Monday, January 18, 2010

Holmes Away From Home

On the journey back to London after spending Christmas in the Westcountry I decided to try and work out what my ten best films of the year had been. Because I wasn’t having too much luck with the crossword it seemed like a reasonably good enough way of whiling away the time, at least until I actually put some thought to it.

Twenty–odd years back I had been toddling off to see something like 75 films a year on average. Over the past twelve months the number had been considerably less. In fact I could only remember seeing Star Trek, The Hurt Locker and Up, although I was sure there had been a couple of movies back in early January I had made a point of going to see. For the life of me couldn’t conjure up the titles – which turned out to be Frost/Nixon and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – for a long time.

It wasn’t that the pair were instantly forgettable, but simply that over the last few years I’ve preferred to wait and watch films at home on DVD rather than sit in a large room full of strangers, especially now that the wait isn’t that long compared to back in the days of the antiquated sell–thru VHS tapes. While I removed myself from yet one more social activity, because of the constant stream of films appearing on disc from last year and the years before it, the original cinema release dates became meaningless. Or maybe I simply wasn’t paying enough attention.

Late December I picked up The Lives of Others in the Christmas sales, figuring there was still just enough time to watch the film with the possibility of it making the list. So I was certainly bemused to read the back of the case on the tube journey home to discover that it was actually three years old. Has it been that long? Either way, in those few days leading up to Old Year’s Night I didn’t get to watch it. So Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s award–winning drama patiently sits on the shelves alongside District 9 and Public Enemies, which I do know came out last year, waiting to be slipped into the DVD player at some point.

The fact that I haven’t made time for either of those films but did rent Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen early last month is something I find quite disconcerting, and a time will come when I’ll have to think long and hard about that particular decision. That stinking pile of rhubarb wouldn’t find a place in a top ten list if it had been the only film I saw all year. The same goes for the fetid Watchmen. For a long time I was wracking my brain trying to think of the big summer movies from last year and finally I remembered Watchmen, and then wished I hadn’t.

To take away the sour taste of all the hopeless CGI-spattered nonsense, when I wasn’t watching early Hitchcock or simply going back to Powell & Pressburger, there was Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and The International, which harked back to the great caper movies and conspiracy thrillers of the 1960s and 70s even if they weren’t a complete success, Gran Torino and State of Play, and, because it’s always good to have a good laugh, In The Loop. No doubt there were more, but this was enough to remember last year by and in the end my favourites were The Hurt Locker and Up, with Star Trek and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button bringing up the rear.

Though Frost/Nixon was a decent enough little film, being reminded of it left me puzzled as to why, twelve months back, I had made the effort to go out and see it, especially given that it wasn’t a particularly cinematic scene. Not bothering to see many films in the previous year, especially having been put off by the endurance required to sit through The Dark Knight, I suspect come January of last year I was trying to make an effort and see movies at the cinema, although ultimately that didn’t pan out so well.

This past weekend I figured I’d try and give it another go because, well, what the hell! Given the choices when I got to the cinema, I plumped for Sherlock Holmes. Obviously it wasn’t one of the new New Year releases, and having been on release for quite a few weeks now, it was relegated to the size of auditorium where there was the possibility of hitting my head on the screen if I tripped on the way in. But it looked like a far better option than the computer–constructed nonsense like Alvin and The Chipmunks 2: The Squeakquel or, worse, Avatar.

I not particularly a fan of Guy Ritchie’s work insofar that I didn’t like the two earlier films of his that I’ve seen, and the opening scene in which Lastrade and Watson tool up in the back of the Black Maria made me wary that it was going to be two hours of east end geezers transported to the 19th century. I suppose there was some of that but there was a lot more besides. As a piece of Victorian blood-and-thunder not only was the film good rollicking fun but, rather remarkably, it actually stuck far closer to elements of Conan Doyle’s literary work than many of the other adaptations.

If there was a downside, occasionally there was a bit too much fiddle-de-dee fiddle and penny whistle on the soundtrack, and some of the quick patter between the leads had me wishing I could reach for a remote and bring up the subtitles. But Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law (who I’ve previously considered a long streak of weak piss) made an engaging, bickering couple and of course there was the great Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade. Though pixels had to be employed to recreate parts of old London town they didn’t overpower a story that also found a fine way to illustrate Holmes’ powers of deduction.

