Categories
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Beginning with a Mutoscope adaptation made in 1900, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most oft-portrayed roles in world cinema. Among the most handsome of the countless movie productions featuring the world’s greatest consulting detective were made by 20th Century Fox in 1939. The first of these was the excellent Hound of the Baskervilles and the second is the even better The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The plot of the film owes little to any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories, and indeed is one that had been used many times before and still gets a workout in movies today: A brilliant champion of justice matches wits with an equally gifted master criminal who has announced that he will soon commit “the crime of century”. But when the hero is Sherlock Holmes played by Basil Rathbone in his signature role and the villain is Professor Moriarty played with comparable verve by George Zucco, everything old is first-rate entertainment again.

As Zucco and Rathbone circle each other in their battle of wits, two supporting players bring added energy to the proceedings. Many Holmes fans do not care for Nigel Bruce’s comic take on Dr. Watson, as it goes against his portrayal in the canon. But I am with those who find it endearing, in part because it adds some sweetness to the films that sets off Rathbone’s appropriately rationalistic and at times even cold Sherlock. As the woman around whom much of the mystery centers, a then unknown Ida Lupino also strengthens the film by giving the audience vulnerability leavened with strength and intelligence (Lupino would go on to become a pivotal figure in women’s advance in Hollywood, as I describe here).

Fox rolled out the budget for its Holmes films, which shows in the excellent production values throughout. These are enhanced by the legendary Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which has effective film noir/horror overtones. Last but not least, this is the one and only film in which I can honestly compliment Alfred Werker’s direction (I recommended He Walked by Night previously, but recall that despite the credit going to Werker, that film was mostly directed by a true master, Anthony Mann). If every journeyman director has one great film in him, this well-paced, exciting and suspenseful treat is Alfred Werker’s.

p.s. Even though both of Fox’s 1939 Sherlock Holmes films were excellent, they were not critically well-received at the time and also led to some grousing from Doyle’s descendants, who controlled the rights to his stories. After promising to make this a long-running series, Fox abandoned the enterprise after the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, a new series of lower-budget Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies set in the modern era was launched at Universal immediately thereafter. That turned out to be one of Hollywood’s very best film series. If you want to explore those films, I recommend my favorite of them, The Scarlet Claw.

Categories
Action/Adventure Romance

The Adventures of Robin Hood

If your life is giving you some family time, you and your kids can together enjoy a rollicking tale of derring do set in Merry Olde England: 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Famous as the film that made swashbuckling Errol Flynn a household name, it’s also historically important as Warner Brothers’ first foray into glorious Technicolor.

The plot is of course familiar and has been adapted dozens of times: When King Richard the Lionhearted leaves the country, his heartless brother John begins terrorizing the peasantry. The courageous noble Robin of Locksley voluntarily leaves his comfortable life to fight for the oppressed, becoming a daring outlaw who along with his Merry Men takes a personalized approach to progressive taxation. Along the way Robin wins the love of Lady Marian, who becomes a brave advocate for the downtrodden despite her blue blood.

This was a big budget film, with lavish costumes and sets designed to show off the possibilities of Technicolor photography. It’s also big in other ways: Huge battles, extended sword fights, heroic stunt work and full-blooded performances by the whole cast. For raw entertainment value alone, this is a Hollywood studio system classic, and was deservedly selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Despite being wracked with numerous health problems in real life (He died at 50 with the body of an old man), on screen Flynn is the apotheosis of the virile, roguishly charming man of action. He was working with his frequent director Michael Curtiz (Who also directed Flynn in the thrilling Captain Blood and went on to make Casablanca), who clearly knew how to get the most out of Flynn. Flynn gets outstanding support from the rest of the cast, including Claude Rains as a fey Prince John and Basil Rathbone as the dastardly Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Olivia de Havilland, who worked with Flynn on eight films, was cast more for her looks than talent in her early career, but she became a better actress over time. She’s good enough here at portraying Marian’s growing awareness of the plight of the poor and her own love of Robin. The actors in the smaller parts also do well, especially Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck.

This is a particularly good film for kids, not only because the exciting story is easy to follow but also because it embodies admirable values. I love all the ethical shading of film noir, but there is also a place for movies that teach uncomplicated moral lessons: The rich have an obligation to the poor, and good people must fight back when the strong exploit the weak. Roger Ebert, who loved this movie, said it beautifully: “In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance”.

Before closing my recommendation of this rousing classic, I leave you with two notes of trivia (1) The 1922 Douglas Fairbanks Sr. version of Robin Hood was filmed in Bidwell Park in Chico, California, and the Flynn version returned there for some of its shoot. (2) Much of the film was hilariously parodied in another of my recommendations, The Court Jester, with Rathbone sending up his own performance.

Categories
Horror/Suspense

Tales of Terror

Low budget whiz Roger Corman revered Edgar Allen Poe and brought his stories to a new generation through film. The best known is probably Masque of the Red Death (my recommendation here), but most of them are rewarding, including Tales of Terror.

