In the Shadow of Rathbone: John Neville in A Study in Terror

holmes-basil-rathboneSherlock Holmes pastiches are not new. A pastiche is a “new adventure” featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters instead of one written by Doyle or an adaptation thereof. Some of the Basil Rathbone movies are pastiches (despite occasional vague similarities to specific Doyle stories), and series on radio and television expanded upon Holmes’s “canonical” cases with new ones. As such, the general public had a solid history of pastiches when Donald and Derick Ford wrote A Study in Terror (1965), a film in which the great detective confronts none other than Jack the Ripper.
neville-as-holmesShining in Sherlock’s Shadow

More than once in the Doyle stories, Watson describes Holmes as being something of a robot. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” for instance, Watson says his friend is “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” In The Sign of the Four, Watson whines to Holmes, “You really are an automaton,— a calculating-machine!” adding, “There is something positively inhuman in you at times.” In reply, Holmes smiles gently, revealing that he does have a core of humanity in him somewhere.

While watching A Study in Terror, I needed a while to warm up to John Neville’s Holmes, which is exactly how I suspect one would react to the detective in person. Neville is appropriately — not robotic exactly — but cool and smooth-running. Yet he lets that hidden humanity become visible just below the surface. And Neville certainly fits the popular image of the lanky, sharp-nosed detective. Indeed, he had proven himself to be such an impressive Holmes that, shortly after A Study in Terror, he was offered the role as a replacement for John Wilmer on the BBC-TV series. This is before it was presented to Peter Cushing, who took the job. In the 1970s, Neville finally returned to the role on Broadway in a revival of Sherlock Holmes, a play written by William Gillette and Doyle back in 1899.

houston-as-watsonWatching Watson

Donald Huston plays a capable, likable, but anxious Dr. Watson. That anxiety often supplies comic relief, such as when Holmes assigns Watson to create a hubbub at a soup kitchen or when he’s dragged to a less than savory pub in Whitechapel. Still, during a street fight that erupts after the pub visit, Watson defends himself nicely. As these scenes imply, amid moments when Watson seems to enjoy the company of Holmes, he frequently must endure Holmes, too. And it’s never really explained why he bothers.

This is a key feature of the Holmes and Watson relationship that is seldom explored in the movies: why does the good doctor put up with the great detective and all of his peculiarities? Granted, I don’t believe Doyle himself ever offered a satisfactory answer to that question, even though his Watson keeps returning to Baker Street — despite at least two marriages (Some speculate there were several!). As is often the case, A Study in Terror puts the two characters together for no reason other than, well, you simply must have Dr. Watson there even when he’s not telling the tale.

Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle

Especially for a Holmes stickler or a Jack the Ripper stickler, A Study in Terror asks a lot of its audience. The tone is — odd. Under James Hill’s direction, the film at times feels like it might’ve been called Sherlock & Saucy Jack: The Musical. This impression comes largely from an early “dance hall” number in that Whitechapel pub, a musical sequence that isn’t helped any by the choice of the repetitious “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” In addition, the unsavory tavern’s customers are determinedly jolly. (Regarding the actor who guffaws as he and a chum flip and shake a prostitute to retrieve his lifted wallet, I sincerely wish that the Ripper had sliced up him instead of her.) Even the scene that introduces our detective team, which shows Holmes deducing that Watson is sitting on his pipe, has a cutesy, finger-on-the-chin-and-eyes-aimed-upward quality to it.

holmes-dandified1
The Importance of Being Sherlock?

While the tone does grow more serious, it never becomes gritty enough for the otherwise promising premise of Holmes confronting Jack the Ripper. Even the costuming seems off. I’m no expert, but the edging and cut of some of the suits struck me as more prettily Regency than soberly Victorian. When he’s not in his familiar Inverness cape and deerstalker cap, Holmes looks downright dandified — more Wilde than Doyle — even smoking a cigar instead of his pipe when summing up the case.

It’s fine to try something new with the image of Holmes, but he just isn’t a jaunty dude.

If one can overlook — or even enjoy — the dissonance of the light tone and the dark subject matter, one can more easily appreciate that the core mystery here is a pretty good one. Its complexities are well-suited to a movie-length adventure. This might explain why Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee chose to novelize the script as part of their Ellery Queen series (though they made changes). In other words, the story itself is stronger than its telling. For example, more than once, the backstory that Holmes uncovers is conveyed through lengthy monologues devoid of any touches, such as voice-over flashbacks, to make them more cinematic.

And yet there is some movie magic here. We get to watch Frank Finley play a solid, reasonably adept Lestrade while Robert Morley, as Mycroft Holmes, shares a very fun scene with his brother. Anthony Quayle has a key role, too, and we even get to see if we can recognize a young Judi Dench!

In other words, it’s easy to dismiss A Study in Terror as an inferior Holmes movie, be it for the historical inaccuracies regarding Jack’s victims or for the reliance on glitter instead of grit (not to mention cleavage instead of cleverness). But doing so prevents us from enjoying the significant positives of the film, especially the virtues of the acting and of the mystery itself.

For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.

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