Friday, February 27, 2015

The Other Sherlock On BBC!


I was lucky enough to find this collection of vintage BBC adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Great Detective". This set holds the first season of the 60's series which later returned with Peter Cushing as Holmes. I examined the later series here. This set is in glorious black and white as opposed to the later series which was in color. Playing Sherlock in this set of adaptations is Douglas Wilmer who does a strikingly good job. As Watson is Nigel Stock who reprised his role alongside Cushing some few years later.

Douglas Wilmer as Holmes
The stories are pretty good given the limitations of budget and schedule. Wilmer has said in interviews that he was pretty unhappy with the scripts and that he and Stock did some work on them before they hit the set, but it's hard to know who did what. The final result are some really interesting takes on the vintage Holmes material.

Nigel Stock as Watson with his Other Holmes
It rivals, but doesn't surpass the later Granada series with Jeremy Brett. Wilmer in some ways strikes many of the same notes that Brett would play so masterfully years later, capturing the Holmes personality, especially his irritable nature as well as a spark of gleeful playfulness from time to time. Stock as Watson is top notch, a nimble actor who totally looks the part through and through.

If you can find it, this set is worth the small money it seems to command. Missing only a few episodes, we get a real nifty batch of Holmes goodness.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Land Of The Baskervilles!


I'm pretty sure I first saw this 2002 version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's masterpiece The Hound of the Baskervilles last summer when I caught most of it on television somewhere. I don't remember being particularly impressed, but I'm enough of a Hound enthusiast that when I found it for small money at Half-Price Bookstore I snapped it up regardless. I'm glad I did as a second watching proved quite fruitful.

This version of the classic horror-mystery tale by Doyle does a fantastic job of evoking the atmosphere which exudes from the terrain of the story's setting. I've never seen another version which so convinced me the moors were truly dangerous and terrible. This one does by presenting a barren and frosty image of a territory which might indeed harbor both deadly criminals and snarling monsters.


Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a change up from the cliche the character has become. His version is distinctive without becoming the parody that mars the most recent big screen flicks starring Tony Stark (er...I mean Robert Downey Jr.). No deerstalker and no pipe, but lots of cigarettes and a snappy wit just the same. He came across as smart and especially manipulative, and singularly uncaring about the feelings of others.

Ian Hart as Watson was very good and very convincing. His Watson was given lots to do and he is presented as a proper partner for Holmes and not in any way a lackey. In fact the notion of how much these two men trust each other is considerable theme in the story. Hart though is apparently a very short man, and I only say that to note that I kept noticing how much shorter than the other characters, even the women, he is in shot after shot.


Richard E. Grant as Stapleton is extremely good, making me for the first time understand (in film anyway) just how cold-blooded a set crimes he is committing. His desire for a meticulous revenge on the family that never knew him is convincing and makes me buy the whole of the complicated scenario he rigs up. As the smiling and exceedingly cruel Stapleton, Grant time and again makes you wince as he inflicts pain on and power over is pawn of a wife.

Neve McIntosh as Beryl Stapleton is utterly compelling in the role, and for the first time again I get why she does what she does, which is be complicit in a murder against her will. Her palpable fear of her husband is totally convincing and her fate is one of the real surprises of this telling.


Also pretty dang good is John Nettles as Dr.Mortimer and as his wife Gerladine James who makes the medium  aspect of the story very interesting indeed.

But the star of this production is the landscape, bitter and cold and full of danger. Making this story compelling is difficult since the plot elements are so familiar, but this version manages to change it up just enough to keep it fresh as well as making the whole atmosphere compelling.

Good one indeed and highly recommended.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Devil's Promise!


The Devil's Promise is a new Sherlock Holmes adventure by David Stuart Davies, a name I've come to rely upon for rollicking good pastiches of the Great Detective, and this one does not disappoint.

This time we have an older Holmes and Watson, facing the imminent arrival of a new century who get drawn into a web of intrigue battling a coven of devoted Satanists led the foul Blackwood clan. Again I must be careful not to reveal too much, but suffice it to say there are twists and turns and jumps which create a proper mystery.

Some of this story is told from the novel perspective of Holmes himself though reliably the bulk of the narrative is related from the trusty viewpoint of Dr. John Watson. We have a Holmes here who is not at the height of his powers, limited by the rigors of age and without the sure-handed confidence youth brings. But he is Sherlock Holmes nonetheless.

