Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Redux: The Great Detective Lives On

Sherlock, the recent brilliant BBC-TV series re-imagining and updating of the Sherlock Holmes stories to the present day are, of course, not the only times The Great Detective has been re-worked for television, films and books. And as a long-time aficionado of the Holmes canon – and someone who had the privilege in 1987 of writing a tribute piece in The Toronto Star to Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal hero on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Holmes’ first appearance in print – I must confess I’ve more often than not been happy with how the adaptations of Holmes’ adventures have turned out in print and on screen. These include the distinguished Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies (14 movies made between 1939-46); Billy Wilder’s cynical, but entertaining The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); and Murder by Decree (1979), which cast Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson, investigating the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. Two other productions feature men who think they’re Sherlock Holmes: the allegorical and moving 1971 movie They Might Be Giants, with George C. Scott, and The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, a surprisingly decent 1976 TV movie with Larry Hagman. Interestingly, both of those featured a female Watson, thus anticipating this fall’s CBS series Elementary, with Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) as Holmes, and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels) as Watson. The post Conan Doyle novels have also often been good, with Nicholas Meyer’s excellent Holmes’ pastiches, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) and The West End Horror (1976) at the top of the heap. (Meyer's third Holmes pastiche, The Canary Trainer: From the Memoirs of John H. Watson (1993), though worthwhile, isn't as inspired.) In fact, I can only think of a few duds (though I have studiously avoided most of the Holmes in America novels as that seems to me an attempt to pander to an audience that should be content with the London- or European-set adventures of the man). I’m  not enamored of a couple of films, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), nor of Caleb Carr’s 2005 novel, The Italian Secretary. (Carr, who wrote The Alienist, has always been better at the idea than the execution, which is a polite way of saying he’s not a very good writer.) Mostly, though, the results in bringing back Holmes and Watson have been pleasing to watch or read. The latest Holmes novel, Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, as well as the recent DVD release of a criminally underrated Holmes movie, the 1976 film adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, bear that out.

The House of Silk (Little, Brown & Co. – 2012) is the first new Holmes novel to have been authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (they only approved of The Italian Secretary), which means the detective himself won’t undergo too drastic a change in the novel. He can’t thus be cast as physically frail or beginning to lose his faculties as he was in the powerful Michael Chabon Holocaust-themed novella The Final Solution (2004), an unfortunately named story as it’s also what the Nazis called The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem, their euphemism for the proposed genocide of the Jews (I don’t know if Chabon or his publisher came up with that distasteful title). Nor can one expect the fantastical elements of Neil Gaiman’s inspired, award-winning short story, A Study in Emerald (2003), which successfully and chillingly melded the world of Sherlock Holmes with that of horror master H.P. Lovecraft. (It was the only story that stood out in the themed Holmes/Lovecraft anthology Shadows over Baker Street.) And in fact, despite the easy breeziness of Horowitz’s book, and its convincing recreation of Victorian England, I was wondering what would allow The House of Silk to distinguish itself from the many Holmes novels that preceded it.

The first part of the novel seems straightforward enough with Holmes being called in to investigate in the aftermath of an art dealer’s paintings being destroyed by a gang of Irish robbers in America. Evidence that one of the gang has fled to England soon leads Holmes and Watson into a more complex scenario that eventually sees Holmes framed for murder, but more significantly involves our dynamic duo in a case that really is “too shocking to be revealed until now.” Until that revelation, Watson, writing many years after the fact and after Holmes’ passing, ruminates on his own transcription of his best friends’ cases including his slighting of Mrs. Hudson, their loyal housekeeper, whom he feels was never written about in as much depth as she could have been by him. (However, Watson still doesn’t offer us much information about her, except to indicate that she retired after Holmes vacated his lodgings at 221B Baker Street.) Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade fares better as Watson admits that he let Holmes’ biases against the detective – who he considered a dolt – influence how he portrayed him in print. The ‘real’ Lestrade turns out to be smarter and more supportive of Holmes than had been apparent in Doyle’s’ novels. Holmes’ arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, also pops up in an intriguing and illuminating encounter with Dr. Watson.

