photograph and a jewel-encrusted dagger, these opening scenes are indeed odd, but are also punctuated with perfect, memorable moments.

These perfect moments carry over throughout the episode and the first scenes at Baker Street (nearly six minutes into the production, but chronologically a year later) are no exception. The viewer finds Inspector Lestrade (Colin Jeavons) comfortably ensconced in the sitting room of 221B, drinking brandy and smoking cigars with Dr. Watson (Edward Hardwicke) while Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) peruses a tattered folio. According to Richard Valley, “A man of considerable reticence where companionship is concerned, Sherlock Holmes has no close friends save Dr. John H. Watson, which perhaps explains why it’s so utterly charming and delightful to find, at the start of this episode of THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, that Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is given to dropping by 221B Baker Street every now and then to pass the time.” The casual intimacy between the three men is only reinforced by perfect, punctuating moments, like those already seen in the episode’s prologue. The knowing way in which Holmes lowers the folio to encourage Lestrade to “tell us about it,” understanding intuitively that the man has something of interest to share, but is restraining himself. Or Lestrade’s pleased expression when Holmes rubs his hands together and admits that the Inspector’s story “is certainly very novel.” Or the way in which the Great Detective laughingly tells Watson that the Doctor’s theories “will not do” – dismissively, but without any real venom.

Granada’s adaptation of SIXN is also a demonstration of how well Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade know their dear friend, the lengths to which they will go to in order to accommodate him, and how deeply they admire him. While in the morgue, Sherlock Holmes closely inspects the corpse of Pietro Venucci, paying no mind to his proximity to the dead man or the appropriateness of examining him with a magnifying glass. Once the Detective leaves, Lestrade leans down to inspect the corpse himself, his actions a pale imitation of Holmes’s own, before pulling the sheet back over poor Venucci. Later, when Holmes insists that a visit to Chiswick would be timelier than Lestrade’s plan to visit the Italian Quarter, the Inspector actually protests the change in plan very little, and compliantly takes up space upon 221B’s sofa until Holmes tells him that it is time to go. And while waiting in the dark and cold at two o’clock in the morning (we know, because Watson dutifully checks his pocket watch), his only question is “I don’t suppose we can smoke, can we?” Watson offers Lestrade a hard candy so as to ease some of the Inspector’s suffering, only to be told (in another one of those perfectly memorable moments) by Sherlock Holmes: “This is no time for humbugs!” Lestrade’s apparently blind faith in Holmes is soon validated, however, by the appearance of Beppo (the raving lunatic from the opening sequence).

Holmes’s mutual admiration for Watson and Lestrade is also present. When Holmes reveals to Watson how he has baited the journalist Horace Harker into writing a sensational (though inaccurate) article for his newspaper, Watson is visibly pleased with his friend’s cunning and tells him so. The Detective’s reply of thanks is both sincere and enthusiastic (with a mannered tip of his cane to set off his words). Moments later when Holmes and Watson return to Baker Street and approach their sitting room, they find that Lestrade is already present and unaware of their arrival. The Inspector is trying to surreptitiously view the folio that Holmes left on an end table (presumably the same one Holmes was reading at the beginning of the episode). The Detective is more amused by these actions than anything else, and rather than embarrass the Inspector by catching him in the act of prying, he instructs Watson to quietly walk away from the sitting room door – and return a moment later, much more loudly, giving Lestrade a moment to jump out of his seat and away from suspicion.

Inspector Lestrade in close examination of his shoes.
In his role as Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett never wasted a gesture, a facial expression, or a well-timed inflection on a word of import. And so, whether Holmes chokes on his coffee at Watson’s command to be ready in “two minutes,” lowers his head to stare meaningfully but silently at Mr. Horace Harker, or trills slightly over the letter “R” in the word “morgue,” the viewer knows that these are moments of consequence and therefore they take notice. Although some moments may seem hyperbolic to almost the point of overacting – such as when Holmes greets Mr. Sandeford of Reading (and the sixth Napoleon bust) with an exaggerated turn and flourish from his dramatic posture at the fireplace mantel – the actions are not without purpose. For Sherlock Holmes is a theatrical man, with dramatic sensibilities, and the instance lays the framework for the scene just moments later when Holmes takes a cane to the plaster bust of Napoleon – violently and without warning. And instead of being shocked by the sight of the shattered bust, Watson and Lestrade are merely surprised, greeting with delighted astonishment the priceless pearl the Detective finds within – because they know their friend’s nature. They understand what he is made of.

The episode ends, as so many viewers already know, with one more perfectly punctuated moment, with Colin Jeavons delivering Inspector Lestrade’s memorable monologue from SIXN:

“I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”

But even more remarkable than the words, delivered exactly as written in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original story, is the way in which Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes reacts to the words. Something that a reader of the Canon had only supposed, but had never before seen, is the way in which the Detective is moved by the Inspector’s compliment. As Watson says, “[Holmes] was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him,” but Granada’s presentation has the visual appeal that the written word sometimes does not. The camera angle is tight on Holmes’s face, rarely breaking away, and the subtly evolving emotions are viewed in full – a slightly more open and softer expression, a dropped lip, and eyes that seem instantly, impossibly brighter. And when Sherlock Holmes thanks the Inspector twice – once with passion and once more as his rational side asserts itself – the scene is perfectly punctuated, the episode perfectly executed.


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