Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

The Case of the Lost Film

- The character of Sherlock Holmes has been featured in so many film adaptations that he is credited as the most portrayed film character in history. Personally, I cannot get enough of Sherlock Holmes on screen and I enjoy viewing the cinematic Holmes antiques as much as I anticipate the newest screen adaptations of the character. Based on William Gillette's play "Sherlock Holmes" (assembled with significant input from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself) the 1922 silent film Sherlock Holmes holds a unique position within Holmes history but only moderately succeeds as a mildly entertaining film.

Sherlock Holmes is a unique addition to the large collection of screen versions of the world's most famous detective in that it is an adaptation of the famous play of the same name rather than one of Doyle's stories. The play itself was basically a composition of a number of Doyle's Holmes stories but it is not remembered for any kind of faithfulness to what Doyle created. Instead, "Sherlock Holmes" played a substantial role in how the character of Sherlock Holmes would be remembered for generations; most significantly introducing the character's trademark deerstalker cap and calabash pipe (which were in fact absent from Doyle's original books) and further cementing Professor Moriarty as the most recognizable villain in the world of Holmes. "Sherlock Holmes" would define the character for decades ahead of Doyle's own writings and its 1922 silent film adaptation Sherlock Holmes followed suit.

The story as presented on screen in this 1922 adaptation of the play however can only be described as.... 'huh?' The plot is convoluted, jumps around a lot and hardly makes enough sense for the viewer to keep up. I can say for certain that Holmes' arch enemy Professor Moriarty definitely has some sort of evil scheme in play and that Holmes has a thing for the damsel in distress at the center of it all.... Other than that, I am not exactly positive as to the specifics of the plot.

It is possible that Sherlock Holmes made a bit more sense to its original 1920s audience due to the fact that the only currently available version of this film is incomplete. Sherlock Holmes was considered a lost film for decades. The only reason that the film is even accessible today is because a number of the film's negatives were discovered in the 1970s. It took many decades afterward to restore Sherlock Holmes to a viewable product and a number of reels were never even found. The film subsequently exists in its present incomplete state.

The sketchy plot aside, Sherlock Holmes is not a complete write-off when it comes to screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes. Silent star John Barrymore makes a convincing Sherlock Holmes in this film. His physical qualifications give him a great advantage with the character, with his lanky physique and sharp facial features screaming Sherlock Holmes, but Barrymore also carries an energy and air of thoughtfulness essential to the character. However, the character that Barrymore plays is but a shell of the literary Sherlock Holmes. Barrymore gives Holmes a refreshing visually tangible sense of vulnerability but his is a romanticized early Hollywood Holmes, a hopeless romantic lacking the definitive calculating complexity and eccentricity. Perhaps not one of the screen's best Sherlock Holmes, Barrymore does leave a notable mark in Holmes history with his undoubtedly strong screen presence.

The rest of the supporting cast fits their roles just as well as Mr. Barrymore. Gustave von Syffertitz plays a very creepy Professor Moriarty. The Moriarty depicted in this film is not a very good recreation of the character in Doyle's books, presented as an almost walking dead-type figure; but the character is effective at representing the latter side of this tale of good vs. evil. One of the proteges of silent film legend D.W. Griffith (of The Birth of a Nation (1915) fame), Carol Dempster makes for a good damsel in distress for Holmes to save but not much of an interesting individual character. Future Oscar-nominated character actor Roland Young makes his film debut with a very satisfying performance of Dr. Watson. The character of Watson had not yet fallen into the dull role of playing Laurel to Holmes' Hardy and Young portrays a strong, capable Watson. Also making a memorable film debut in Sherlock Holmes is future Hollywood legend William Powell who would go on to star in his own series of detective films.

The character of Sherlock Holmes has a relationship with silent film that I feel yielded mixed results. One major advantage of silent film in the telling of a Sherlock Holmes story is the attention to detail in the visuals and atmosphere. Workhorse silent era director Albert Parker does not create anything ground-breaking for the time but he certainly does not disappoint when it comes to the photography and tone of the film. The silent quality of Sherlock Holmes contributed greatly to the film's cold Victorian atmosphere and brought about some great moments of disturbingly quiet tension. However, what I enjoyed the most about Sherlock Holmes was its incredible look. Absolutely essential to the success of a medium that has no sound is the effectiveness of the lighting and production design of each scene and Sherlock Holmes is complete with exquisite mood-setting black-and-white lighting and rich detail-laden mise-en-scene. Although Doyle never wrote Holmes as a hopeless romantic, he did write him as untidy and 1922's Sherlock Holmes brings this aspect out of the character better than the vast majority of Holmes screen adaptations.

