Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year ... and that's a wrap

Bud sinks down happily on the couch, and Fran holds out the
deck to him.


Bud cuts a card, but doesn't look at it.

            I love you, Miss Kubelik.

                   (cutting a card)
            Seven --
                   (looking at Bud's card)
            -- queen.

She hands the deck to Bud.

            Did you hear what I said, Miss
            Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.

            Shut up and deal!

Bud begins to deal, never taking his eyes off her. Fran
removes her coat, starts picking up her cards and arranging
them. Bud, a look of pure joy on his face, deals -- and
deals -- and keeps dealing.

And that's about it. Story-wise.

                                            FADE OUT.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) — Going somewhere on hot air and fantasy

"Films are like flares fired from a lifeboat to see if anyone else is out there." — Terry Gilliam

The span between Christmas and New Year's Day, as the days begin crawling slowly out of the dark, has always been a nearly ceremonial week for me to indulge in guilt-free, pajama-clad viewing of favorite movies, particularly those of a science fiction/fantasy bent. And it became pretty much assured that soon after my Christmas post of Terry Gilliam's 1968 animated gonzo holiday card, at some point during the week I'd be reaching to the shelves for a Gilliam flick. Holy Grail? The Life of Brian? Twelve Monkeys? The Fisher King? Or perhaps finally catching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus via some streaming medium? What I chose was one of my favorites, a film I dip into once every couple of years.

"I think what was funny about this thing: the making of it was very much like the story itself. This disaster, this nightmare situation, and here's this old lunatic trying to drag everybody through. I think I was getting blamed for being the old lunatic, even though I was quite young then."

That's the former expatriate Python trouper — and one of moviedom's more notorious "visionary" directors — early in the audio commentary on the DVD/Blu ray disc of one of his more notorious visionary films. Even before the last frame was shot, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen had already left its stamp as a cautionary tale of budget overruns and production fiascoes. Although it's only a coincidence that Columbia Pictures was financially and executively crashing at the time, a regime change put in place new studio heads who failed to support this enormous, outside-the-box whirligig.

So the studio further ill-treated this 1989 film by giving it an anemic U.S. theatrical release, guaranteeing its initial box office failure. The whole affair hammered a nail into the foot of Gilliam's directing career, and despite subsequent successes such as The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), the over-publicized Munchausen experience was so traumatizing that it bronzed Gilliam's reputation for being "difficult." It's a small miracle that none of the behind-the-scenes upheaval and disruption ended up marring what appeared on the screen. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is as unruffled a movie as you'll find this side of Oz.

So it's been up to home video audiences to give this ornate, epic-scale, comedic fantasy spectacle — probably the purest expression of Gilliam's metaphysical, Rococo imagination — the reappraisal it deserves, particularly now given our society's current antiauthoritarian mood. And in this year of Scorsese's Hugo, here's a film that feels even more intimately connected to the work and spirit of Georges Méliès, who in fact made his own Munchausen film in 1911 (YouTube). While you might also fairly describe it as a grandiloquent paroxysm of a film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is one of the few "cult favorites" that, despite its flaws, positively earns the status on its own merits.

Its story is based on the tall (think Mt. Everest) tales of the historical blowhard Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Münchausen, a German nobleman who in the 18th century fought with the Russian military against the Turks, and who became renowned for embellishing his exploits with florid details such as joy-riding cannonballs, journeying to the moon on a whirlwind, visiting the god Vulcan inside volcanic Mount Etna, and having his ship stuck in the belly of a monster fish.

Ripe material for Gilliam, as literate and phantasmagorical a director as we're likely to see working outside of animation. Munchausen concludes a trilogy with Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985), their thematic axis being the power of imagination and storytelling in childhood, adulthood, and old age.

As personified by John Neville (who died last month), the Baron is an elderly, world-weary raconteur no longer at home in a world shifting into the Age of Reason's hardheaded rationalism, which spares little room for lyrical flights of fancy. Feeling displaced in this cold new world order, he wishes that death (given form as a hideous skeletal angel dogging his heels) would just bloody well get on with it.

Baron Munchausen: "Go away! I’m trying to die!"
Sally: "Why?"
Munchausen: "Because I’m tired of the world and the world is evidently tired of me."
Sally: "But why? Why?"
Munchausen: "Why, why, why! Because it’s all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me."

Right there we witness the Baron embodying Gilliam's overarching theme here, what he has called his "message in a bottle" — "the clash between the baroque and the Newtonian view of the world." (Now, I don't believe such a clash exists any more than the "war on Christmas," but I understand what Gilliam's saying here.)

Munchausen gets his groove back when an invasion by the Turks sends him on an epic quest to gather his former team of super-friends (the strongest man in the world, a runner faster than a speeding bullet, a dwarf with super-breath, and an eagle-eyed sharpshooter) and save a European city under siege. As in Time Bandits, we follow the resulting colorful episodes through the eyes of a persistent child. Here that's Sally, played by expressive Sarah Polley, now a filmmaker and Very Interesting Adult, all of nine years old at the time.

Their adventures send them to the moon, where the Moon King's giant disembodied head (Robin Williams in fine riffing mode) is both insane and jealous of the Baron's amour with the Queen (Valentina Cortese). From there it's imprisonment in a cage (a Gilliam signature) and a long drop to the volcano palace of the brutish god Vulcan (Oliver Reed), who's inventing the "intercontinental, radar-sneaky, multi-warheaded nuclear missile." Vulcan's wife, the goddess Venus (Uma Thurman, age 17 and not yet with a high school diploma), rises nude from her clamshell. Soon she's pressing her lovely décolletage against the romantic Baron as they waltz while floating high above a ballroom floor.

After escaping the gullet of a leviathan, our heroes ultimately return to the city to confront the army of the Grand Turk (Peter Jeffrey, familiar around here from the Vincent Price Dr. Phibes films).

However, the Baron falls afoul of a calculating bureaucrat, the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce, always terrific), eager to bury everything the Baron represents — the "folly of fantasists who do not live in the real world" — beneath the romance-free logic and cynicism of a new age "fit for science and reason." As the Baron ascends in a hot-air balloon sewn from women's undergarments, Pryce's officious villain sneers, "He won't get far on hot air and fantasy." Since Munchausen's production turmoil, it's a safe bet that for Gilliam "officious villain" is a redundancy applicable to Hollywood execs.

