Monday, September 12, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

When Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes came out a couple of years ago, there was some complaining about the portrayal of Holmes. I heard a lot of buzz that while Robert Downey Jr. may have been playing a cool character, he wasn’t playing the guy that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about. I feel the same way about Basil Rathbone’s role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles (released the same year, amazingly) is disappointing after the relative faithfulness of the first movie. If – like me – you tend to think of cash-grabbing blockbusters that care little about the source material as a recent phenomenon, Adventures should cure you of that. The word “blockbuster” may not have been in use in ’39, but the concept was clearly there. Adventures is a fun, but careless movie. While it includes many of the tropes people associate with Holmes, it fails to capture the overall tone.

It’s supposedly based on William Gillette’s stage play, but Wikipedia tells me that little of the play’s plot remains except for the Holmes/Moriarty conflict. Adventures begins as Moriarty (George Zucco) is in court, being pronounced innocent for a murder everyone knows he committed. Holmes rushes in just after the verdict’s been read and announces that he has new evidence that destroys Moriarty’s alibi. Unfortunately, the case is now over and can’t be retried, so Moriarty goes free. This sets up the entire relationship between Holmes and his opponent for the rest of the film. Moriarty is always one step ahead.

There’s a nice scene after the trial where Holmes and Moriarty share a cab. It’s a weird scene (because why would these two men share a cab?), but Rathbone and Zucco play it wonderfully. They made me believe that they simultaneously respected and loathed each other in equal amounts. That was cool. I also dug Moriarty’s setting the movie’s plot in motion by declaring that he would commit a great crime of historical importance right under Holmes’ nose. That’s a great challenge and I love how Moriarty carries it out.

As soon as he gets home he sets two criminal schemes in motion with a couple of letters. One is to Sir Reginald Ramsgate, the guy in charge of protecting the Crown Jewels, and anonymously implies a threat to the collection. The other letter is to a young heir named Lloyd Brandon and includes the date May 11 and a drawing of a man with an albatross around his neck. Moriarty rightly assumes that both plots will get back to Holmes and also rightly assumes that Holmes will be far more interested in the exotic mystery of the drawing (Brandon and his sister believe it to be a death threat, because their father received one just like it shortly before he was murdered) than a mundane threat to the most heavily protected treasure in the country.

Zucco’s Moriarty is deliciously evil. From his genius plan to his horrifying treatment of his butler, he’s a nasty threat. If heroes are truly defined by their villains, Holmes deserves his reputation as the Great Detective merely for having Moriarty as a nemesis.

Rathbone is still the perfect Holmes in Adventures. He looks and sounds like Holmes in every way. The problem is that the story doesn’t allow him to act like Holmes very much. His deductions are limited to the parlor game variety, his disguise – while remarkable – is impractical and silly, and he never really figures anything out. He picks the wrong case and doesn’t even solve that one so much as just follow the victim around until someone attacks her.

There are a couple of other flaws in the story. As much as I enjoy watching Zucco as Moriarty, the movie wraps little mystery around him. Some details of his plan are obscured, presenting the illusion of a mystery, but the film follows him around so much that we see all the important bits as they unfold. We know he’s after the jewels and we watch him prepare for the heist, so the story is kind of a Columbo-like mystery where the point isn’t so much who did it, but how will the detective figure it out?

I’m going to need to spoil the rest of the film to talk about it, so stop reading now if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know how it ends.

Eventually, Holmes does figure out that there were two crimes, but not until Moriarty’s heist is already being carried out. Another flaw in the film is that in any reasonable timeline, Moriarty should have been long gone with his prize by the time Holmes showed up to stop him. The film shows Moriarty at work in the treasure room, then cuts away to show a ridiculous amount of activity in which Holmes and Watson travel to various locations as they catch up to the plot. Once they do, we go back to Moriarty who’s still working away without having made much progress until Holmes gets there.

Once Holmes does arrive, he still doesn’t outthink Moriarty; he leads him on a chase to the roof (why Moriarty follows him up there instead of making off with his loot is one of the film’s biggest mysteries). There, atop the Tower of London, Holmes and Moriarty slug it out like a couple of characters from an ‘80s action flick and Moriarty suffers the most cliché fate any villain can aspire to.

Adventures has a great bad guy and an excellent concept for a plot, it just needs fixing in a couple of significant ways. First, it shouldn’t show us everything that Moriarty’s doing. If the audience was as much in the dark about Moriarty’s schemes as Holmes is, Holmes’ assumptions and bad choices wouldn’t be so glaring because we’d be making them too. But the bigger fix would be reworking the timeline of the third act to let Holmes figure things out before Moriarty’s already in the Tower stealing the jewels. Tension could still be kept high by making Holmes wrap up the murder case and save the day there before he can get to the Tower, but he should’ve already had Moriarty’s second plan figured out by the time he finished solving the first one. That would make Holmes look better and ironically, since Moriarty wouldn’t have to stall his heist until Holmes showed up to stop him it would make the evil Professor look more competent too.


Wings1295 said...

Saw this one for the first time not too long ago. It was good, but yeah, was sort of un-Holmes-like.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I am interested in what you thought about the new SHERLOCK series from BBC if you have seen it.

Michael May said...

I haven't yet. I'm kinda saving up for it; planning to delay gratification on it until I watch some of the other classic ones first. I hear nothing but awesome things about it though and will DEFINITELY blog about it once I see it.


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