That alone should have made my day but since I was out I decided to stay about. After half an hour polishing off The Times’ Samurai Su Doku I watched Up in the Air. With the next Bond film delayed because MGM is crippled by $4m debt and up for sale, in the interim we’ve got a hitman who takes away your job rather than putting a bullet in your head, which is probably right on target for the current economic climate. At its most bittersweet it reminded me of something Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond would have conjured up by having a character counsel people to soften the blow of a dramatic change in their circumstances but fail to their own advice.

The fact that I’m now only a couple of months from what is officially middle age but now prefer films like Up in the Air, Sideways and Lost in Translation, where characters are dealing with various mid–life crises, instead of trying to cling to the lingering flush of youth by staring, boggle–eyed at ass–clown empty spectacle is rather disturbing. Sometimes it pays not to get ahead of yourself.


At 11:15 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

The Lives of Others will be well worth your time. It's confident and unshowy, and unfolds with grace and suspense. And it looks terrific -- wait until after you've seen it, and then Google to find out what the budget was.

I still haven't seen Sherlock Holmes but it's been so long since I actively looked forward to seeing a film that I almost hesitate to go, and relinquish the taste of anticipation. Time was, when we were more consumers than critics, life could taste like that all the time. Now every time a new project is announced there's a worldwide stampede to the keyboard to write, "This is gonna suck".

From a distance the omens weren't good -- Holmes had Downey Jr going for it, and not much else. I love a good bit of Victoriana. But Ritchie, Law, and the producers' statements-of-intent all promised dross.

But the weight of opinion from people whose opinions I respect indicates otherwise. And in a world of snark it's great to have proof in the value of keeping an open mind. Otherwise one might as well join that twat with the 'CraigisnotBond' website.

At 8:45 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I’m hoping to watch The Lives of Others on the weekend, although more of the reference material is coming out of storage and heading my way tomorrow. I look forward to checking out how much it cost afterwards.

I know what you mean about having that wonderful anticipation of an upcoming film release. It has been a long, long time since I’ve had that taste. A lot of the time now I’m immediately put off by the relentless hype, especially when it appears that the folk in the publicity department have been ordered to sell the film as if their kids’ college funds depended upon it.

Just as worse I’m beginning to hate packed cinemas so even if it’s a film I want to see I’ll give it a few weeks rather than attempt to see it close to the release date. There is the odd exception. I promised Poliakoff I would go and see Glorious 39 until I checked the website Odeon West End, where it began an exclusive run, and saw how much the tickets were. Sure, it has been a while since I’ve seen a movie in the West End – the last was probably Iron Man in the summer of 08 – but the massive price rise was just taking the piss.

Once it went wide the nearest cinemas (or the most convenient to get to) were the Odeons at Swiss Cottage and Muswell Hill. Alas, there was never the right time and in the end I figured I’d wait until it was on disc. According to Amazon it’ll be out in early March.

When this new Sherlock Holmes film was first announced I’m sure I remember there was a big to–do about the character being more physical and employing martial arts. I don’t know if this came from the studio itself, trying to promote Holmes as something of an action hero, or some mouth–breathing fanboob out to cause mischief that would lead to much weeping and rending of garments.

We’re so used to the previous screen incarnations that it’s easy to forget Conan Doyle referred to Holmes’ days as a bare-knuckle boxer in (I think) The Sign of the Four. And didn’t he use some form of martial arts move on Moriarty to throw his nemesis off the Reichenbach Falls? As it turned out the scriptwriters had really done their homework, slyly dropping in all manner of references and creating a very credible Watson into the bargain.

I never thought I’d be saying this – especially with “geezer” Guy Ritchie and Jude Law participating – but they made a cracking film. Excellent production design as well! In the credits there is a New York unit listed. It would be interesting to know what was shot there.

They set it up for a sequel. Hopefully they don’t go the “bigger is better” route and push the second film over the top, making the kind of dog’s breakfast that The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels turned into. I’ll keep an open mind for now.

