100 Films @ 10: Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Films

Yesterday I ranked the film series that have been a part of 100 Films down the years. The Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective and Nigel Bruce as his trusty sidekick Dr Watson may only have placed 6th on that list, but they have been a regular presence on my blog for most of its life as I slowly worked my way through all 14, from The Hound of the Baskervilles in Year 2 to Dressed to Kill as the record-breaking #200 in Year 9.

It seemed only fitting to include the series in my tenth birthday celebrations, therefore, so for today’s top ten I’ve gone back over all my reviews (and memories) and used them as a guide to rank my ten favourite instalments.

10
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror

“The basic concept is a nice idea for a war-set spy-thriller, but not really for a Sherlock Holmes mystery. […] The consensus seems to be against me, but by the end I was quite enjoying Voice of Terror. It may be a Sherlock Holmes film in name only, but taken instead as a cheap spy thriller it makes for passable entertainment.” Full review.

9
The Hound of the Baskervilles

“One of the novel’s strong points is its occasional Gothic styling, and this is something the film version does very well. Dartmoor looks fantastic, like something Tim Burton would have created were he working in the ’30s. It’s clearly a set, but it’s dramatic and moody and completely effective.” Full review.

8
Terror by Night

“a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. […] That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.” Full review.

7
The Pearl of Death

“Holmes first rescues the priceless Borgia Pearl, but then quite spectacularly loses it. The notion of Holmes being doubted, of having to prove himself to reassert his reputation, is a good one — one recently borrowed by avowed Rathbone fans Moffat & Gatiss for their modern-day Sherlock, in fact.” Full review.

6
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon

“The name’s Holmes, Sherlock Holmes, as Universal’s loose adaptations of Britain’s Greatest Detective deliver a low-key proto-Bond, 22 years before Goldfinger applied the same tricks to Britain’s Greatest Spy. […] As with Voice of Terror, I enjoyed a lot of Secret Weapon in spite of its distinct un-Holmes-ness — it’s another pacey, exciting World War Two spy thriller.” Full review.

5
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

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 […] packed with proper deduction, which is excellent.” Full review.

4
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“There’s rain-lashed, fog-drenched Victorian London streets! Brutal murders by foul foreigners! Dastardly plots against the crown! Galloping carriages! Romantic subplots! A smattering of comedy! A song-and-dance number! (No, really, there is.) And a final shoot out… in the Tower of London! You can’t escape the joyous feeling that this was designed as pure entertainment, literally including something for everyone.” Full review.

3
The Woman in Green

“Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.” Full review.

2
The Spider Woman

“Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales [including] 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. […] 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.” Full review.

1
The Scarlet Claw

“[Roy William Neill’s] 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. [Such] little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound of the Baskervilles, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.” Full review.

Tomorrow: as seen on TV.

The Past Month on TV #3

Superheroes, spies and Sherlock in this month’s spoiler-free TV round-up.

Daredevil (Season 2)
DaredevilIt’s certainly the summer of good-guy-on-good-guy dust-ups in the superhero subgenre this year, with Batman v Superman lighting up the box office last month and Captain America v Iron Man set to do the same next week (in the UK and 41 other countries, anyway; “next month” everywhere else). First out of the gate, however, was Daredevil v Punisher, in the second season of Netflix’s initial Marvel-derived success. Also throwing love-of-his-life Elektra into the mix, plus some additional plot elements teased in season one, meant Daredevil had more to do this year. However, far from feeling overstuffed (like so many a weak superhero sequel), it rose to the occasion, with a second run that was arguably even better than the first. Charlie Cox continues to be a real star as Matt Murdock, Jon Bernthal gave an excellent rendition of Frank Castle as a genuine human being, and supporting players like Deborah Ann Woll and Rosario Dawson shine too. Also, less widely praised but one of the season’s subtle successes for me, was Geoffrey Cantor stepping ably into the series’ Ben-Urich-shaped hole. And the fights were both plentiful and eye-poppingly choreographed, even more so than the first season’s. Exciting stuff all round.

