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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Huston’

If you want to carve out a niche for yourself as a great Sherlock Holmes, you should probably be aware that it will be a long haul. Dozens of actors have played the great detective over the years, including some very famous ones: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, and Charlton Heston amongst them. And yet, when the average person is asked to name a classic Sherlock, they will almost certainly – once they’ve mentioned Cumbersome Bandersnatch – go on to list Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Peter Cushing. All of these guys spent years or even decades playing Holmes: I suppose the fact that Rathbone and Brett didn’t really have another leading role of equal magnitude is a factor, too.

Relative obscurity doesn’t mean that some of these one-shot Sherlocks didn’t have touches of greatness about them. One candidate with definite potential, although this may be because he was primarily a theatre actor, was John Neville, a performer possibly best-known these days for the title role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (I once heard Jon Pertwee claim that Neville’s management basically stole the role from Pertwee for their man through wily politicking, though that’s by the by) and also a recurring turn in The X-Files. He played Holmes in James Hill’s 1965 movie A Study in Terror.

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As the movie opens, the inhabitants of late-Victorian London are (as usual) quaking in their boots as a series of strange and ghastly events unfolds. Someone has taken to murdering Whitechapel prostitutes and then mutilating their corpses with surgical equipment. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Donald Houston) are following the case with their usual interest, but are not actually involved – until a case of surgical instruments arrives in the post at Baker Street, postmarked Whitechapel, and with the main scalpel notable by its absence…

‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper’ is, when you think about it, a fairly obvious pitch for a movie, so it’s not surprising that a production like A Study in Terror eventually got made. That it took so long is probably due to taste concerns – this is, as I always say when writing about Ripper movies, a case of a brutally misogynistic serial killer being parcelled up as jolly entertainment – and, I suspect, the success of the period genre movies being made by Hammer at about the same time. A Study in Terror isn’t a Hammer movie – the budget is clearly bigger, and the cast list much starrier – but there are indications of the style here and there, especially in the set-piece killings.

Probably just as important as a point of reference for A Study in Terror is another film made a decade later, Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree. This is probably a better-known one-shot Sherlock movie, starring Christopher Plummer and a host of A-listers, but it again revolves around the ‘Holmes vs the Ripper’ idea. The main difference is that Murder by Decree was ginned up especially to put across one particular theory claiming to be a genuine solution to the Ripper murders, while A Study in Terror is essentially not much more than a piece of entertainment (please note I am studiously avoiding the ‘ripping yarn’ pun).

While there are a couple of ways in which Study seems to anticipate Decree – the ‘solution’ of the crimes involves the British aristocracy, and the film has a sort of social consciousness when it comes to the squalour of parts of London in the 1880s – it’s much less concerned with historical or forensic accuracy (the Ripper’s victims retain their real names, but are killed in the wrong order). Plus everyone is a bit too well-turned-out, everything is a bit too clean and colourful, for this to really convince in terms of the period setting: the setting and characters in Oliver! look more authentically dingy than they do here.

Not to say that this is a bad film, by any means: the plot is pleasingly convoluted, though I think I detect the odd hole here and there, and there is, as I said, a very impressive cast on hand – Frank Finlay plays Lestrade, a role he would reprise in Decree, and this is surely the only production in history for which Judi Dench and Barbara Windsor both receive an acting credit (sadly, they never share a scene together). Holmes gets to make some proper heavy-duty deductions, too, which is also very pleasing.

Actually, Neville and Houston are pretty good full stop as Holmes and Watson: they are clearly very influenced by the Rathbone and Bruce characterisations, but at least Houston’s Watson is just a little bit pompous rather than a complete turnip. Neville doesn’t really get a chance to project the obsessive darkness others have found in Holmes’ character, but in addition to Rathbone’s kind style of vigorous geniality, there is a trace of the kind of asceticism Peter Cushing brought to the part.

I suppose it is also to the film’s credit that this does feel rather authentic as a Sherlock Holmes story. Many pastiches don’t – some supposed adaptations, too, for that matter – for the simple reason that they treat the Holmes stories as though they were Classic Literature with the capitals intact, and their filming like the making of a costume drama. The original stories are genre fiction, and at times not that far removed from quite outlandish pulp fiction – it’s notable that there’s barely a reference to the actual Ripper murders in the original Conan Doyle, despite the fact they happened during the period when the first Holmes stories were originally being published.

One thing you can’t deny about A Study in Terror is that it honours the pulpy roots of Holmes, albeit in an occasionally roundabout way. Holmes gets a couple of proper action sequences and the story contains the requisite levels of the outlandish and bizarre. As I said, there are even moments of pure exploitation-horror, most notably the sequence in which Edina Ronay is killed: shot in long takes from the Ripper’s viewpoint, it’s undeniably powerful, even as it betrays the influence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

So in the end I would say that A Study in Terror is a pretty successful attempt at a Holmes pastiche. It’s still obviously modestly-budgeted, rather than a major production, and it’s very clear that it was conceived of as a high-class genre movie – but these things in themselves aren’t the stuff of substantive criticism. You could perhaps express a slight demur at the very concept of the film, and there are perhaps a few minor issues with plotting and tone, but on the whole this is a very decent movie, worth checking out if you enjoy a classic-style Holmes.

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