My God, that “craigisnotbond” chap. Is that still going or has he slunk back under his rock? What a maroon!

At 9:51 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

That's the one...

"Oh, yes you do, McMurdo," cried Sherlock Holmes, genially. "I don't think you can have forgotten me. Don't you remember the amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison's rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?"

"Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!" roared the prize-fighter. "God's truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o' standin' there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I'd ha' known you without a question. Ah, you're one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy."

"You see, Watson, if all else fails me I have still one of the scientific professions open to me," said Holmes, laughing. "Our friend won't keep us out in the cold now, I am sure."

At 11:38 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Holmes (according to Sir ACD) was adept in 'baritsu' - a misspelled version of 'Bartitsu' popularized in England in the early 20th century by Edward William Barton-Wright who had studied Judo and Jiujutsu under several Japanese sifu masters including the renowned Professor Kano Jigoro.

By the way, I also enjoyed Sherlock Holmes enormously and a couple of weeks after seeing the film watched one of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies and couldn't help but think that Guy Ritchie got a damn sight closer to Sir Arthur's consulting detective than Hollywood ever did!

Of course, I still a soft spot for Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and Christopher Plummer (with James mason as Dr W) in the wonderful Murder by Decree.

At 2:20 am, Blogger Good Dog said...


Ah, baritsu (or rather bartitsu) that’s it! I did mean to go back to the books and check but I knew I’d end up sitting there reading them.

It’s funny but late on Sunday I watched Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, one of the dozen made by Universal in the 1940s which seriously strayed from the source material, putting the pair in a contemporary, wartime setting. I picked it because I remember being really shocked when I was old enough to appreciate Conan Doyle and read The Five Orange Pips. Still, I can forgive the deviations because when I was a nipper it was the great Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce that introduced me to Holmes and Watson, and the iconic deerstalker, Inverness overcoat and calabash pipe.

And then my meeting yesterday morning was pushed back to the end of the week so I had an early lunch and watched the episode of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on ITV3, which was The Final Problem with Eric Porter as Moriarty and that really spectacular stunt as the pair tumble from the Reichenbach Falls.

I was really amazed how close the new film was to Conan Doyle’s writing in terms of the details. There was the “VR” and Holmes even had a riding crop to give Blackwood’s stooges a few whacks around the head. Robert Downey Jr may not be over six feet tall, have a hawk-like nose and prominent chin but it made no difference. Aside from the Rathbone and Bruce films, the Sherlock Holmes movies I love above all others are Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Seven–Per–Cent Solution, Murder By Decree and Without a Clue.

And as well as the Jeremy Brett series on television there was the excellent Murder Rooms. Although I had reservations when it was first announced, Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars from a couple of years back, starring Jonathan Pryce, turned out to be brilliant. And then Rupert Everett made a surprisingly good Holmes as well.

In fact the only Sherlock Holmes adventure that I found seriously disappointing was, I’m sad to say, the TV movie with the recently departed Edward Woodward and John Hillerman. ITV3 screened it in December and it was just odd. The leads had so much makeup slapped on that it looked like they had foot-footed it from some Kabuki theatre production.

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first sat down and conceived of Sheridan Hope I wonder if he could have had even the slightest inkling that his creations would endure this long?

At 9:09 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

The Holmes film I was watching was Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce's penultimate outing in their Holmes/Watson roles, Terror by Night (1946) which is truly less than terrifying!

As a youngster I loved the Rathbone/Bruce partnership and what I dislike about them now is the reduction of Watson to a hurumphing fool (Nigel Bruce's stock Hollywood persona) that is so untrue to Conan Doyle. He is, more often than not, a clown, a buffoon, the very last kind of person that the real Holmes would have had as a boon companion.

However, even those odd wartime re-packagings of the stories have their moments. I love the use of ACD's words (from the 1917 story, His Last Bow, set in 1914 on the eve of WWI) at the conclusion of Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (made in 1942, during the Second World War) that sum up how Holmes felt about his biographer:

"There's an east wind coming, Watson."

"I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."

"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."

Great stuff, Sir Arthur!

