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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Elementary, Watson, part 2 (originally published 4/01)

As we saw last week, the Odyssey cable channel’s recent television adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” is only the latest in a long, long line of Sherlock Holmes adaptations for movies and television. Matt Frewer, who plays Holmes in this newest interpretation of the immortal sleuth, follows in the footsteps of an intimidating roster of distinguished predecessors.

We saw, for example, that in the early 1930s a British actor named Arthur Wontner dethroned Ellie Norwood as the screen’s “definitive Holmes.” Wontner so closely resembled Doyle’s descriptions of Holmes that it must have seemed that every actor to follow him would necessarily be doomed to live in his shadow. And yet it was only a few years later that another actor would succeed in eclipsing even the redoubtable Wontner as the public’s favorite Holmes. For some additonal examples of how Holmes has been interpreted through the years, look for these titles on home video.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939). Twentieth Century Fox struck box office gold by casting Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson in Doyle’s creepy tale of death on the moors. They played off one another brilliantly, Bruce as a slightly pompous but bumbling Watson and Rathbone as a high strung, intense Holmes. The film was successful enough to spawn a string of sequels, which finally played out seven years and a dozen films later. By the time “Dressed to Kill” (1946) brought an end to the series, Rathbone’s face, voice, and mannerisms had been burned into the minds of moviegoers as the very embodiment of Holmes.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959). After Rathbone relinquished the role, other actors were understandably wary of it. For over a decade, therefore, Holmes was uncharacteristically absent from the screen. Eventually, however, Hammer Films, a British studio, took on the challenge. Hammer had already had great success in remaking classics of the horror genre, including a Frankenstein film and a Dracula film. Emboldened by these successes, they decided to risk a new Holmes film. They cast Peter Cushing, one of the studio’s most reliable actors, in the lead. Like Wontner, Cushing bore a striking resemblance to Holmes as described by Doyle. That, along with his proven aptitude for carrying creepy thrillers, produced a performance that could stand quite well alongside Rathbone’s.

“A Study in Terror” (1965). Once the Rathbone curse was lifted from the role by Cushing’s success, filmmakers once again began to bring their own interpretations of Holmes to the screen. One notable entry was this atmospheric thriller, pitting Holmes against none other than Jack the Ripper. It was a logical premise, since the fictional Holmes and the historical Ripper were contemporaries. John Neville, a British leading man who had already played Hamlet on the screen, took on the role of Holmes.

“The Seven Percent Solution” (1976). In 1974, Nicholas Meyer hit the best seller list with a revisionist Holmes novel based on Holmes’s use of cocaine, as frankly described by Doyle, to stave off the psychological demons that plagued him when not actively involved in solving a case. Meyer postulated that Holmes’s arch-rival, Dr. Moriarty, was actually a perfectly ordinary gentleman, elevated by Holmes’s cocaine-addled mind into “the Napoleon of crime.” Dr. Watson, seeing his brilliant friend cracking up, contrives to take Holmes to Vienna to be treated by Sigmund Freud. The film version of Meyer’s book, scripted by Meyer himself, boasted a remarkable cast. Nicol Williamson stars as an unsettlingly human Holmes, ably supported by Robert Duvall as Watson and Alan Arkin as Freud.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” (1984). With the premiere of this series of Sherlockian television programs from Granada Television in England, the mantle of “definitive Holmes” at last was transferred from Basil Rathbone to a new actor. The heir apparent was Jeremy Brett. Hailed by both the general public and Holmes afficionados, Brett’s portrayal remains the current benchmark for the role. The Granada series went on to adapt all but 19 of the Doyle stories before Brett’s untimely death cut the series short.

Matt Frewer has now appeared as Holmes twice, and undoubtedly will again if “The Sign of Four” proves successful. With such a distinguished tradition of Holmes portrayals to live up to, however, you don’t need to be a super-sleuth to deduce that establishing himself in the role is going to be anything but elementary.

Elementary, Watson (originally published 3/01)

Of all the fictional detectives ever created, it seems that none has taken hold of our collective imagination as firmly as Sherlock Holmes. People who have trouble remembering their relatives’ addresses have no trouble remembering 221-B Baker Street, and occasionally some of them are moved to send a letter there to consult the master himself. Although he is a fictional character, it sometimes seems that Sherlock Holmes is more real than some of the people I encounter in real life.