Elementary (Season 4 Episodes 14-16)
ElementaryI’m a little surprised I’m still with this “Sherlock Holmes in modern day America with a female Dr Watson” series, because it was never a particularly good version of Sherlock Holmes and it still isn’t. What it has turned out to be is a decent show in its own right (for a US network procedural, anyway), with sometimes-interesting characters who happen to share the names and the odd characteristic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed creations. It’s so much its own show that it’s never really bothered adapting the canon, so it was very odd when episode 16, Hounded, didn’t just use a few names from The Hound of the Baskervilles (as the series has in the past), but actually had a passable swing at modernising the entire plot. It doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with critics and viewers, though for my money it did a much better job than Sherlock’s disappointing attempt.

The Night Manager
The Night ManagerA lavish, all-star, ultra-hyped John le Carré adaptation that, thank goodness, lives up to its reputation. Although it wrapped up in the UK a couple of weeks ago, it only started in the US last night, and I recommend any America-based readers who enjoy a good thriller to get on board tout suite. The Night Manager doesn’t have a Tinker Tailor-style twisty-turny plot, but fills that gap with tension and suspense. Tom Hiddleston is a likeable hero, dragged in to something that might seem over his head, but which it emerges he has an affinity for. Hugh Laurie is a personably chilling villain, Olivia Colman kicks Whitehall ass, Tom Hollander perfectly judges a part that could’ve been caricature, and Elizabeth Debicki shows a very different side after her ice-cold villainess in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As for talk of Hiddleston being the next Bond… initially his character here couldn’t seem further away from 007, lending credence to my presumption that everyone declared “he could be Bond!” just because he was in a spy series. But as it goes on, he gets to be suave, cunning, and sleep with pretty much every female character that isn’t his boss. So, yes, he could be Bond. At this point he’s certainly a better pick than too-old-for-it-now Idris Elba.

Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 4 Episode 18-Season 6 Episode 9Paul Anka, aww!
  • The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story Season 1 Episodes 3-5 — aka The “22 Years Ago No One Knew Who the Kardashians Were, Isn’t That Funny?” Show.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 4-15 — I know I moaned about this last month, but I’m actually rather enjoying this season now. Just as they cancel it. Typical.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The AmericansThis month, I have mostly been missing season four of The Americans, aka the most underrated drama on television. Well, apart from with critics, that is, who’ve given this run 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know if anyone bothers to air it over here anymore (ITV ditched it after the second season), but I’ve always got it via other means anyhow, so it’s a moot point for me. I also save it all up and binge over a couple of weeks, because it really suits it — in the same way it suits, say, Game of Thrones, but as no one watches The Americans it’s much easier to avoid spoilers. This year, that means I won’t get stuck into it until sometime in June. Can’t wait. Well, I can, because I am. But you know what I mean.

    Next month… Game of F***ing Thrones returns!

  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981)

    aka
    Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона: Собака Баскервилей
    Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskerviley
    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

    2015 #14
    Igor Maslennikov | 146 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

    The Hound of the BaskervillesSherlock Holmes has appeared in more films than any other fictional character (yep, even those Marvel ones that are everywhere), which also means that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective has been portrayed by a staggering number of actors. “Who’s the best?” debates usually settle around Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and, these days, Benedict Cumberbatch, though there are ardent fans of Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey Jr… I could go on. In certain rarified circles, however, the “Sherlockian’s Sherlock” is, believe it or not, a Russian: Vasily Livanov, who starred in five popular (in their homeland) Russian miniseries/TV movies between 1979 and 1986 that some regard as definitive adaptations. We even gave him an MBE for them in 2006, so I guess he’s state-recognised.