At 10:35 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Another vote here for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Those of us who worked on Murder Rooms were convinced that David Pirie had come up with a TV property that had some serious life in it. In a rare consensus the critics and audience seemed to agree. All the writers were asked to devise stories for a second series. I thought it was a great idea -- refreshing the Holmes vibe without any of the screen baggage.

It made no sense to any of us when they cancelled and announced yet another version of Hound of the Baskervilles instead. I always find Hound problematic -- wonderful title, one of Doyle's most atmospheric settings, but you're always heading for that Scooby Doo ending. And Holmes is out of it for way too long.

I'd turn it on its head. Same story, different point of view. My pitch for it would begin, "We open with a scene of a man buying a dog..."

At 11:05 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Private Life: huge fun of course, but I'd have loved to have seen Robert Stephen playing the authentic Holmes.

Murder Rooms: Ian Richardson, in his younger days, would have made a very interesting Holmes (not to diminish his portrayal of Bell), he would have given the role a similar vocal precision to that which Cushing brought to the part in his short-lived TV series.

The Hound: you must make that re-make Stephen! Hitch would have been proud of that opening scene --- and he'd have been in the pet-shop buying a parrot!!

At 11:42 am, Blogger SharonM said...

You mean you've not seen Ian's Holmes yet, Brian (the Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four)? I'll have to rectify that for you.

To get the plug out of the way, both Ian's performances as Holmes are included in my book, We Could Possibly Comment - Ian Richardson Remembered. There's also a chapter devoted to the Murder Rooms series - Stephen, who wrote the script for The Kingdom of Bones is one of the contributors.

I would certainly like to see the current film, despite sharing initial misgivings with many re Guy Ritchie and Jude Law. I've enjoyed a variety of actor's interpretations of The Great Detective over the years, including one which most people seem to have forgotten about by Douglas Wilmer, who did at least one television series as Holmes, with Nigel Stock as Watson.

At 2:31 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Stupid of me, Sharon, especially since (whilst not having see Ian Richardson's Holmes) I have read your excellent book on Ian!!

Douglas Wilmer was, indeed, an excellent Holmes (he took over the mantel along with Stock's Watson) from Cushing. He was a great Sherlockian whom I fondly remember meeting when we both read at the memorial service of our mutual friend and Holmes scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green.

At 2:40 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I have to say that Wilmer is always there in my mind as the ur-Holmes, as he was the TV Sherlock of my childhood.

Maybe you can date people by their Holmses, the way you can with their favourite Doctor Who!

At 2:48 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Btw, didn't Cushing follow Wilmer on TV, and take the show into colour? Though Cushing's Hammer feature may have preceded both. I suppose I should look it up.

I remember one glorious night when they broadcast an unedited tape in the Cushing series; all went smoothly until about 15 minutes in, when the floor manager called cut and wandered into the shot. We were treated to two or three minutes of resetting and studio chat until someone in Presentation finally realised what was happening and cut to a service announcement.

At 2:53 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Stephen is right about Holmeses being like Whoses --- as Dr Seuss might have said!

I wonder if there are other iconic roles where people cleave to the actor they first saw in the part: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Mr Darcy, Fagin, Long John Silver or (with a new one about to fall into Master Burton's Wonderland) Alice...?

At 3:03 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Stephen is right (again, God dammit!) Wilmer preceded Cushing and Cushing series wasn't that short-lived either (16 episodes) what I was remembering was that only six episodes survived the decimation of the BBC archives.

On the broadcasting gaff, you recall, Stephen, things were terribly ad hoc in those days. In one of the surviving episodes SH and Dr W are in a hansom cab and Nigel Stock crashes one of Cushing's lines, Cushing lets him carry on and then says something like, "Exactly so, Watson, and as I was about to observe!" Bliss!

At 3:06 pm, Blogger SharonM said...

In case you haven't checked IMDB yet, Stephen, Douglas Wilmer played Holmes from '64 to '65 and Peter Cushing did indeed follow him in 1968. Wilmer also played Holmes in the 1975 film, Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, with Gene Wilder.
On the subject of Hammer stars, of course Wilmer was Nayland-Smith to Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu - 'The world will hear from me again'.

Brian, of course you are being very modest. You have not only read my book, but you were editor- in-chief as well as being a contributor.

I must see about getting Ian's two Holmes films to you.