Maybe it seems that way, in part, because he has been incarnated on the screen, both the movie screen and the television screen, so many times by so many actors. I haven’t done the research to back up the claim, but I would venture to guess that Holmes has been portrayed more times by more different actors than any other fictional character. Only Tarzan comes to mind as a potential rival.

The most recent actor to take on the role of Holmes is Matt Frewer, of “Max Headroom” fame, in a production of “The Sign of Four” that aired recently on the Odyssey cable network. This was Frewer’s second Holmes film, the first being last year’s remake of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” If you’re interested in comparing Frewer’s interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most enduring creation to those of his predecessors, look for these titles on home video.

“Sherlock Holmes: The Early Years” (various dates). The earliest screen adaptations of Doyle’s stories were short silent films, made in the first decade of the existence of motion pictures. Most, naturally, no longer survive. Some of the few remaining scraps of early Holmes cinema have been collected in this videotape, which is available from Movies Unlimited ( [2009 UPDATE: This is no longer true, although I did find it for sale at "Hollywood's Attic" online. If interested, you can purchase a VHS copy at -- assuming, of course, that you still have a VHS VCR to play it on.] It includes a 1912 French short subject based on “The Copper Beeches” as well as the earliest known Holmes film, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled,” from 1900. A particular treat is the inclusion of two performances by Ellie Norwood, the first film actor to be regarded as “the definitive Holmes.” Norwood appears in “The Dying Detective” (1921) and “The Devil’s Foot” (1921).

“The Speckled Band” (1931). The earliest Holmes talkie that is available on video is a British production starring Raymond Massey. By this time, William Gillette’s famous stage portrayal had left its indelible mark on Holmes by adding the familiar deerstalker cap and curved Meerschaum pipe to Doyle’s own description of his character. Massey’s Holmes does not fit into any pre-existing mold, however, not even Doyle’s. Instead, he presides over a busy office filled with assistants and futuristic (for the time) equipment. Massey himself was not terribly happy with the result, but it remains an interesting curiosity. [2009 UPDATE: This one has made the transition to DVD. You can find it at]

“A Study in Scarlet” (1933). Reginald Owen is, to my knowledge, the only actor ever to play both Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes on the screen. He was Watson to Clive Brook’s Holmes, then took on the lead role for this version of Doyle’s introduction of the character. To call it an adaptation would be an overstatement, however. The producer, Sam Bischoff, had acquired the rights to the title but not to Doyle’s story. Owen himself, along with Robert Florey, wrote a script based on a whole new plot. Owen was an adequate Holmes, but five years later he would leave an altogether more memorable impression in the role of another classic literary character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in the MGM production of “A Christmas Carol” (1938). [2009 UPDATE: This one has also turned up on DVD. Look for it at]

“The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes” (1935). The second screen actor to be thought of as “the definitive Holmes” was British stage veteran Arthur Wontner. He remains a particular favorite of Holmes afficionados, who insist that of all the actors to take on the role Wontner comes closest to the character they imagine in their heads when they read the original stories. Indeed, Wontner received a letter of praise and congratulations on his portrayal from Doyle’s own wife. Of Wontner’s five Holmes films, only “The Triumph,” an adaptation of Doyle’s “The Valley of Fear,” remains available on video, although his version of “Silver Blaze” (1937) still turns up occasionally for rent. [2009 UPDATE: Good news for Wontner fans -- there is a very reasonably priced DVD boxed set called "Classic Rarities of Sherlock Holmes" that includes three Wontner/Holmes titles PLUS the above-mentioned Reginald Owen "Study in Scarlet." Look for it at]

Next week we’ll look at more interpretations of the great Sherlock, including that of the actor who became so firmly identified with the role that no one else even bothered to try to follow in his footsteps for more than a decade after he relinquished it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Knight at the Movies, part 2 (originally published 5/01)

Being a knight in the modern world just doesn’t have the same cachet as it did in medieval times. Paul McCartney and Elton John, although estimable fellows to be sure, don’t project the same swashbuckling image somehow as Lancelot and Percival. In the old days you had to slay a dragon or seek the Holy Grail to be knighted; nowadays selling a whole lot of CDs is enough to make the cut.