Gilliam's fellow ex-Python Eric Idle puts in welcome screen time as Berthold, whose powerful running legs must be anchored with irons or else he might jog himself into orbit.

Not one to embrace a silver lining when a dark cloud better fits his purpose, Gilliam keeps Munchausen out of merely "kids film" territory by grounding it with somber meditations on the theatrical follies of life, war, age, death, change, and political fear-mongering. There's more going on under the film's skin than a simple quest fantasy, and Gilliam at times seems like a director with his fingers more in a Norton anthology than in Variety magazine.

At first blush, Munchausen's strengths would appear to be unfettered Gilliam, abetted by a squad of European collaborators, namely cinematographer Giuseppi Rotunno, production designer Dante Ferretti (Hugo, Shutter Island, Sweeney Todd), and special effects chief Richard Conway (most recently the special effects senior technician on Attack the Block). The scenic design fills the screen with grittily realized city and battles scenes, and his witty special-effects spectacles — the Baron's beknickered balloon, the universe as a gyring geometric celestial sphere, the King of the Moon's surreal lunar court, the island that becomes the sea monster — give us photorealistic extensions of Gilliam's distinctive cartoons that punctuated the Monty Python troupe's TV and feature-film work. While the production remains notorious as a budget fiasco, you never doubt where the money went.

But blushes can be deceiving. Gilliam was very much fettered indeed, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as it exists is a compromised vision. Unscrupulous producers, unreliable contract labor, and Gilliam's "naive" understanding of unregulated production financing while shooting in Rome all diminished his original concept.

For instance, he had planned the moon sequence as a gargantuan banquet hall filled with tiers upon tiers of giant feasting heads, rather than just Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese in a minimalist landscape. But as Gilliam and his co-writer Charles McKeown (who plays the sharpshooter Adolphus) acknowledge in the commentary, the surreal 2-D moving backdrops and re-focused strength of the final version probably worked out for the best anyway. Drew McIntosh, in his movie blog The Blue Vial, has an extensive quote from Gilliam about that experience:

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was different from my other films in that, for the first time, I was working with a producer who claimed he would provide everything I ever wanted. The fact that he couldn't and didn't created a living hell. I was, and still am, very literal about taking people at their word and holding them to their promises. However, when, as is inevitable in these situations, the shit hit the fan, we were forced to close down while Charles McKeown and I attempted to trim the script. The pain was quite unbearable at the time but, when you are forced to destroy your work in an attempt to save it, certain creative magic occurs.
Originally, the moon sequence involved thousands of giant characters all with detachable heads. It was conceived as a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza with great crowds, much singing and dancing and feasting - all during an eclipse of the moon. The yearly eclipse provided a chance for everyone to forget everything and start again with a clean mental slate. Unfortunately, the celebration resulted in a lot of heads becoming separated from their bodies and then being unable to remember where they belonged. The sequence ended in a grandiose, outrageously spectacular slapstick chase with the Baron and friends riding and attempting to control a giant palace guard's headless body as the eclipse and the King pursue them.
Attempting to keep the film alive, we cut the moon's population down to two, King and Queen. In doing so, it concentrated our attention on the detachable head phenomenon and resulted in a very bizarrely literal interpretation of the problems of Cartesian mind/body duality. What was originally a lot of ideas jumbled together in a slightly rambling, but spectacular, sequence became one very clear and much funnier idea that was exactly to the point, and far more original.

While so much of what the final film visualizes is wonderful, the pacing is sometimes draggy. Its self-contained fantasias are often beautiful bordering on the magnificent, but taken as a whole they possess all the urgent momentum of an art gallery tour. Sometimes there's little feeling that we're heading anywhere special, even though the scenery along the way is stupendous. The script, credited to Gilliam and McKeown, doesn't make the going easier by sliding us between its various definitions of reality: Are the Baron's tales real, or merely the ramblings of a lunatic old duffer on a theater stage? Do he and his men actually defeat the Turks, or was the defeat achieved offscreen and then suppressed by Jonathan Pryce's character for his own "enemy at the gate," Fox Newspeak fearmongering ends? Is Uma Venus or is Uma the peasant girl Rose?

Gilliam being Gilliam, the ambiguities are deliberate, with our mulling them over afterward part of his plan.

It may be hot air and fantasy, but The Adventures of Baron Munchausen takes us further than most effects-heavy fables manage to do even with three prequels.

Finally, here's a movie that makes the ideal narrative and thematic double-feature with Tarsem Singh's similarly screen-filling fantastical The Fall, also about the life-shaping power of storytelling.

If you're inclined to seek out The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I suggest Sony's 2008 "20th Anniversary Edition" in either its two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray format. It delivers a lovely transfer of a nearly flawless print. Color, definition, and detail are brilliant and vivid. The newly remixed Dolby 5.1 surround audio does a splendid job with its clarity and surround effects.

On the Munchausen disc, the special features are a cut above the typical promo fluff and filler you usually find on "anniversary" editions. Besides the illuminating commentary track — now I know where to spot Gilliam's friend Sting in a quick cameo — we get one of the best "making of" extras I've seen in ages, a three-part 72-minute documentary fittingly titled The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen.

Gilliam and McKeown host this occasionally painful retrospective that doesn't just take us behind the scenes — it kicks open the door into the ugly business and personal risks that are movie-making. The director and writer, along with actors Jonathan Pryce, Eric Idle, John Neville, Sarah Polley, Bill Paterson, and Robin Williams, plus production associates who have since recovered from the experience, speak about their loyalty to the project even when the director was "insane" and every possible aspect of the shoot was going wrong. Yet they are candid when it comes to the downside of the clashing personalities and the seemingly endless months spent on sets that might never actually get built and the money-mandated revisions at every turn. Recorded separately, producer Thomas Schuhly — who wasn't as connected and experienced in the biz as he had presented himself to Gilliam — is defensive and caustic, but accepts some of the blame for the pain and suffering. It's clear that there remains little love lost between Gilliam and Schuhly.