At 3:09 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

When Good Dog gets back from wherever he is at the moment (out for 'walkies' perhaps) he's going to find that Stephen, Sharon and I have taken over his blog!

At 3:10 pm, Blogger SharonM said...

Yes, I was just thinking that myself.

Sorry, Good Dog - hopefully it's less painful than Kraft's takeover of Cadbury's.

At 3:13 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Chocolate-flavoured-(sorry 'flavored'!)-cheese, anyone?

At 7:27 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

No need to apologise. I’m sorry that I close today to run a few errands and miss the lively conversation. Reading Brian’s comment from nine o’clock before I set off, I’ve spent the time on tubes and buses and walking the streets with: “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.” stuck in my head. I even found myself saying it out loud on a couple of occasions. (Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting this).

Sharon, if you get a chance see the new movie. It seems everyone has had the same concerns regarding the director and co–star. I don’t mean to sound like one of those “it was all better in my day” people, but I tend to have such low expects of most new Hollywood films (unless they’re made by Pixar) that I can only be surprised when they turn out to be rather good. A couple of minutes into Sherlock Holmes and I had a goofy grin on my face that stayed through to the end credits.

It still boggles the mind that the BBC dropped the pure genius of Murder Rooms, especially for another version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. When the hound eventually turned up it really was a lousy computer–generated evil Scooby Doo–doo. I still think 2 Entertain should put together a decent DVD box set of Murder Rooms as compensation. And I like the idea of a new version of Baskervilles that starts with a man buying a dog. But not on the BBC because they’d probably commission it and they film some other script altogether.

I haven’t seen Douglas Wilmer as Holmes or probably Peter Cushing either. Based on those dates, Wilmer was playing Holmes on TV around the time I was coming into this world. Good old Beeb for wiping the tapes! But I do remember him as Sir Dennis Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu movies. And I’m probably now going to spend tomorrow with, “The world will hear from me again”, rattling around my head.

At 10:19 pm, Blogger SharonM said...

I do hope I get the chance to see Sherlock Holmes at the cinema - and if not, I'll certainly get it when it comes out on DVD.

Yes, Ian was both furious and very disappointed when the BBC cancelled the second series, despite funding being in place from abroad. I remember him using some very choice language when tellng me about the female BBC Controller who made the decision - which showed the strength of his feelings, as he generally avoided using the 'f' word in company when there were ladies present.

As to Douglas Wilmer, Good Dog, he was very good as Holmes and he was also in many films, including El Cid, Khartoum and Patten - and a couple of the Pink Panther films.

And how nice to discover that he is still around and has just celebrated his 90th birthday.

At 11:17 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

So WGBH were ready to add their share to the pot and that flipping Tranter woman just knocked it on the head? Oh, good grief! When these people get those jobs they should be taken aside and led into a room where a line of shadowy figures smoking cigars should earn them, “You don’t trample on genius... or else!”

As soon as I did a picture search for Douglas Wilmer he was instantly recognizable. And he was the Vizier of Morobia in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad! When I’m back in town I’ll have a look for his memoirs, Stage Whispers.

At 12:35 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

A company called IMC did a piss-poor DVD release of Murder Rooms, each episode sold separately in 4X3 format with only VHS-standard picture quality.

I have a set of the shows in widescreen, released by MPI Home Video; if I recall correctly, I think I had to order them from Australia. But they're region-free and will play anywhere. I have to say that the quality of the transfers isn't that great on these discs, either. But at least they're in the correct ratio.

At 5:27 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I have those IMC discs and they’re not just an insult to fans of the show but... well, anyone with eyes.

Had a look at the MPI set, which is certainly the best of the bunch. Still, if it’s not asking too much, it would be nice to have a set that also includes the original Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes.

At 11:33 pm, Blogger SharonM said...

I have to agree with you - and it's also an insult to all the cast, crew, writers and everyone involved in the series.

Mind you, look how long it took for Private Schulz to be released on DVD - and for some reason, there are still a lot of marvellous dramas by Jack Rosenthal that have never been availabe commercially either.

By the way, have you seen this lovely tribute to Ian, made whilst the Murder Rooms series was being filmed?


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