For those who yearn for the heyday of chivalry when knights were bold, there are movies like the currently playing “A Knight’s Tale” to recreate those halcyon days. As we saw last week, this story of a young squire striving to attain the ideal of knighthood is the most recent in a long line of films dealing with the theme. Here are some additional knightly titles to look for on home video.

“The Black Arrow” (1948). For those who like action packed period films, it’s hard to do much better than this lively adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Louis Hayward stars as a British nobleman returning from the War of the Roses only to learn that his father has been murdered. His quest for vengeance leads to a substantial body count, culminating in the obligatory jousting contest pitting good knight against bad knight.

“The Seventh Seal” (1957). If you like your knights a bit more cerebral, try this enduring classic from the imagination of Swedish cinema master Ingmar Bergman. Max von Sydow, a perennial Bergman collaborator, plays Antonius Block, a weary, disillusioned knight returning from the Crusades to find his homeland ravaged by plague. When he himself is confronted by Death, in the person of a shadowy figure robed in black, he is bold enough to ask Death for a reprieve. He proposes to play a game of chess with Death. As long as he can escape checkmate, Death is to allow him to continue living. Death, who is intrigued by the challenge, and who enjoys a good game of chess, agrees to the terms. Bergman uses the duration of their game to raise fascinating questions about the meaning of life and death, including the theme that he would return to again and again in his films: the difficulty of maintaining religious faith in the face of the silence of God. Heady stuff, to be sure, but Bergman carries it off impressively. If you’ve only been exposed to this film by way of its many parodies, you owe it to yourself to experience the original.

“Lancelot of the Lake” (1974). Last week I called your attention to “Knights of the Round Table” (1953), which glorifies and romanticizes the legendary court of King Arthur. At the other end of the spectrum lies “Lancelot of the Lake,” written and directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. Camelot is presented here as a failed ideal populated by petty, avaricious knights. The fabled Lancelot is no better, pursuing his affair with Queen Guinevere in the full knowledge that he is undermining everything that Camelot stands for. Bresson’s films are virtually an art form unto themselves, bearing little resemblance to anyone else’s. Chances are you will either love this film or hate it.

“Knightriders” (1981). Paradoxically, one of my own favorite films about knighthood is set in the Twentieth Century. Written and directed by George Romero, who is best known for “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), it includes many of the familiar appurtenances of courtly romances, including chain mail armor, maces, lances, and, of course, jousting contests. The difference is that these latter day knights ride motorcycles rather than horses. The itinerant group travels from one location to another staging medieval style tournaments for the amusement of the locals. The twist is that the leader of the group, played by Ed Harris, has persuaded them to adopt the social mores and ideals of the mythical Camelot. Setting himself up as king, he seeks to embody the chivalric ideal in the modern world.

I suspect that the impulse, dramatized by Romero, to transplant into today’s world that which was noble and high-minded about the age of chivalry lies at the root of our continuing fascination with movies about knights of old. If only those who engage in today’s jousting contests, from corporate board rooms to the halls of Congress, could be held to those age-old standards, we would probably all be better off.

A Knight at the Movies (originally published 5/01)

It’s not so hard to understand why we remain fascinated with knighthood as it existed in the Middle Ages. What could be more seductive, after all, than the ideals of chivalry, the lure of adventure on a grand scale, the challenge of holding oneself to a higher standard, and, of course, the fun of knocking other people off their horses with long poles. The latest screen manifestation of this fascination is “A Knight’s Tale,” in which a young squire attempts to joust his way into the 14th Century aristocracy. For a sampling of how earlier films have presented knights of old, look for these titles on home video.

“Don Quichotte” (1935). The classic Cervantes tale of Don Quixote hearkens back to medieval chivalry rather than portraying it directly. Its hero is a latter day admirer of knight-errantry who sets out to live the life he has so often read about. One of the earliest film adaptations of this venerable novel is a French-British production directed by German filmmaker G.W. Pabst. The title role, played by Russian opera star Feodor Chaliapin, calls for four songs from Quixote, making this the first musical film adaptation of the novel, long before “Man of La Mancha” (1972). The songs were written by famed French opera and ballet composer Jacques Ibert. [2009 NOTE: This one takes some finding these days, but it is around. Look for it here:]

"When Knights Were Bold” (1936). This British production also pokes fun at knightly chivalry; somewhat less elegantly than Cervantes, to be sure, but all in good fun nonetheless. Taking its cue from Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” it tells the story of an Englishman who has inherited a castle. Aristocratic ways do not come naturally to him, however, putting him at odds with his rather snooty family. When he is accidentally knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor, he awakes to find himself in medieval times, where he learns what chivalry is really all about.