But while reading The House of Silk I was still considering, despite Horowitz’s smooth writing, what would allow this book to make an impression, particularly since it does nothing whatsoever new with Holmes’ character. He’s the same impatient, smart, insensitive, caustic and intuitive detective we already know well. And it’s then that Horowitz hits on something that Doyle would not and could not have written about when he was penning Holmes’ original adventures. I won’t say more except to indicate that it deals with an aspect of Victorian England’s seamy underbelly that we only know a lot about now in the present. It’s powerful, disturbing stuff, and a conclusion to an increasingly strange case that warrants the purchase of the novel. The House of Silk lingers in the mind and, finally, adds something new to the canon. For once, Watson’s motives for delaying writing about a case make perfect sense.

Alan Arkin and Nicol Williamson in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

When he adapted his novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution into a film in 1976, Nicholas Meyer tweaked the novel’s story slightly. He simplified the main case Holmes gets involved in in the book – a white slavery ring – but changed a key detail about Moriarty’s involvement in Holmes’ early life, which better explains the antipathy Sherlock feels towards the man. However, in both incarnations of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, Moriarty is not the criminal mastermind we know him to be from Doyle’s world. Left intact is Meyer’s tale of Holmes meeting the equally great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, whom Watson tricks into visiting in Vienna. Their meeting, and subsequent experiences, makes for one of the most enjoyable and thoughtful of the Holmes pastiches and a terrific movie, besides.

When the film begins, Holmes (Nicol Williamson) is a paranoid, disturbed shell of his former self; his addiction to cocaine has fully taken hold of his senses. A distraught Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) is at his wit’s end and is desperate to rescue his friend from the drug’s adverse effects. Bringing Holmes to Freud (Alan Arkin), in the hopes that the Viennese doctor can cure him, pits two strong-minded individuals against each other as well as embroiling them in a rousing adventure that tackles all manner of issues, from the anti-Semitic attitudes that were rife in Vienna and that targeted Jews like Freud, to an provocative relationship that Holmes develops with a beautiful troubled actress (Vanessa Redgrave).  But Meyer and director Herbert Ross respect the characters and don’t overturn the apple cart as Wilder threatened to do in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, where he wanted to reveal Homes as a closeted gay man. (Fortunately he was dissuaded from taking that path as it would have been a betrayal of Doyle’s own creation – and not something Doyle would have conceived for his iconic creation – and a decided simplification of Holmes’s psychology. Making him gay is too easy and a dull explanation for his antipathy towards women.) Holmes, as depicted by Williamson, has some of the brittle qualities Jeremy Brett brought to his deft portrayal of Holmes in the 1984-94 TV series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but Williamson’s Holmes is much more tortured and not just because of his drug addiction. What Meyer did better than anyone after Doyle was to humanize Holmes by adding a psychoanalytic analysis of the character, one that made plausible sense and added layers to the characters’ actions, beliefs and behaviour. Williamson, who died last December, was a great actor who mostly worked in theatre and on British television. He’s riveting as Holmes and, like his eccentric Merlin in John Boorman’s wonderful Arthurian film, Excalibur (1981) and his middle aged Little John in Richard Lester’s elegiac Robin and Marion (1976), puts his indelible stamp on a familiar beloved persona. The scenes where Homes undergoes withdrawal from cocaine are as harrowing as any such scenes ever shown on film.

Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson
Alan Arkin’s Freud is a neat bit of fun. Despite a somewhat wobbly German accent, his Freud, while not as good a performance as Viggo Mortenson’s Freud in David Cronenberg’s 2011 A Dangerous Method is an entertaining portrayal of an intellectual who can’t believe he’s become part of an adventure involving sword fights, chases on trains and bad guys out to kill him and his new friends. His palpable joy in getting outside his comfort zone is a delight. And Duvall’s Watson, upright, loyal but more proactive than he usually is, is the rare example of an American essaying and pulling off a British character, accent and all. (The reverse, Brits impersonating Americans well is the norm.) The Seven Per-Cent Solution is also one of director Herbert Ross’s less formulaic films, an oeuvre usually comprising well acted but predictable movies like The Goodbye Girl (1977) and California Suite (1978). It’s not quite at the level of Ross’s masterpiece, his memorable, superb adaptation of Dennis Potter’s acclaimed musical Pennies From Heaven (1981), but it’s a distinctive, evocative and original piece of work that only occasionally betrays the limitations of a low budget that doesn’t allow the film to soar as it might have during the well-done action sequences. Mostly, though the movie is, as my girlfriend Rosa pointed out when we watched it recently, a ‘charming’ confection. And at any time that attribute is in short supply in the movies. Enjoy.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on film censorship in the fall.

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