The characters and especially the look of Sherlock Holmes are quite entertaining; however, one major problem exists with this film that exists in other silent film Holmes adaptations. Sherlock Holmes stories simply do not translate well onto the silent screen. This is what I deduce, anyway; although I will admit that I am biased as not just a 21st Century film viewer but as a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books. The character of Holmes is very cerebral. To display Holmes' incredible abilities of observation through such flat means as dialogue on title cards simply does not do the character or story justice. Sherlock Holmes at least valiantly attempts to display Holmes' deduction skills but still commits the same errors as other silent Holmes films by failing to unravel an engaging mystery through Holmes' mindful methods. Although the likable characters, strong visuals and place within Holmes history definitely makes 1922's Sherlock Holmes worth checking out, the patched-together story and unsuccessful depiction of what makes the stories of Sherlock Holmes great equals a middling Holmes screen adventure at best.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sherlock Holmes: The Dying Detective (1921)

Deathly Silent

- Currently 125 years old, the Sherlock Holmes character holds the record as "the most-portrayed movie character" with over 200 screen appearances. Despite Basil Rathbone's reputation as the most definitive screen Holmes, Eille Norwood was in fact the most prolific of any Sherlock Holmes actor, appearing in 47 silent serial and full-length movies produced by Stoll Pictures over a three-year span. Norwood was a perfect fit for a silent era Holmes; Arthur Conan Doyle was even quoted as saying Norwood's "wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me." Convincing easily as the iconic detective, Norwood brought an imposing and mysterious presence as well as a clear passion to the role (reading all the stories, which accompanied him on set, and even learning to play the violin) on both the stage and the screen.

One of the first of the Stoll-produced and Norwood-starred Sherlock Holmes pictures, The Dying Detective (1921) is also one of the few surviving and currently accessible ones (online & on DVD). This 1921 screen version of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," in which Sherlock Holmes contracts an exotic Asian illness, is interesting because of its place in Holmes history but also an enjoyable, albeit blemished, silent Sherlock Holmes movie.

Silent film might seem pointless and avoidable to the modern film viewer who is used to vibrant, intricate sound in movies. However, I encourage everyone to give silent movies a try as silent film has a definite mood that can support a story and bring special focus on the visuals. The silence of The Dying Detective, for example, in some respects heightens the suspense and mystery of the story. On the other hand, film was not much of a writer's medium back in the silent era. Subsequently, The Dying Detective features a plot that is a bit difficult to follow at times and pitches dialogue, if one can call it that, which can come off as cheesy to most 21st Century audiences. Also, silence can significantly contribute to a film's atmosphere but it does not necessarily aid the actual look of the film. In the case of The Dying Detective, while not necessarily dull or amateur-looking, the photography is not particularly dazzling and the aged print is understandably rough.

Still, although perhaps enjoyable only to a limited group (comprised mostly of hardcore film buffs and Sherlock Holmes fanatics, like me) as a historical deep cut of the Sherlock Holmes film legacy, The Dying Detective does make for a fun, short viewing.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

For England, Holmes?

- The longevity and effectiveness of Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic Sherlock Holmes character has been proven after 100 years of different adaptations, interpretations and re-imaginings on the big and small screens. One of the most famous screen versions of the Holmes was Basil Rathbone's interpretation of the character, adapted for Hollywood's Golden Era in different Victorian and 1940s settings. Rathbone's fourth Sherlock Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), follows the World War II setting established in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) and is especially notable for being the first of eleven Holmes films directed by Roy William Neill.

In the early 1940s, every sector of society and the economy was used for the war effort - even the movie business. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was born out of the film industry's wartime propaganda machine to boost moral for the war effort; however, the propagandist tones are significantly watered down compared to the nearly overbearing nationalist beat of the previous Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.

Arthur Conan Doyle was cold in the ground before the British entrance into World War II but Sherlock Holmes feels oddly at home amidst the blitzkrieged rubble of 1940s wartime Britain. Borrowing from Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," the plot is not particularly special but it makes for a good MacGuffin to set Holmes' unparalleled powers of deduction in motion for about an hour. In The Secret Weapon, Holmes must find a missing scientist with a secret weapon before his grand nemesis, Professor Moriarty, unlocks the secret first and sells it to the Axis Powers.

The film has its hiccups, including some pretty cliched elements and instances of stupid character decisions (even from our infallible Mr. Holmes!). However, director Roy William Neill begins his Holmes tenure off on a good footing, creating a swift flowing and (with cinematographer Les White) nicely shot wartime mystery thriller. A number of memorable scenes can be found in the film despite the short runtime; especially good is the daring plan in Switzerland and Holmes choosing the method of his own potential demise. Of course, the cast also does not disappoint: a fine group including Nigel Bruce's slightly bumbling but mostly helpful Dr. Watson, Lionel Atwill's cruel Professor Moriarty, Dennis Hoey's enjoyable Inspector Lestrade (pretty much accepting his inferior role as head of Scotland Yard) and Basil Rathbone's confident and intense Sherlock Holmes.