“Ivanhoe” (1952). Sir Walter Scott’s epic tale requires a big canvas, and in the 1950s no studio was turning out more lavish fare than MGM. This picture was made at MGM’s British production facility. Mounting big budget productions there made sense owing to the fact that British law at the time required most of the profits earned by American films in the U.K. to be spent there, rather than taking the money out of the British economy. This adaptation of “Ivanhoe” is a prime example of MGM at its international zenith. No expense is spared. The stellar cast features Robert Taylor in the title role, supported by George Sanders, Joan Fontaine, and Elizabeth Taylor. Like many medieval romances, this one is built around the intrigues of Prince John the usurper, scheming to take the throne that rightfully belongs to King Richard the Lionhearted. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe valiantly fights for Richard while jousting his way into the hearts of two fair ladies. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Knights of the Round Table” (1953). Following up on the success of “Ivanhoe,” MGM next turned to the most famous tale of courtly romance ever told. The story of King Arthur remains a perennial favorite, and this, being an MGM production, is one of the most opulent screen renderings of the tale of Camelot. Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner star as Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, whose forbidden romance behind the back of King Arthur (Mel Ferrer) takes center stage. It’s a wide stage, however, with plenty of room for big battle scenes and a hefty sampling of the Arthurian legends’ rich cast of characters. From Merlin to Morgan Le Fay to Gawain, chances are good that your favorite character will turn up at least briefly.

Next week we'll look at some additional movie knights -- knights bold, knights errant, and even a few chivalric knights who somehow wandered into the twentieth century.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Tiny Invaders (originally published 6/03)

As gruesome as movie monsters can be, there’s one thing you have to give them. Even if you can’t kill the average matinee monster, you can at least run away from them. The threat they represent is tangible and corporeal. They’re generally big, ugly, loud, and probably smell bad. That’s what I’d call fair warning.

Much more disturbing to me are the real life malefactors that have quietly and insidiously been invading the bodies of people around the world over the last few months to infect them with SARS. What can you do, after all, when the monster that threatens your life is much too small to see? When you can’t know if the precautions you’ve taken were adequate until it’s much too late?

Naturally, the dramatic potential of this type of tiny invader has not escaped filmmakers through the years. If you’ve stayed indoors with the shades pulled since the SARS outbreak, might as well pass the time by watching some entertaining films about public health calamities. It will give you something to do while you’re waiting for your drinking water to boil.

“The Andromeda Strain” (1971). You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that Michael Crichton was out ahead of the curve on this one. Although he didn’t write or direct this adaptation of his novel, the spirit of his book is well represented. The story centers around a group of scientists who are called together at a super-secret government facility dedicated to the control of unknown biohazards. This place is like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on steroids, high tech to the nth degree. The assembled scientists are brought together to figure out how to deal with a virus brought back by an experimental space probe. It killed every inhabitant of a small, isolated town except for an infant and a sterno bum. Can the docs isolate their common immunity factor before it’s too late? The climax is a typically harrowing Crichton nail-biter. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Pursuit” (1972). Crichton again. This one is a TV movie based on “Binary,” one of the books Crichton published under the pseudonym “John Lange.” The premise is that a crazed terrorist is threatening to release a deadly nerve gas in a city that is hosting a political convention. The excellent cast includes Ben Gazzara, E.G. Marshall, and William Windom. Crichton himself directed.

“The Crazies” (1973). In a much lesser-known film, George Romero tried a variation on his “Night of the Living Dead” formula with this sardonic biohazard tale. When the military accidentally releases a virulent biochemical weapon, contaminating the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town, the results are pure Romero. This particular bug causes violent insanity before it actually kills, leading the infected citizenry to maim and brutalize each other before succumbing to the disease.

“The Cassandra Crossing” (1977). Have you noticed that all the titles so far are from the 1970s? What can I tell you, we had a thing for disaster movies back then, from overturned ocean liners to buildings on fire to imperiled airliners. Sooner or later there had to be a train disaster movie, and this was it. The plot involves terrorists on board a European express train, but the ante is further raised by the fact that the terrorists have been exposed to the plague. While the military types, as represented by Burt Lancaster, try to deal with the terrorists, the medical types, as represented by Richard Harris, must try to cope with the spread of plague through the train. It’s all a bit far-fetched, but fun if you’re in the mood.