One off note in this yarn is the reliance on Watson's physical skills which get called into play more than seems convincing. Fisticuffs and gun play are necessary to the story, but in this one perhaps are used a tad much.

But overall, this is another compelling mystery by Davies, and gets a high recommendation from me.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Whitechapel Horrors!


The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna is one of the longest and most involved Sherlock Holmes stories I've ever read. This tome comes in at well over four hundred pages and has well over a hundred footnotes. It's an exceedingly well researched story which pits Sherlock Holmes against the most infamous killer of all time -- Jack the Ripper.


Originally published in 1992, this story takes place inside the official Holmes canon, fitted neatly between the classic adventures. Set in 1888, the story explains just what Holmes was about while his friend and biographer Dr.Watson was biding his time at Baskerville Hall. We get a sense that there was more to the three years Holmes went missing some time later.

There is a realism to this mystery which allows the reader some insights into Victorian society, and specifically a London which is a city that doesn't seem to know itself. The great chasm between the poor and the wealthy is examined, a divide the bloody crimes of the Ripper called attention to.

Holmes and later Watson too, interact with real world persons who worked the Ripper case, adding their own insights. We are given a fresh view of murders which have been written about about and discussed for over a century and we are supplied with a heady list of possible suspects.


I have never seen A Study in Terror, a celebrated movie which pits Holmes against the Ripper, but I'd like to now especially to see how it matches up to Hanna's elaborate take on the conceit.

This one will take a bit of time, but it's worth it, if you're willing to enjoy a Holmes mystery which takes some liberties with the classic structures.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Mustang Rally!


I doubt I'm alone when I sing the praises of the 1968 cop drama Bullitt. Steve McQueen in the title role of Frank Bullitt is endlessly fascinating and while the story sort of doesn't make complete sense when you evaluate it at the end, it has a grip which tightens relentlessly as the cool and cleverly made movie unfolds somberly before our eyes.


And "cool" seems to be the word of the day, as Frank is always under control and always seemingly in command. We get to see as the tension mounts that he is perhaps bubbling underneath with a mixture of anger and frustration at the violent world with which he grapples daily, but rarely does a glimmer of that leak out of the always resolute face which calmly interacts with person after person, almost always politely but with a firm hand.


Based on the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike (which I've never read alas), the story here of organized crime trying to...ahem...police itself makes for a most ironic story. The movie talks a great deal of the distinction between the violent underworld inhabited by criminals and cops, and the rest of society where folks have dinner, listen to jazz, eat breakfast, and plot out humdrum architectural plans. Bullitt and his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) come from different worlds and that clash helps shape the theme.


Opposite  our "hero" Frank Bullitt is the positively oily politician Walter Chalmers played exquisitely by Robert Vaughn. As true and trustworthy as Bullitt is, that's just how devious and unreliable Chalmers is. The movie is set up so that always Chalmers tries to either bribe or threaten Bullitt into doing what he wants, which is almost never the right thing, but always and with relatively aplomb Frank refuses. Frank is assisted in his ability to resist Chalmers by the defense of a his boss Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland) who comes across as a stalwart policeman himself.


And now we come to my favorite parts of Bullitt, the enigmatic hitmen "Mike" and "Phil". Lord only knows what their real names are, but that's what they are called in the credits. One, the gray-haired Mike (Paul Genge) is the shooter and the other, the somber Phil is the driver as they roll through much of the film trying (often with limited success) to kill their target. These are resolute straightforward executioners who ply their trade with little evident emotion.  Only Mike ever speaks and that is but briefly.


Phil is played by veteran stunt driver Bill Hickman, and he is in fact under the wheel of the black Ford Galaxy which plays cat and mouse then goes to war against Bullitt's Mustang. But as properly famous as the car chase is, I've always liked the build up to the event much better. We wouldn't care about these rambling cars if there hadn't been a capable story leading to their combat. The competition between the police and the criminals comes to a head here in the close of the act, though not the mystery itself.

The ending of Bullitt has always been a bit of a strange one, quitting more than ending, but quitting at a very interesting point. Certainly there's no suggestion of sentimentality about the nature of the work the cops do here, though there is a hint of pure adventure. If you've never seen Bullitt I envy you, but not that much really since it is, for me anyway, a movie which stands up to many repeated viewings.


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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of!