    The most famous Holmes adventure of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was the subject of the third series, a two-part feature-length adaptation. (So yes, technically it’s not a film, but it’s the length of a film and it’s ever-so filmicly made, so I’m counting it.) The story, if you don’t know it, sees Devon gent Sir Charles Baskerville dying and his Canadian heir, Henry Baskerville (Nikita Mikhalkov), coming to England to inherit the estate. However, Sir Charles’ physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeny Steblov), fears the old chap was murdered, and that it’s somehow connected to an ancient legend of a dog-like beast that roams the moors and torments the Baskerville family. Who better to investigate such phenomenon, and the potential threat to the new Sir Baskerville’s life, than famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr Watson.

    Mr Sherlock HolmesAs many a Holmes fan will know, Baskervilles is not the best choice to get a handle on an actor’s interpretation of Holmes. Written by Doyle in the period after he’d killed Holmes off because he was tired of writing him, but before he later brought him back to life (as it were), presumably the author was still a bit bored with his creation, because Holmes disappears for a good chunk of the tale — in this adaptation, cited by many as the most faithful yet made, he’s in roughly the first and last half-hours, leaving a 72-minute stretch in the middle where he doesn’t appear at all. From what we do see of him, Livanov portrays a nicely understated Holmes. Clearly fiercely intelligent, but without the terseness of Cumberbatch’s version or the somewhat-jolly-hockey-sticks take of Rathbone. I’m compelled to get hold of the rest of the series to see what else he had to offer. (Sadly, only Baskervilles has reached UK DVD, but English-friendly imports are available. It’s also been released on Blu-ray, but I believe without English subtitles.)

    The weight of the tale falls on Dr Watson, played here by Vitaly Solomin, who starred alongside Livanov in all his adventures. His is an excellent version of the character. Hopefully the Nigel Bruce-inspired image of Watson as a bumbling, useless sidekick has faded now, thanks to a couple of decades of strong interpretations from the likes of Edward Hardwicke, Ian Hart and Martin Freeman, but when this was produced it was presumably still de rigueur. Faithful to the original stories, however, Solomin’s Watson is highly competent; not expert at applying Holmes’ incredible deductive methodology, but nonetheless capable of maintaining an investigation in Holmes’ absence. Whatever Livanov’s merits, I’d happily watch the rest of the adaptations for Solomin’s Watson.

    Dr Watson and Sir HenrySeveral other cast members manage to be both faithful to the novel and different to how their characters are usually depicted on screen. For instance, Dr Mortimer is usually played as an older gent, but is quite young in the novel — this is a rare (the only?) instance of that being followed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him played as being a bit shifty and suspicious, too. It benefits the storytelling here, because there really aren’t many suspects — it’s abundantly clear whodunnit, even if you don’t know, because there are no other options! Perhaps most memorable from the supporting cast is “internationally acclaimed actor/director” Nikita Mikhalkov as Henry Baskerville. The role is usually played as young, handsome, keen and brave (in the Rathbone version, Richard Greene even gets top billing in the role, and his incarnation is at the centre of a played-up romantic subplot). Here, Henry is a little older, prone to drinking, readily amused in a larger-than-life fashion, frequently baffled by events, somewhat cowardly, and most often used for comic relief.

    There’s certainly a stronger strand of humour than I recall from either the book or any previous adaptation (though I’ve not seen the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedy version, which one would hope is funnier), but it’s all texture with Sir Henry rather than a narrative driving force. It also plays down the supernatural or Gothic side of things, which other versions tend to ramp up — the Rathbone film and the 2002 BBC TV movie both insert a seance sequence, even, which works so well that I’d forgotten it wasn’t actually in the novel. It’s a good addition partly for the atmosphere, but also for playing up the sense of community amongst the small band of characters. Here, everyone feels very isolated and rarely seen — there are even scenes where they’re surprised to actually run into one another. Holmes solves the caseThere’s more of an emphasis on people spying on each other suspiciously, which at least is rather appropriate to a murder mystery.