We also get Gilliam's storyboard sequences — "The Baron Saves Sally," "A Voyage to the Moon," and "The Baron & Bucephalus Charge the Turkish Gates." Gilliam and McKeown perform the sequences through vocal narration and commentary while Gilliam's drawings let us "see" scenes that never made it in front of a camera, never mind the final cut. "Moon" in particular is fascinating for the sheer ambition it represented in the pre-CGI era.

We also get four deleted scenes totaling a bit over three minutes: "The Rules of Warfare" (0:47), "Extended Fish Sequence" (0:50), "Mutiny on the Stage" (0:52), and an "Alternate Opening" (1:04) that revels in the film's extravagance further than the theatrical cut does.

Music: Arctic Monkeys
Near at hand: A new Dalek

Monday, December 26, 2011

Post-Krismas Kai

"Hey, everyone's home! Let's go out, chase things, run on the beach! I'm a dog on the go! There's my ball!"

"What? You're gonna watch movies? Damn primates. That's okay, I'll wait for you."

"No, really, you go on and do your monkey things. I'm ready when you are."

"Actually, this is a comfortable spot."

"Screw it. Wake me when there's ham."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Terry Gilliam's Pythonesque animated holiday card, 1968

In this short animation for the pre-Monty Python TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set, Terry Gilliam cut up treacly Christmas cards and transformed them into deranged scenes of yuletide chaos. Here's Terry's method for creating these animations, in case you were wondering.

(Via io9.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Watching "The Artist", feeling the "Vertigo"

Last night Elizabeth and I caught a SIFF Cinema screening of The Artist, which is already appearing on a number of 2011 Top 10 lists, occasionally in the #1 slot.

I found it attractively shot, charming, and enjoyable most of the time, though it didn't Wow me as much as I anticipated given the Oscar-buzzy hype and the lustrous trailer (see below). The story is too slight and too reliant on trite melodrama conventions (and big lifts from Singin' in the Rain), which fit the time period but don't, in my opinion, fully provide sufficient substance. The screenplay is curiously thin even given the faux-"silent film" format — partly, I think, due to a number of missed opportunities, especially in the second half. (And Penelope Ann Miller needs some stern words with her agent.)

On the other hand, the three leads — Jean Dujardin as a Douglas Fairbanks-like silent screen star washed up with the advent of the "talkies," Bérénice Bejo as the bit player who achieves Hollywood stardom, and Uggie the dog as the loyal pooch who saves the day — are marvelous and must be signed for a remake of The Thin Man, pronto. Elizabeth and I had already come to love Dujardin from the two French "OSS 117" spy-film spoofs (also directed by Michel Hazanavicius and featuring his wife Bejo), and now we learn the guy can dance Gene Kelly-style too. Yet it's Bejo who's the breakout star for me. She held her own as the co-lead with Dujardin, while doing it, as they say, backwards and in high heels. Together they have an easy chemistry, and I hope the success of The Artist means we'll be seeing more of both of them, singly and together, for years. And seriously, Uggie gives one of the best canine performances in decades.

As a pastiche of the black-and-white "silent" cinema of yore, The Artist is appealing and good-looking (though hardly accurate-looking), with some clever touches. However, the conceit wears thin without further narrative oomph starting around the half-way mark.

Trumping much of the good stuff on display, though, is one peculiar element that sore-thumbed a key scene for me: Late in the story, when Dujardin's George Valentin has hit rock bottom, having lost his career and his chance at true love, he wanders Hollywood like the Ghost of Movies Past. What jarred me during it is the choice for its musical scoring — Bernard Herrmann's "Scene d’Amour" from Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo (YouTubed here).

Now, I may be just a big ol' film geek, but it's not as if Vertigo is some obscure forgotten film, or that Herrmann's work isn't one of Hollywood's more famous and distinctive movie scores. I love Herrmann's music in Vertigo and others, but it threw me right out of The Artist as I was sitting there asking, almost out loud, "What the hell is music from Vertigo doing here?" Instead of joining George Valentin in his cinelicious despondency, I had visions of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak dancing through my head.

By my lights, that particular motif doesn't wed itself naturally to the scene in The Artist. It's hardly an ideal bit of scoring for the moment. For one thing, using it is the very definition of uninspired, even in our pop culture of mashups and creative appropriation (which I agree can be artful and inspired).

Secondly, the piece is distracting as it brings to mind a real (and better) movie made nearly 30 years after the story's setting.

Thirdly and most damningly, it's almost mawkish as it tries hard to make us feel something, thus kneecapping any earned feeling the scene may elicit. To me, it felt as though someone was trying to tap my emotional memory of Vertigo and hijack it for the scene in The Artist, rather than crafting the scene so that it generated the emotional layering on its own.

During those minutes of being kicked out of the movie's narrative, my mind wandered. I was curious whether Herrmann's "Scene d’Amour" landed there initially as some temporary scratch track filler that Hazanavicius decided he liked well enough, or else using Herrmann's music was less expensive than rescoring the scene with an original piece.

So when I got home I did what people do when disconcerted in the 21st century: I googled. Here's what I found:

A.O. Scott's New York Times review notes the Vertigo lift as one of The Artist's built-in cineaste references.

According to the film's English press kit (PDF), Hazanavicius played mood music from vintage movies on the set:

The shoot being silent, did you give your actors much direction during the takes?

What I did was play music on the set and it literally carried them. So much so that at the end, they couldn’t do without it! I played mostly Hollywood music of the '40s and '50s: Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Frank Waxman, but also George Gershwin, Cole Porter... I used SUNSET BOULEVARD a lot but I also played THE WAY WE WERE and even Philippe Sarde's music for THE THINGS OF LIFE. It's a beautiful melody and I knew Jean has a particular relationship with that theme. I didn't warn him the first time I played it and I knew that by playing it on set I'd trigger something during the take. That’s exactly what happened. I did the same with Bérénice when she arrives in hospital; I played the theme from LAURA, which she loves.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Laura Emerick's 'The Artist' is director's love letter to early Hollywood includes this unhelpful quote from Hazanavicius:
"The 'Vertigo' music is here to help shape the emotional structure of the climax.... But it's also heard in the finale [of 'Vertigo'], and the theme worked perfectly here. It helps to create a sense of resolution."