“Panic in the Streets” (1950). I wanted to throw this one in just to prove that the 1970s didn’t have a complete lock on this kind of film. Richard Widmark stars as a public health doctor with the unenviable task of tracking down a murderer who probably contracted pneumonic plague from his last victim. It’s as tense in its own way as anything Michael Crichton ever dreamed up. Best of all, it was directed by one of the legends of the industry, Elia Kazan.

You should be able to find each of these films on the shelves of one of your local video stores. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re willing to risk leaving the house to go and look for them.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Burning Rubber and Swapping Paint (originally published 6/03)

Despite their name, movies don’t actually move. They are, in fact, nothing more than a succession of still pictures. Even so, the illusion of motion they create is so compelling that we call them motion pictures in spite of the fact that we know better.

Because motion is the single most salient aspect of movies, stories that involve lots of movement have an inherent cinematic advantage over more sedentary subject matter. This accounts, in part, for the popularity of films like the recently released “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which relies heavily on variations on the tried and true action movie gimmick of the high speed car chase. If you’ve seen this high octane thriller and found that it didn’t entirely fulfill your motion quotient, you might want to seek out these films featuring famous car chases.

“Thunder Road” (1958). Robert Mitchum stars as a Tennessee moonshine runner whose fast driving skills keep him just barely one step ahead of the federal revenue agents. This was something of a pet project for Mitchum, who produced and co-scripted in addition to playing the lead.

“Bullitt” (1968). Steve McQueen stars as a San Francisco detective assigned to see that a targeted witness lives to testify. When he detects the bad guys tailing his car, he whips around and starts following them. This leads to a high speed game of cat and mouse. As the two cars leap and lurch over the extremely hilly streets of San Francisco, you may find your heart leaping and lurching into your throat. This was the car chase scene that set the benchmark for all those that followed. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer, which includes a few clips from the famous chase scene.

“Vanishing Point” (1971). Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a professional driver who has contracted to deliver a car from Denver to San Francisco. On a whim, he makes a bet that he can make the trip in 15 hours. As he burns up the road, popping pep pills and breaking laws, he encounters increasing resistance from law enforcement types who take a dim view of his driving methods. Meanwhile, police radio chatter about Kowalski is monitored by a blind disk jockey called “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little), who uses his radio show to cheer Kowalski on. Ultimately, this is a rather bleak, road-to-nowhere existentialist film. Still, it’s a rare treat for car chase fans, since almost the whole movie is one long chase scene.

“The French Connection” (1971). Director William Friedkin’s career was made by this gritty tale of New York narcotics cops tracking down a French drug kingpin. Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as his partner, Buddy Russo, aren’t your basic by-the-book cops, but they seem to get results. The legendary chase scene involves Doyle pursuing a man who has just taken a shot at him. When the bad guy takes an elevated transit train, Doyle’s only hope of catching him is to get to the next station first. He commandeers a car and races flat-out under the elevated tracks. It’s a real white-knuckle ride, with Friedkin throwing one obstacle after another in Doyle’s path.

“The Seven Ups” (1973). Philip D’Antoni, who produced “The French Connection,” directed this one. It’s a kind of semi-reprise of the earlier film, retaining Roy Scheider and the car chases but without devoting a lot of time to plot and characterization. Others might feel cheated, but the car chase purists will love it.

“The Driver” (1978). Writer/director Walter Hill’s dark drama pits Ryan O’Neal as a getaway driver against Bruce Dern as the cop who is obsessed with nailing him. The film begins and ends with spectacular chase sequences, one in which O’Neal’s character is the pursued and one in which he is the pursuer.

“Live and Let Die” (1973). I can’t resist mentioning the chase from this first film with Roger Moore as James Bond. It isn’t strictly a car chase because most of the chasing is done in speedboats, but it is a very funny parody of movie chase conventions. Most of the humor comes from focusing on the havoc inflicted on bystanders, from a pool party to a wedding party.

There are some other great movie car chases available on video that I’d love to tell you about but, frankly, the shock absorbers on my DVD player are shot from all this tearing around. Until I can get the suspension overhauled, I’d better stick to more tranquil categories.