    Indeed, I suppose this adaptation plays the story mostly as a detective mystery, if that’s not too obvious a thing to observe. Hound is far from the strongest mystery in the canon, mind, especially as presented here, with the the list of suspects seriously depleted by that absence of community. On the bright side, it makes up for it by having the ultimate revelation seem like proper detective work by Holmes. Normally the reveal hinges on him happening to spot a telling painting, an explanation that is implausible enough even without the element of happenstance. Here, the painting merely suggests a motive and a new line of enquiry to prove that theory. Nonetheless, the final summary contains a goodly number of “I don’t know, Watson”-type answers to dangling motivations/practicalities/etc. Anyone after a solid murder mystery, rather than a detective-led adventure, should look elsewhere.

    The film itself is very well made. There’s some gorgeous cinematography by Dmitri Dolinin and Vladimir Ilyin; in particular, the cold morning on which Dr Mortimer examines Sir Charles’ body, mists drifting around some of the village houses, and anything on the moor in evening light, like when Watson finally finds Holmes. Also, just generally, it’s often very filmically shot — a shallow depth of field can pay dividends. The Russian city used as a double for Baker Street and its surroundings doesn’t look the least bit like Victorian London, though in fairness they’ve done their best to hide that, Yep, that's totally Britainincluding scattering iconic red VR post boxes around willynilly. The Russian countryside probably doesn’t look very much like Dartmoor either, but its qualities work for the story: very desolate, barren, bare trees, waterlogged dirt tracks for roads, rubble strewn around, the buildings rundown… All very atmospheric for a Gothic horror-tinged mystery, and far superior to the picture-postcard look of some adaptations.

    Sonically, Vladimir Dashkevich’s score is succinctly described as quirky, with a main theme that’s very pompously British (apparently based on a familiar piece from the BBC World Service, which the Russian audience would therefore immediately identify with Britishness), but graduating to some quite contemporary riff-y guitar stuff later on.

    (Unfortunately, the UK DVD is a little messy. For all the lovely film-ness of much of the PQ, there’s occasionally some nasty video/digital artifacting. Similarly, the subtitles are mostly fine but with sporadic lapses. A few lines are missed, and homophonic substitutions abound: “here” for “hear” (several times), “stake” for “steak”, “to” for “too”, and the second vowel in “Sheldon” changes a few times to boot. Shame.)

    Russian Hound of the Baskervilles UK DVD from Mr BongoThe Hound of the Baskervilles has been filmed far too many times (a quick search of IMDb throws up a couple of dozen versions, for starters), which makes it tricky for any version to stand out from the crowd. This one picks up bonus points for reportedly being the most faithful of them all, backing that up with some strong performances, atmospheric locations and classy direction by the series’ regular helmsman, Igor Maslennikov. It’s not perfect, but then I can’t think of an adaptation of Baskervilles I’ve seen that is. Is it the best Baskervilles? It depends what exactly you want in the mix, but I think you’d have to say it’s a contender.

    4 out of 5

    This review is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.

    The Baskerville Curse (1983)

    2008 #25
    Eddy Graham | 67 mins | DVD | U / G

    The Baskerville CursePeter O’Toole is Sherlock Holmes (well, his voice) once again in this animated Conan Doyle adaptation from the ’80s (see also my reviews of two others, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet). Of course, this is an adaptation of that perennially popular Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and as such O’Toole barely features. A shame, as he’s the only half decent thing in this mess.

    As I’ve previously expressed, The Hound of the Baskervilles is not my favourite Holmes story, though it has its moments and there have been some enjoyable screen versions. Unfortunately, this pointlessly renamed offering retains all of the original’s faults but loses most of the best bits, despite wasting time on train journeys, telegram writing and pointless flashbacks to things we saw just minutes earlier. The animation is poor, even for a production of this level, with dire character design and a total lack of atmosphere (it opens with jolly music over views of primary-coloured countryside!) There are further flaws, but there’s no point wasting any more time going through them. I can only hope that the final entry in this series, The Valley of Fear, will be closer in quality to the other two instalments.

    In retrospect, I’m certain I underrated the 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m equally certain that I shall have no such regrets over this lame attempt.

    1 out of 5

    The Baskerville Curse featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.