Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Before the Falls… Sherlock Holmes (1916) Neil Brand Ensemble, BFI London Film Festival

Watson and Holmes: a very civil partnership
It was interesting to see the names of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat – current creators of the modern-day Sherlock, on the list of thank-yous from the restoration team for one of the very first screen representations of the original.  This version was arguably as much a re-working of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories as their modern version as it drew content from three stories A Scandal in Bohemia, The Final Problem and A Study in Scarlet whilst adding something of its own.

It was based on the hugely-successful 1899 play written by and starring William Gillette which, as Bryony Dixon pointed out in her introduction, not only had a long run in the USA but also ran for some five years just over the water in London's Lyceum Theatre where once it counted a young Charles Chaplin in the cast.

Great mind at work
Gillette was 62 when the film was made but he still carries of the part of the Master Detective with a rare charisma and intelligence even if he is a little too old to be a romantic interest for Marjorie Kay (17 at the time) as Alice Faulkner (a sort of goody-two-shoes version of Irene Adler).

Gillette is credited with introducing some of the standard visual elements of Sherlock, over his 1,300 stage performances and this recently-recovered film is no doubt all the more precious for preserving such an iconic performance for this enduring and malleable character: we all like to believe in detectives with super-intelligent.

Gillette and Kay
Here he seems to drift into scrapes almost as if he wants to prove he can get out of them – not unlike The Doctor as Mr Moffat would confirm… But he’s always thoroughly prepared whether in wearing a bullet-proof vest made of metal, planting spies in the enemy camp or using his junior butler Billy (here played by Burford Hampden but once by Charlie…)  as the last line of defence.

The film was originally presented as a series and the version uncovered and restored (full details are here) is from a French print which broke this down further into four parts with nine sections. This adds to the slightly disjointed feel of the narrative but it’s Sherlock Holmes; then, as now, it doesn’t all have to add up!

Alice defends her sister's honour in front of the Prince's men
It is very well directed by Arthur Berthelet who does well to lift the narrative away from its stage origins. There is some location shooting in London-looking streets and some interesting camerawork including medium range shots that fade into close-ups at crucial moments and out again.

Berthelet closes in on the action with a repeated disolve...
The story is convoluted and bitty – as you’d also expect from a serial... as you'd expect from Holmes  – and  is really only there to provide opportunities for the Great Detective to show how great he is.

Briefly… Alice Faulkner’s late sister had an affair with a prince and had kept some rather incriminating correspondence which his relatives are very keen to recover. Baron von Stalburg (Ludwig Kreiss), the prince's assistant, and Sir Edward Leighton (Hugh Thompson), a high British official, are trying to negotiate their return before the author’s impending marriage but Alice is refusing to budge.

Sherlock confronts Madge and James
Unfortunately for her, a good-for-nothing family called the Larrabees hear of her situation and try to take advantage… Led by James Larrabee (Mario Majeroni) and Madge Larrabee (Grace Reals) they’re a nasty lot - a little too histrionic for their own good - but, fortunately not too clever.

Holmes,who has been enlisted by the Prince to retrieve the letters, easily outwits by the Larrabees aided secretly by his agent Benjamin Forman (Stewart Robbins) posing as their manservant:  how very cunning Holmes! They decide to call for help from master criminal Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain) – who’s hatred for Holmes they hope will guarantee his support.

Guess who?
Yet even with  Holme’s arch enemy now involved can these criminal minds combined win over Holmes' powers of deductive pipe-smoking, intuitive reasoning and, indeed, disguise!

We don’t see too much of Doctor Watson (Edward Fielding) until later in the series when Holmes is sharing his house after an unexplained fire at his own apartments… but the template has recognizably been set.

Subtle gesturing from Mr Gillette - perfect for the big screen
Gillette is as razor-sharp as his name suggests and is a magnetic presence on-screen a natural who underplays so well you'd think he'd been in front of the camera for years whereas this was his only film. He blasts most of cast off screen with a performance of well-honed wit: the calculated confidence born of a thousand or more previous performances.

This was the first screening in Britain since the recovery and for longer than a lifetime: a special occasion that did not disappoint.

The Larrabbees are no match for Brand, Buchwald and Davenport!
A large part of this was due to the joyful accompaniment provided by Neil Brand (piano), Günter Buchwald (violin) and Jeff Davenport (percussion and sound effects). They playing a semi-improvised score based on Neil Brand's melodies as originally commissioned for La Cinémathèque Française. Every bell-ring and thump was precisely on target and the music was as elegantly period-appropriate as Mr Holmes' smoking jacket and as invigoratingly well constructed as his ultimate trap for Professor Moriarty!

There is soon to be a Flicker Alley DVD/BluRay release which - I think? - includes the boys' music as well - one for the Christmas list! Available from Amazon or from Flicker Alley which also has a downloadable press kit explaining more about everything!

Because the Cat just refused to be trained...
Before the main film we were treated to A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) a terrific little romp involving a smarter than average dog who does most of his master detective's leg work. Still very funny and an indication of how well-established the Holmes template was by this stage.

A Holmes for all times
Marjorie Kay performs well and went on to work as a nurse in the Great War and from there into stage work and opera. There's are some interesting biographical snippets on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere site as uncovered by Chris Redmond.

Young Miss Kay considers her next move

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