This 1962 film is a trilogy of stories based on four different Poe stories: Morella, a pastiche of The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The stories are well-employed in the script of the late, great Richard Matheson, whose ability to infuse new, um, blood, into hoary tales I have praised many times. Vincent Price anchors the film with three lead performances, which vary in tone from lugubrious to frothy to sepulchral.

Price is joined by two aging stars who still know how to deliver the goods. Peter Lorre makes a fine boozy bully in The Black Cat and Basil Rathbone lends gravitas to the role of Carmichael, the hypnotist who tries to hold Valdemar at the point of death in the final story. The roles of the women characters however are comparatively flat, with the female performers cast mainly for their looks.

Many horror films, including some of the most famous, include some element of camp, and Tales of Terror is very much in that tradition. Price and Lorre enjoy themselves enormously in The Black Cat, inviting the audience to laugh at them as much as be frightened by the murderous proceedings. As a viewer, you should bring eggs for this part of the film, because these guys are bringing the ham.

In addition to the tension and fear generated by the three stories, the film makes for good horror viewing because Corman, as always, was experimenting as he went along. Some novel special effects are on display, all of which work pretty well. On the small screen, some of the Cinemascope trickery at the screen edges will be lost, so see this one on the big screen or in letterbox format if you can.

In some people’s minds, Corman is nothing but a schlock merchant, but that’s not fair to him. Like Richard Rodriguez, he has a genius for improvising in a low-budget environment. He shot movies on the sets of other movies while they were being torn down, writing a script each night to take advantage of whichever set would be gone by the end of the next day. He told Peter Bogdanovich that “Boris Karloff owes me a few days of filming, let’s make something out of that”, which became the nail-biting Targets. And he also helped launch many future superstars, including Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Francis Ford Coppola. I was absolutely delighted when Hollywood finally woke up and gave the 83-year old Corman an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, because he’s long been the kind of disruptive, creative force that the film industry needs to maintain its vitality.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

The Scarlet Claw

Of the many film series of the 1930s and 1940s, Sherlock Holmes stood out both for its watchability and its unusual provenance. It was launched at 20th Century Fox in 1939 as a high-end period production. But after two very strong films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (my recommendation here), Fox unaccountably dropped the series. Enter Universal Studios, who retained the lead actors and moved the series to modern times (Partly for WWII morale building and partly as a cost-cutting measure). Universal made a dozen modestly budgeted Holmes films in rapid succession over the next four years. Financial constraints and breakneck speed of production were no barrier to quality in this case. None of the films are bad and several are outstanding, including 1944’s The Scarlet Claw.

The plot: Holmes and Watson are in Canada, participating in a conference about the occult. Holmes’ open skepticism about the supernatural irritates the organizer, Lord Penrose (Paul Cavanagh). Penrose gets a message that his wife has been murdered, and the meeting is abruptly adjourned. Holmes presently receives a telegram sent by Penrose’s wife just before her death, saying that she feels she is in grave danger and wants Holmes to help her. Despite Lord Penrose’s hostility to him, Holmes sets off for the fog shrouded town of La Mort Rouge, where the locals believe a monster is ripping the throats out of livestock and also people. The monster is targeting particular individuals for some mysterious reason…can Holmes discover the motive behind the grisly crimes and save the next intended victim?

The heart of the Universal series are the triumvirate of Producer-Director (and in the case of The Scarlet Claw, co-screenwriter) Roy William Neill and stars Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. With his mien, delivery and intelligence, Rathbone was born to play the king of detectives and he defined the role for a generation through appearances on radio, television, film and stage. Neill and Bruce decided to make Watson much more comic than he was Doyle’s stories, which irritated some Baker Street Irregulars. If you can let that go and just take the performance for what it is, you will appreciate that Bruce is indeed agreeably funny in the role and also contributes some moments of emotional warmth which balance out his calculating machine of a friend.

The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel | Nitrate Diva

The Scarlet Claw is a high point of the series in part because it feels like an old-fashioned Victorian Holmes story even though it is set in the present day. Unlike in prior entries, Holmes is not battling Nazis but a killer who is (as in many of the films) a pastiche from the original stories. The moody, dark surroundings in rural Canada could easily pass for the Baskerville estate in Dartmoor. Also on display are some first rate make-up and special effects work, which is essential to the story for reasons I will not reveal. The film is also the career highlight of little-known British character actor Gerald Hamer, who makes the most of the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility as a performer. Cavanagh, a handsome, solid B-movie actor who appeared in several films in the series and also in another of my recommendations, (The Kennel Murder Case) is fully at ease in the role of Lord Penrose. The script is strong and Neill by this point in the series had mastered every aspect of how to create fine Holmesian cinema. The result is a skillfully made, suspenseful mystery.

More generally, as a body of work, the Universal Sherlock Holmes films depart too significantly from the original stories for some people’s tastes, but in performances and atmosphere they stand shoulder to shoulder with the tremendous Soviet Livanov-Solomin and British Granada television versions as high-quality, sustained efforts to adapt Conan Doyle’s beloved stories to the screen. Also, the prints of these films have been beautifully restored by the angels at the UCLA film preservation archive. Scarlet Claw is my favorite, but you could pick up almost any of the Universal series and have a fine evening watching the world’s greatest detective work his magic.