Finally, an A.V. Club interview with Hazanavicius addresses the lift directly:

AVC: Like your OSS comedies, The Artist has a Hitchcock influence—you use Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score for a pivotal moment in the movie. Was that intentional?
MH: For The Artist, the music from Vertigo came in post. I guess all the directors in France are influenced by Hitchcock, because he’s the perfect visual director, in my eyes. So I guess, yes, certainly he was an influence, but it wasn’t a reference. I mean, I wasn’t watching Hitchcock movies, I was watching silent movies. But when I was writing the script, I was listening to a lot of classical composers, and there was a lot of music from movies in that, and the music from Vertigo was one of them. So when we were editing, I went back to the script and told the composer, "There are nine narrative blocks where we need nine big scores." So I gave him all the points of what kind of emotion the music should have. And for that particular scene you're speaking of, I wanted something special. I wanted it to be the final movement. I wanted a slow love theme, and the music from Vertigo just fit perfectly. And it's not Herrmann's score, in fact, but the score re-orchestrated by Elmer Bernstein [from 1992].
After seeing that sequence cut together, our composer [Ludovic Bource] used that style as an influence for the rest of the music he created for other parts of the movie. I'll admit it's strange to have the music from another movie in your movie, but finally I chose to accept it.

Okay. So there's the answer. Not a very satisfying answer, but at least he addressed the question. I too love Herrmann's music and if I were writing a darkly moody love scene I'd have it in the background too. But it is indeed "strange" and it did toss me out of a key moment in The Artist. I recovered, of course, even if it did niggle at me until I got home and sought answers to my burning question online.

So file this post under Curiosity, qualified satisfaction of.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Tis the season for Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has just opened wide. This second outing with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie's revisionist, Gaslightpunk backspin on the Holmes and Watson mythos will be Christmas Day viewing for me and Elizabeth, as we both enjoyed the previous computer-game-redolent adventure despite being longtime aficionados of traditional Holmesiana. (In fact, I've been known to get paid for indulging in fantastical Sherlocking myself, and I scripted the "cases" and dialogue to a successful Sherlock Holmes computer game.) We all have our Holmes and Robert Downey Jr. isn't mine. That would be Jeremy Brett by a mile.

But ever since Chaplin and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I'll see Downey Jr. in anything, and I have to admit that he and Law are thoroughly enjoyable in their Holmes/Watson relationship, all anachronistic dudeness aside. Besides, I'll prep myself for this new movie the way I did for the first, by chanting my incantation while standing in the ticket line: "I'm not going to see a Sherlock Holmes movie, I'm going to see a Guy Ritchie movie." Holmes himself would agree that the right frame of mind is crucial.

Also, starting in January we're getting the second series of the BBC's Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. If it's anywhere near as good as the first series, it'll go a long way toward clinching the prize as my all-time favorite alt-Sherlock interpretation.

Like Peter Jackson's film versions of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, cinematic adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon are vulnerable to an extra lens of critical analysis. The legions of fans, aficionados, devotees, and armchair scholars of a book-to-film's original source material must, like skeptical clerics studying the Shroud of Turin, hold up every foot and frame of the filmmaker's work to the light of the hallowed author's words and pages. And we all know what the first four letters of the word analysis are. Is the film version faithful to its revered source? Does "faithful" mean dogmatic word-for-word translation from one medium to another, or are creative and practical allowances excusable?

Like Tolkien's fantasy epic, Doyle's beloved Victorian detective stories evoke an idealized time and place that never existed except between our ears, so any attempt to visualize them onscreen is inevitably judged through filters found, as Holmes authority Vincent Starrett put it, "in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895."

In any case, here are a few that I'm pleased to have on my DVD shelves:

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most-filmed tale of Doyle's famous Great Detective. Doyle's original text for The Hound of the Baskervilles concluded its serialization in The Strand Magazine in 1902, and that same year saw the complete novel published for the first time, making 2012 its 110th anniversary year.

For hardcore Sherlockians (not to mention less temperamentally scrutinizing film-lovers) the 20th Century Fox 1939 version remains a favorite screen treatment of Holmes' encounter with the supernatural hellhound. This film, which inaugurated Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their career-defining roles as steely Holmes and trusty Watson, ranks up there as a glossy, respectful interpretation that bends and condenses the sacred text yet remains authentic to its atmosphere and spirit.

When Sir Charles Baskerville dies mysteriously outside Baskerville Hall, his friend Dr. Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) finds evidence that the centuries-old family curse, a death-dealing spectral hound, has struck once again. Before Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene) arrives in London to claim his inheritance, Mortimer enlists the aid of Sherlock Holmes (Rathbone) lest yet another Baskerville succumb to the horror stalking the desolate ancestral moors. Mortimer brings Sir Henry to 221b Baker Street and expresses his fear for the young heir's life.

Baskerville learns that along with the grand family mansion comes the too-real legend of a phantom killer canine, a secretive butler (John Carradine, one year before his Casy in The Grapes of Wrath), and colorful neighbors such as the boyishly affable Dr. Stapleton (Morton Lowry), who collects ancient skulls from the Neolithic ruins nearby; Mrs. Mortimer (Beryl Mercer), whose séances conjure up ghostly howls; and Stapleton's lovely stepsister (Wendy Barrie, goddaughter of J.M. "Peter Pan" Barrie), who is quite fetching indeed in her riding togs fit for a baroness.

Holmes, pressed with "other business," sends Dr. Watson (Bruce) to accompany Sir Henry to the dreary estate and keep a watchful eye for the mysterious goings-on Holmes anticipates. Of course, with danger afoot, Sherlock Holmes may not be so far from the scene as he lets on.

Doyle's short novel has always been difficult to bring to the screen. Not only must Holmes' brilliant yet talky intellectual detective work be combined with gothic horror trappings, but Holmes himself is absent for the entire middle third of the story. This most famous version streamlines Doyle's plot and removes some of its twists and complications, then adds more red herrings than you can shake a deerstalker at.

Director Sidney Lanfield cut his teeth on musicals and light entertainments, so he wasn't entirely up to the challenges The Hound of the Baskervilles presented. Nonetheless, he served the material well, and his sets and photography positively overflow with fogbound atmospherics. Even while avoiding the visual difficulties of Doyle's phosphorous-coated beast, Lanfield's climactic Hound attack has yet to be bested.