I did not know that Dashiell Hammett's great 1929 detective yarn The Maltese Falcon had been adapted to comic book form until I chanced across this cover of Feature Book #48 from 1946 by the David McKay Comics company. Reports I can find are that the comic itself is pretty weak, but if the cover is any indication, it might have some of the vintage Golden Age energy which percolated up in many of those vintage comics. I'd love to read it sometime.


I consider 1941's The Maltese Falcon directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and a delicious ensemble cast of morally bankrupt characters to perhaps be the perfect movie. I can watch it over and over without tiring of it. I compare it to great music which always carries you along with changes of intensity and tempo but never losing you and never wearing you thin. The Maltese Falcon is like that, a story that slithers along with fantastic pace but still is possessed of fascinating quiet scenes and character bits which delight but never fail to further the larger story.


I haven't read the novel is some years. I got a class set many years ago when teaching film as literature was momentarily in vogue in schools, but alas never got the opportunity to teach the book. I've since changed schools and had to leave the novels behind for someone else to perhaps make good use of. It strikes me just now I need to get funding and set up a unit for my current classes.


I bought the dvd above some years ago and have enjoyed it several times since. It's loaded with behind-the-scenes stuff as well as other extras.



Not the least of which are the two earlier 1930's adaptations of the Hammett novel, one titled simply The Maltese Falcon from 1931 and the other Satan Met a Lady from 1936
.

Sam Spade himself had quite a life beyond the novel's ending, even ending up on radio, television and in these delightful Wildroot ads. My dad was a devotee of Wildroot, and the very name of the product evokes great memories.


This is probably my favorite cover for the novel which sadly often gets covers of limited merit (to not suggest it might have actual pulp action in it I guess).


I picked this up a few years ago largely because it had the original story as it ran in serial form in Black Mask magazine in 1929. I've got it set for reading this spring hopefully.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The City Under The City!


The Asphalt Jungle is sober crime caper flick directed by John Huston, presenting the criminal underworld as a group of fully realized characters captured by passions they have limited control over.


The movie is ostensibly set in (and apparently shot on location in limited scenes) what is likely Cincinnati, Ohio, a city which even today has sections which are unusually dangerous. Actually it was across the river in Newport, Kentucky that crime ruled, though Newport is much diminished these days in the shadow of its more famous sister across the water, mostly famous for its aquarium.

Hayden on the streets of Cincinnati
We meet first Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) a thug with some truly scary dead eyes who pulls strong arm robberies to fund his gambling habit. His confidant is diner owner Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) a bitter hunchback who clearly carries a grudge against normal society. These two get drawn into a scheme by recently released convict Doc Riedenschineder (Sam Jaffe) who along with safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) plot to steal millions in jewels.

Whtimore and Hayden in a dive
The plot comes undone when their financier, a crooked local magnate name Emmerich (Louis Calhearn) connives to double cross his fellow thieves setting in motion a sequence of violent solutions to myriad problems. All the time the police are attempting to close in and capture the criminals, despite some of them being on the take the whole time.

Jaffe, Hayden, Whtimore and Caruso plot
There are other fascinating characters in this gritty John Huston effort, in particular two dames. One is Doll played by Jean Hagen who clearly has eyes for Dix, but gets little comfort in return. The other chick is not even listed in the credits but is Emmerich's ditsy girlfriend played by Marilyn Monroe. Monroe did not go unnoticed for long and dominates the posters for this movie after its initial run.

Jaffe, Hagen and Hayden marvel at the loot
The movie's best feature is its calm and steady storytelling which relentlessly follows each character as they try to deal with the successes and failures of the scheme. Some die, some live, but all meet their fates with some measure of dignity. That seems to be the point, that despite their lives of crime, these are people who have come to their respective ends as a result of life's powerful rigors.

Monroe steals the scene and maybe the movie
Stand outs are Sam Jaffe, the brilliant but flawed genius who plots the scheme and Sterling Hayden who puts up the best full-blooded presentation of a hood that I've come across. His violence is evident in every move he makes, but he doesn't fall to the level of a mere hoodlum. There's more there, a tragedy which defines his every moment on the screen. The film closes out with some beautiful scenery around Lexington, Kentucky and its almost recognizable still after over sixty years. The counterpoint of the seamy underbelly of the city with the idyllic beauty of the of the country is not overstated in this fable of modern fallible men.


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