Fourteen Sherlock Holmes films were made by the time Nigel Rathbone was finished playing the legendary character on the big screen and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is unfortunately not one of the top-tier films made during this time. However, this film is certainly an entertaining caper that is sure to entertain fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal character.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dick Tracy, Detective (1945)

Fun 40s Pulp

 - Dick Tracy is one of the most memorable detective characters in the history of film and print. The yellow coat-wearing, by-the-book star of Chester Gould's famous comic strip "Dick Tracy" that ran from 1931-1977 also built a number of feature films, the first of which was Dick Tracy (1937) starring Ralph Byrd. The 1945 RKO Radio Pictures film Dick Tracy, Detective was the first of two films to feature Morgan Conway in the title role. 

Dick Tracy, Detective attempts to capture the spirit of the comics with a mixture of dark thrills and goofy comedy. Largely entertaining while getting its foot stuck in the usual 1940s B-movie hang-ups, the story sees Tracy face the unmentionable horror of the serial killer "Splitface" while also trying to balance a home and love life in this pulp RKO Radio picture. Much of the plot is ridiculous and includes a significant amount of clunky and forced humor. However, although initially appearing stenciled from the usual 40s B-movie fair, Dick Tracy, Detective gets credit for its surprising move into unexpected territory as the story unfolds. The film also gets some credit for a few nice shots within its generally run-of-the-mill visual style.

The second of only three actors to ever play the part of Dick Tracy on film (Warren Beatty would resurrect the character for his 1990 film), Morgan Conway is an unexciting but serviceable Tracy. While not necessarily unconvincing in the role, Conway is rather stiff, nasally and not as charming as he assumes. Basically, Conway feels like a functional stand-in for a better actor. He would not last long in the role either; Conway did one more Dick Tracy film before the original screen Tracy, Ralph Byrd, returned to the series.

The supporting cast fits their roles much better than headliner Conway. Anne Jeffreys is very enjoyable as Tracy's girlfriend Tess Trueheart, a then-unknown Jane Greer proves that she was sharp, strong and striking even before her knockout role in Out of the Past (1947) as suspect Jane Owens and Mike Mazurki (fresh from his great turn in Murder, My Sweet (1944)) is perfectly cast as the menacing maniac Splitface.

All things considered, RKO's 1945 film Dick Tracy, Detective is a fun 1940s pulp flick but not much more.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Sweet Liberty (1986)

Sweet Misery

- Somewhere between Genesis 1:1 and the current date, Alan Alda got famous. Do not ask me how it happened - it is more of a mystery than the inner workings of the universe. Sweet Liberty (1986) was Alda's first directed film since his days on "M.A.S.H." came to an end and the "sweetness" of the film, if it has any, is defined by brand of pretension and awkwardness that only Alan Alda can deliver. It is not enough that Alda writes and directs this pretentious bore, he also plays the shallow lead role.

Michael Burgess (Alda) - a winy know-it-all author who is in love with himself more than anything else - did not write his scholarly work on the American Revolution to make a movie. But how could he pass up the opportunity to make some extra cash through selling film rights? Michael's Hollywood experience brings him more than just some mailbox money however, as he clashes with eccentric back-stabbing movie stars (Michael Caine, Michelle Pfeiffer)  and a pair of Hollywood hacks (Bob Hoskins, Saul Rubinek) who prefer to pander for box office success rather than produce an accurate historical screen account of the American Revolution. Naturally, Michael needs none of this as his mother (Lillian Gish) is slowly dying of dimentia and his relationship with girlfriend Gretchen (Lise Hilboldt) is beginning to suffocate him. Laughing yet?

Sweet Liberty has one great sweet spot: its cast. Alan Alda headlines a terrific group that completely overshadows him and could do so with one hand tied behind their backs. The film's clear highlight is Michael Caine's hilarious performance as the charming but demanding, tom-catting movie star Elliot James but Bond girl Lois Chiles, the underrated Saul Rubinek, a young Michelle Pfeiffer, the great Bob Hoskins, the legendary Lillian Gish and an impressive unknown Lise Hilboldt are all fantastic in the film as well. With a great supporting cast such as this, only the writing, direction and lead performance could possibly ruin this film.... Enter Alan Alda.

The biggest problem with "M.A.S.H" once Alan Alda gained more creative control was that the show became more pretentious, preachy, saccharine and less funny than it already was. Sweet Liberty likewise suffers from similar problems; actually getting worse as it goes on through to the strange bubbly ending. The film appears to be an attempt at a satirical jab at the Hollywood machine but the themes never really materialize and the jokes do not land much of a blow. Alda's own individual writing and acting style that defines the film feels on the one hand too reminiscent of Neil Simon and Woody Allen (Alda having experience with material from both writers throughout his career) except that it lacks the wit and engaging characters threading throughout the works of both writers. And the only thing more damaging to the film than the writing is Alda's direction. The photography and general style fail to excite and the frequency of which Alda inserts cliched 80s scene montages (set to what sounds like Mannheim Steamroller playing at a Chuck'E'Cheese) is puzzling to say the least. Not without its enjoyable moments (mostly thanks to a great supporting cast) but hyped up on its own misplaced sense of self importance, Sweet Liberty ultimately ODs on the triple dose of Alan Alda.

CBC Rating: 5/10