Nowadays the movie comes off stagy and theatrical, as much a product of the thirties as the dry-ice blowers. Yet this Hound ably shows that the miasmic Devonshire moors should be shot only in spooky black-and-white with plenty of deep shadows and craggy rocks. Purists can fault the screenplay for downplaying Holmes' clockwork scientific deductions for action-thriller plot-padding, and they'd be right. Other embellishments are an effective séance scene and a rewrite of Wendy Barrie's role from a knowing accomplice to an innocent romantic interest.

Creative license aside, this film triumphs because it belongs enduringly to Basil Rathbone. Already an established star (he was the villain in the previous year's The Adventures of Robin Hood), his perfect Holmes profile and snappy characterization stamped him irrevocably into the public's image of Doyle's detective.

Here Bruce's Watson is not quite yet the blithering comic-relief idiot he became later in the series, an image that subsequent Watsons have tried hard to yank back to Doyle's reliable ex-army surgeon and narrator. The chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce energizes one of the great Hollywood team-ups. So sure-footed is this Hound's casting, another high-profile version wasn't attempted until England's Hammer Films gave it a garishly entertaining turn twenty years later, and Rathbone's only serious competition for the definitive screen Sherlock wouldn't arrive for almost fifty years with Jeremy Brett.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

In a year chock-full of good movies, 1939 saw the first two — and the two best — movies that teamed up Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson. Hot on the heels of The Hound of the Baskervilles came an even more stylish yarn, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, pitting the Great Detective against his arch-nemesis, Prof. Moriarty (George Zucco).

Moriarty's double-bladed scheme is not merely to filch the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. He aims to distract Holmes with murderous red herrings* and thereby publicly humiliate the Crown's famous defender, thus ending the two opposing geniuses' rivalry. Involved in the convolutions is exquisite ingénue Ida Lupino, who comes to 221b Baker Street when her brother, and then she herself, is threatened by the same mysterious messages that presaged the murder of her father exactly ten years ago.

Loosely based on William Gillette's stage play from 1899, Adventures doesn't break a sweat trying to make sense of its unwieldy and pulpy plot, but gets away with it in entertaining fashion thanks to pithy dialogue ("You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty; I admire it; I'd like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society") and the strengths of everyone in front of and behind the cameras.

Rathbone is again pitch-perfect as Holmes, his wiry energy and avian features guaranteeing that the actor would find the role unshakable for the rest of his career. Bruce excels as the bovine Dr. Watson even as the series forces him to settle into the silly-ass buffoon that purists have come to either loathe or hate. The script hits a sour off-note early on when, in a dickish moment, Holmes dismisses Watson's help with a supercilious insult followed by a paternal pat on the shoulder, as if he's calming a blubbing child. Note, however, that it's Watson who keeps trying to steer Holmes to the business of the endangered Crown Jewels, a task Baker Street's most renowned resident pooh-poohs until it's nigh too late.

Zucco's Moriarty may be the screen's finest so far. This coolly evil Napoleon of Crime proactively manipulates the London underworld like, as Doyle put it, a spider in the center of his web. The relationship between Holmes and Moriarty is smartly crafted, like two ruthlessly competing CEOs who respect each other's acumen yet who are nonetheless determined to see each other ruined.

In terms of directing and photography, Adventures is even better than its predecessor. Director Alfred L. Werker shows off a flair for the material, and we get scenes that appear composed, lit, and shot expressly for the most evocative publicity stills. The noirish ambiance of Victorian London is beautifully rendered, with hansoms clattering down cobblestone streets in a city built from roiling fog and inky shadows.

(* Edited to add: This plot device — Moriarty distracting Holmes with red herrings so that the Professor's more dastardly plot can proceed elsewhere — gets amplified in the new Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, as does the Zucco Moriarty's affinity for horticulture, which provides a big clue to Downey Jr.'s Holmes against Jared Harris's Moriarty.)

Regrettably, after only two films 20th Century Fox discontinued the series. After Adventures, Universal snapped up the rights (and the cast) and "re-imagined" the Holmes tales in twelve enjoyably trashy B-movies such as...

Terror By Night (1946)

Alongside series high points Pearl of Death and The Spider Woman (both 1944), here's a favorite title from Universal's Sherlock Holmes series, the World War II-era thrillers that starred Basil Rathbone.

By now Rathbone had so thoroughly imprinted himself on Holmes (or was it the other way around?) that he was eager to decouple himself from Arthur Conan Doyle's unkillable mastermind. Perhaps because his servitude was nearing an end, here Rathbone gives one of his more dynamic Holmes performances. These production-line pulp yarns — Hollywood's own Bazooka Bubble Gum — couldn't have given the terrific Rathbone any sense of challenge or growth as an actor. Nor do they ask much of the viewer, but they can be undemandingly entertaining period bric-a-brac.

The Great Detective and faithful Watson (Nigel Bruce at the height of his character's nauseating boobery) attempt to guard a priceless diamond, the Star of Rhodesia. The stone is cursed ("all those who possessed it came to sudden and violent death"), placing its owners — haughty Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes) and her fretting son, Roland (Geoffrey Steele) — in mortal peril.

Before you can say "elementary," Roland is murdered with a poisoned blowdart and the diamond stolen. With the action set on a speeding train between London and Edinburgh, Terror by Night shares a point of interest with Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. No passenger is above suspicion, and they are indeed a fishy bunch. The story doesn't rise above the expected paperback whodunit formula, and chances are you'll peg the perp long before Holmes does.

But the whole movie's only an hour long so the twists involving a trick coffin, secret disguises, a switcheroo with the gem, more murderous poison darts, and a fearsome adversary from Holmes' past aren't spread too thinly. Dennis Hoey returns for his final turn as ineffectual Inspector Lestrade. And American actress Renee Godfrey, as a young lovely caught up in events, is in the running for Hollywood's worst British accent until Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Better-than-usual pacing by series director Roy William Neill serves a by-the-numbers screenplay by pulp novelist Frank Gruber. Inconsistent stock footage suggests that the train changes engines during the journey, and the series itself is quite obviously running low on coal, though you can't fault the enduring Rathbone-Bruce chemistry or the unflagging charm of Rathbone's portrayal. After a life-or-death struggle on the train's exterior, literature's most famous sleuth returns to his compartment, slicks back his hair, and reports to Watson that he's just been "observing the landscape from the end of the corridor." Watson protests that he hadn't seen his friend there. "I was on the outside," Holmes quips, "you must try it sometime." Now we know where James Bond got it.

