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.