By the series' next and final installment, 1946's Dressed to Kill (a.k.a. Prelude to Murder), Universal's Sherlock Holmes films had degenerated to modest B-movie pulp potboilers with contemporary stock villains such as Nazis and The Scarlet Claw. After all that plus more than 200 half-hour Sherlock Holmes radio adventures with Nigel Bruce, it's understandable that Rathbone wanted to leave Holmes and Hollywood behind. Rathbone delivered a magnetic performance to the bitter end, though, and for two generations of viewers he still holds a place as the screen's all-time favorite Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

No literary characters have appeared on screen more often than Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula. So in one of life's happy little synchronicities, one of the best screen Holmes teamed up with one of the best screen Draculas in 1959, and did so in an adaptation of the most-filmed Holmes story produced by the studio that revivified Dracula for the movies. Britain's Hammer Films had already made a name for itself as a maker of lurid yet appealing adaptations of horror and suspense classics, so its colorful The Hound of the Baskervilles was a welcome inevitability.

Here's the seventh cinematic version of Doyle's novel and the 121st Holmes film. (In 1945 a copy of a German version of Hound was found in Hitler's private film library at Berchtesgaden.) This was also the first Holmes movie shot in color.

Director Terence Fisher had already teamed stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in two films that jolted Hammer to the domination of the British horror film scene: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). Cushing was evangelical in his quest to do right by Doyle, and his Holmes is one of the greats even if it's not quite up there with the inestimable Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett for screen portrayals. Not to mention that it's peculiar to see Holmes this time surrounded by significantly taller actors.

Doyle's story has been predictably Hammerfied, but most of his plot's floorboards and furnishings are intact. Back in the 1600s, an abandoned abbey on the property of Baskerville Hall near the misty Devonshire moors was the site where evil Sir Hugo Baskerville murdered a girl who refused his favors, and in turn he immediately perished between the fangs of a gigantic spectral hound. Ever since, so the legend goes, the Baskerville family has been cursed with the monstrous beast. Holmes (Cushing) and Watson (André Morell) are brought up to date on the tale by Dr. Mortimer (Francis DeWolff), the friend and physician of Sir Charles Baskerville. Sir Charles was the most recent resident of the hall, until he was found dead of fright at the remains of the abbey — and a horrific howling has been heard in the surrounding moors.

Newly arrived from South Africa to take his place in the ancestral estate is Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee). Holmes, of course, is not convinced by ghost stories, but he senses evil afoot. Immediately after he warns Sir Henry against venturing to Baskerville Hall alone, his lordship is almost bitten by a tarantula deliberately placed to attack the new head of the manor.

Holmes sends Watson to Devonshire with Sir Henry. From there Watson, Sir Henry, and later Holmes encounter an escaped convict, the scatterbrained local bishop (Miles Malleson, glorious as always) whose tarantula is missing, and Baskerville's neighbors: Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his seductive daughter, Cecile (Marla Landi).

Will Holmes solve the mystery and discover who or what is behind the murders? Well, of course, but not before someone else perishes at the hound's jaws, the blood-stained dagger used by Sir Hugo is back in action, and Sir Henry discovers that a local girl beneath his station has plenty to offer his lordship.

This version of the tale works better as a "Hammer film" than as a Baskervilles adaptation. And I'm not saying that like it's a bad thing. Holmes purists and pedants may gnash their teeth over add-ons that augment the Hammer house style — that menacing tarantula, an unexplained sacrificial rite, Sir Henry's sudden love interest (although we must say that the movie is unique in letting Christopher Lee, of all people, kiss the girl), among other divergences and alterations. Baskervilles has always been a little over-populated with red herring characters, and this version makes no effort to be an exception. The pacing could use a boost at times and — let's shoot straight here — the "hound of hell" itself is something of a letdown.

Nonetheless, Peter Cushing nails the energy, arrogance, and mannerisms of the literary Holmes, and bears a pleasing likeness to the original Strand illustrations even without possessing the elevated physicality of Doyle's character. Cushing's incarnation achieves distinction even as he plays up the stereotyped image of Holmes that had crystallized in the zeitgeist long before '59. With a Meershaum pipe in his teeth, he sports the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape that are as associated with their owner as Superman's red cape and "S" logo. Twice the film all but winks at the audience when Cushing exclaims "Elementary, my dear Watson," a line never uttered in Doyle's stories yet which has — thanks to William Gillette's stage play mentioned above — barnacled itself onto the popular image of the Great Detective. No matter. Cushing delivers a sterling performance, and a Holmes film made strictly for Holmes purists certainly wouldn't be a Hammer production.

André Morell's no-guff, dependable Dr. Watson isn't given enough to do, yet he's miles more authentic than the wuffling comic sidekick Nigel Bruce's version imprinted on the popular imagination. He steadfastly strides forth alone into the moonlit moors, risking death by quicksand or convict or canine terror, to ably assist his companion.

Being a Hammer production, the cinematography is stylish and just gaudy enough, with that distinctive Hammer gothic plumage on display — plenty of antique tones, dark wood sets, and shadow-strewn exteriors — and the set designer obviously did fastidious research into the canonical details of 221b Baker Street.

Alterations aside, the Hammer Hound rates well on lists of favorite Doyle adaptations, though it's usually ranked below the 1939 version and the BBC's 1968 version that again featured Cushing as the Master. In 1984 Cushing played Holmes yet again, in the TV movie The Masks of Death, and wrote about Holmes for a number of books.

Christopher Lee also had his turn playing Holmes in 1962's Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, a German-French-Italian production co-directed by Fisher, then twice more on TV, in 1991's Incident at Victoria Falls and 1992's Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady. Lee speaks about these at length in a feature interview on the DVD of our next title....

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Among my favorite Holmes pastiches is director Billy Wilder's (Some Like It Hot) most personal and ambitious serio-comedy. A box office failure of delicate grace and wit and thinly veiled melancholy, it's his most under-appreciated work. Never mind that the theatrical release print we can watch now on DVD or via digital streaming is only a portion of the entire movie that was planned and filmed by Wilder. Even so, the truncated edit that remains is among the most pleasurable of Holmes films and stands tall among the better movies of its era.

Wilder and his longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond conceived The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a 220-page screenplay ("a symphony in four movements," Wilder called it) that resulted in a 165-minute epic slated for a "roadshow" format: it would include an intermission and tour the country screening exclusively at the best movie palaces in each city it played in, charging higher admission prices and offering moviegoers souvenir programs and reserved seating. By 1970 it was a format already from a bygone era, the 1950s and '60s, that included such roadshow spectacles as West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, and My Fair Lady.

Alas, Hollywood was suddenly skittish after a number of recent expensive roadshow pictures flopped before the public. So United Artists altered the release strategy, and therefore the film, after Wilder had completed his big production. Of Private Life's original four adventures (three short ones and one lengthier one), two were cut along with a flashback sequence and a more elaborate framing-story prologue that added Watson's contemporary grandson.

Contrary to popular notions of the events, the studio heads didn't "butcher" Private Life behind Billy Wilder's back or without his participation and official approval, however reluctant he may have felt about it. He possessed the right of final cut and didn't push back against UA's request for a radical trimming of the total run time. Accounts of his involvement and any later regrets vary depending on which biography or interview you read. But it seems clear that he left the actual cutting duty to his editor, Ernest Walter, and afterward wasn't happy that his Platonically ideal three-hour version wasn't up there on the screen.

Nonetheless, in my opinion The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes flows briskly and seamlessly with no ragged traces of the 40 minutes of footage that was removed. It's quite the finely cut jewel.

(While the cut material was not preserved intact, the "Deleted Sequences" feature on MGM's DVD assembles vault elements such as script excerpts, videoless audio, and stills for partial reconstructions of the cut scenes, including "The Curious Case of the Upside Down Room," "The Curious Case of the Dumbfounded Detective," and "The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners.") 

This time out it's theatrical actors Robert Stephens (Maggie Smith's husband at the time) and Colin Blakely as an effete, adenoidal Holmes and a more than usually agitated Watson. Together they deliver Wilder and Diamond's traditional acerbic dry wit in a plot that takes an arch and irreverent approach to the source material (Holmes bitches about Watson's Strand magazine stories saddling him "with this improbable outfit which the public now expects me to wear") while remaining respectful to Doyle's invented world and its innate High Victorian adventure spirit.

The movie kicks off with an episode involving a Russian diva ballerina who plans to bear Holmes' child, thereby forcing Holmes to suggest that he and the infuriated ladies' man Watson are more than just friends ("Tchaikovsky is not an isolated case"). It's a slight bit of insubordinate whimsy, but the question of Holmes' sexuality glides the plot smoothly toward its more sinister components — the alluring amnesiac Madame Valladon (Genevieve Page) warming Holmes' chilly heart, bleached canaries, a vanished troupe of circus midgets, the code word "Jonah," mysterious monks, the Loch Ness Monster — to concoct a scheme that could forever change the course of the Empire. The rather anticlimactic culmination brings Holmes and Watson together with Holmes' brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee again!), who's overseeing the construction of a top-secret weapon of mass destruction, and Queen Victoria, who gets the last word in.

It's all sumptuously mounted with splendid period trappings and flavor. A key component is the haunting orchestral score by Miklòs Ròzsa. For years I searched to no avail for this film's soundtrack album just to own the theme music. My quest finally found satisfaction when I learned that Ròzsa had adapted it from his Violin Concerto, Op. 24, which he composed in the 1950s for violinist Jascha Heifetz. As Wilder and Diamond worked on the screenplay, Wilder played the concerto in the background as inspirational mood music. He decided that he wanted the piece in the film and hired Ròzsa to compose the score around the concerto. Ròzsa has a cameo in Private Life as the ballet conductor. (A soundtrack album has finally been released, apparently.) Ròzsa's music alone justifies for me the existence of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and I'm listening to it now as I type. It's exquisite frosting on one of my favorite cakes. 

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)

Let's follow one Wilder with another.

In his first feature as writer/director/star, Gene Wilder walks softly but carries a big shtick. I'm not recommending this one for hardcore Holmes fans, or even as a particularly good movie. But this broad comedy capitalized on Wilder's easy appeal, a cuddly likeability he'd earned in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and especially in three enduring classics directed by Mel Brooks: The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Because he was a longtime fan of Universal's vintage Frankenstein films, his script for and performance in Young Frankenstein radiated his affection for the source material. This time Wilder the Sherlock Holmes fan — in this DVD's audio commentary he says he reads Conan Doyle's entire Holmes canon every couple of years — tries to again capture lightning in a bottle with a costume comedy ably abetted by Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman.

However, Wilder the director gives us less polished zaniness in a film that's pleasant but too inconsequential to make much of an impression. It's melbrooksian, alright, but without Brooks' boldness or his early talent for shaping and timing a gag or a scene.

Wilder plays low-rent sleuth Sigerson Holmes, the younger brother of the renowned Sherlock (or "Sheer Luck," as Sigerson spitefully puts it). Although "hopelessly twisted" in his famous brother's shadow, he receives a blackmail case from Sherlock, who has urgent business elsewhere. The victim is loopy music hall singer Kahn, as always supremely sexy and multitalented, who succinctly informs Holmes that she's "simultaneously funny and sad." The maguffin is a stolen government document in the hands of a villainous Caruso type (Dom DeLuise).

In real life Wilder was a fencing champion and instructor, and finally we get to see this surprising swordmaster clashing blades with none other than evil Prof. Moriarty (Leo McKern).

As the Watson figure, walleyed Feldman is in good comic form as Sigerson's associate, Sgt. Orville Sacker of Scotland Yard. (Devotees of Doyle get the in-joke: Sigerson and Sacker were the author's original first-draft names for Sherlock and Watson.)

Fans of TV Britcom will recognize Nicholas Smith from "Are You Being Served?" in a recurring walk-on. And catch Mel Brooks' unseen one-line cameo in an otherwise predictable "the lady or the tiger" gag.

From start to finish The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother looks like a first film from a skilled comic actor trying his luck as an inexperienced director. The script is flabby, Wilder doesn't display a noticeably gifted eye behind the camera, the editing needed a more surgical hand, and too many participants (especially Kern) would rather pull gurning-contest faces than act.

Fortunately, Wilder insisted that Kahn and Feldman co-star with him, and together their three-way chemistry is a many-splendored thing. The stepped-down Mel Brooks influence is obvious. The sex scene with Kahn must have a been a kick to shoot, and no other film exalts in Wilder's and Feldman's bare asses at a tuxedo ball, courtesy of a death-dealing buzzsaw. Enough of the funny stuff works so that we sit through the movie aching that the whole thing isn't better than it is. Some of the silliness feels inserted at random (Wilder's commentary says that Fox chief Alan Ladd Jr. requested the reprised "Kangaroo Hop" dance to goose up the ending), and the daisy-chain of prop gags, slide-whistle humor, and blackout sketches merge uneasily with the romantic and mystery-thriller components.

What glues it together, mostly, is the talented cast in fine form. (Who else but Madeline Kahn could make the word "winkle" sufficiently funny?) It's occasionally charming, but — as the real Great Detective might put it — it's elementary, and so slight that the next day you may not remember that you watched it at all. Wilder's follow-up, The World's Greatest Lover, makes even less of an impact.

On the DVD, the big extra is Wilder's commentary track. Anyone writing a biography of Wilder or a production history of the film won't get many data points from the track — it's mostly "I remember this scene" reminiscences — but those of us who want to take him home and thank him with a cup of cocoa can enjoy his first-person annotations. He's soft-spoken and sometimes too self-critical, often sounding an inch away from melancholy, an avuncular comic in his 70s wistfully observing his younger self and his friends who've passed away. His praise for his castmates and his crew (notably production designer Terry Marsh, who went above and beyond) is touching rather than merely obligatory. 

Murder By Decree (1979)

In the dark and fog of London, 1888, a brutal killer the papers call Jack the Ripper is slaughtering the "wretched women" of the Whitechapel slums. Although the grisly murders have created a public stir, Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) observes that the official investigators are actively hostile when he offers to take up the case. When a citizens committee of Whitechapel shopkeepers appeal to him for help — Saucy Jack is proving bad for business — Holmes and stalwart Dr. Watson (James Mason) have no choice but to pursue the mystery.

Through a Victorian London that's realized with rich, claustrophobic atmosphere, the pair follow the clues to a psychic (Donald Sutherland) who claims to "see" the murderer, an Inspector (David Hemmings) with a vital secret, the aristocratic Metropolitan Police commissioner (Anthony Quayle) who commands Holmes to steer clear of the case, and a prostitute (Susan Clark) who knows too much and thus is doomed by the nightmarish black horse-drawn coach haunting the dark streets. Genevieve Bujold makes a fine impression as a traumatized young woman whose tragic story is at the heart of matters — a heart with arteries connecting to the highest levels of English society.

1979's Murder by Decree wasn't the first Holmes-Ripper movie. A Study in Terror did it in 1965. But it is the one distinguished by lavish "A" production values and by placing Holmes within the most sensational of the "Who was the Ripper?" theories — a conspiracy involving Freemasons and the Royal family that also inspired 2001's screen adaptation of Alan Moore's From Hell. From that starting point director Bob Clark and screenwriter John Hopkins fashioned an intelligent, slow-burn drama that's one of the screen's most somberly grounded Holmes stories.

As Holmes, Plummer cuts a striking figure. His controlled, subdued performance makes the stereotyped deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe appear natural and unaffected. As we watch Holmes "grappling with the dark intention" behind the murders, we also witness the brittle, aesthete Great Detective overwhelmed and transformed by the sheer humanity of what he uncovers. So much so that Murder by Decree is ultimately less about the Ripper than it is about Holmes being shaken to the core by the revealed truth and by the awareness that things might have gone better if he had not gotten involved.

The climactic reveal/confrontation fails to thrill because at no point beforehand does the screenplay offer us any direct involvement with the killer, so the whole "Whodunit?" factor feels merely incidental. Nonetheless, Holmes' impassioned speech of righteous outrage before the Prime Minister (Sir John Gielgud) strikes such a stirring populist condemnation of political elitism and class-warfare culpability that it could serve today as a manifesto for an Occupy Downing Street movement.

This British-Canadian co-production shot in London takes what could have been just a routine suspense thriller and elevates it into something else. Whether that "else" is something suitably Sherlockian depends on the expectations of the viewer. Some fans (such as yours truly) rank Murder by Decree among the very finest Holmes movies, embracing its play-it-straight, non-ostentatious approach to the Master. Others balk at Plummer's understated, emotional interpretation, which doesn't play up the literary figure's dispassionate deductive fireworks. James Mason took the role of Watson on the proviso that Clark allow him to counter the "silly ass" Nigel Bruce approach to the character. So Mason gives us a welcome no-bullshit Watson who is the empathetic counterpoint Holmes needs, although a purist can reasonably argue whether the staunch army physician would be so sensitive about his peas.

In any case, Plummer and Mason together make one of cinema's most warmly felt Holmes-Watson teams. Ripperologists will be pleased by how true the script is to historical incidents and persons involved. Frank Finlay appears as customary Holmes foil Lestrade, although the typical Lestrade involvement is mostly taken up, for plot reasons, by Hemmings' new Inspector Foxborough. And Donald Sutherland's character, despite his screen time in scenes played as if they're of supernatural importance, ultimately has little to do with the story.

Director/producer Bob Clark's career shows quirky variety, from Black Christmas to Porky's to A Christmas Story. On Anchor Bay's DVD edition, his commentary track shows him to be one of the more listenable and informative "how we did it" speakers. In his low-key manner, he covers production and directorial details, some Ripperology, and reminiscences of his stellar cast. Among the revelations: if Peter O'Toole and Sir Lawrence Olivier had had less of a "fuck you too" relationship, they would have taken the Holmes and Watson roles.