The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.

The Sherlock Holmes character has come to the screen (both big and small) in many shapes and forms over the years and almost everyone has their own favorite incarnation. As often happens, the first version I saw or at least have a memory of has become my preferred choice. For me, the evening television screenings of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movies cemented them in my consciousness to the point where I automatically see their faces first when the characters of Holmes and Watson are mentioned. The interpretations, adaptations and settings were far from what a purist might find acceptable, but I don’t care about any of that. These performers and their films carry me back almost 40 years and will always occupy a special place in my affections.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) wasn’t an adaptation of any of Conan Doyle’s stories, although the estate is credited, presumably for the use of the characters themselves. The script instead claims to be derived from the stage play by William Gillette. It opens with the dismissal of a murder case against arch-criminal Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), just as Holmes (Basil Rathbone)dramatically bursts into the courtroom with evidence he maintains will shoot the alibi of his adversary to pieces. With the verdict already in, he’s too late of course and there follows a neat little scene with the two rivals sharing a Hansom cab that spirits them away amid a torrential downpour. It’s at this point that Moriarty makes the little speech I used at the top of this piece, setting up the plan for revenge which dominates the remainder of the picture. I won’t go into too much detail here as much of the pleasure of the movie is to be had from watching the slow unfolding of two ingenious plot strands simultaneously. The lion’s share of the running time is taken up with the grotesque and macabre stalking experienced by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) and her ill-fated relatives.

1939 is often referred to as the golden year of cinema’s Golden Age due to the sheer number of successful and high quality pictures produced and released during those twelve months. This is something I wouldn’t want to argue with as even a cursory glance reveals the depth and breadth of the quality projected onto the silver screen in that year – from award-wooing prestige vehicles to crowd-pleasing genre pieces, just about every possible taste was catered to and it would be a mean-spirited film fan indeed who failed to hit on something to captivate him or her. Last time I was highlighting a tightly budgeted western shot by Alfred Werker, this time it’s the same director but the money men were a little more generous. Fox had already scored a success with Rathbone and Bruce in their wonderfully atmospheric version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and this was their follow-up. Werker had the resources of the studio backing him up in this moodily impressive effort, the sets looking rich and classy and Leon Shamroy displaying his photographic talents as cinematographer. There’s been some conversation on here of late relating to the relative merits of set based film production after I looked at a movie where I felt the backdrops were less than satisfactory. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, presents us with the flip side of the coin, where much of the enjoyment of the movie stems directly from the marvelous artistry involved in creating those fogbound and gas-lit cobble streets down which hacks chase their cabs speeding their fares to or from the scene of mystery and intrigue.

The two films made by Fox had Holmes and Watson fighting crime in the Victorian surroundings in which their creator had originally placed them. Subsequent tales of mystery and detection undertaken by Rathbone and Bruce would be produced on a smaller budget for Universal (my friend and regular contributor to discussion on this site, Sergio, is in the process of going through that series here, and others like 100 Films in a Year have done so too) with the characters operating in a contemporary setting. Purists may rail against such liberties but they never concerned me particularly. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes retains the era of Conan Doyle’s literary detective yet it will no doubt displease some as a result of the way certain central characters are portrayed.

Is there a definitive screen Holmes? Plenty of people would argue that Jeremy Brett nailed it on television. Having gone back and revisited a number of episodes of the Brett series, I’d say there’s a strong case to be made for this assertion and I wouldn’t seek to dissuade anyone from holding this opinion. And still I find I return to Rathbone, for those reasons I mentioned above; I’ve since read the novels and short stories and seen other interpretations that may have gotten closer to the sleuth on the printed page, but Rathbone was the one I came across first and thus will always be my Holmes. There’s a terrific energy and restlessness about the man and it contrasts nicely with the moody abruptness which can bubble up to the surface on occasion. Nigel Bruce’s Watson tends to come in for a fair bit of stick and derision for the bumbling and clowning, and I can quite understand how that must grate for those familiar with the capable and competent figure of the books. Sure there’s something of the overgrown child about Bruce’s performance, even so I like it fine and there’s good chemistry between him and Rathbone – I think the affection the characters have for each other is quite apparent and nicely illustrated by the little exchange right at the end of the movie. As Moriarty, George Zucco is delightfully creepy and dangerous. He would reappear in the Universal film Sherlock Holmes in Washington, though playing a different role. A young Ida Lupino was just seeing her career take off at this point and I think she does well as the girl whose family appears to be cursed in some way and haunted by dark South American secrets. In support, we have E E Clive, Henry Stephenson, Alan Marshal, series regular Mary Gordon, and Terry Kilburn.

I have all the Rathbone/Bruce series on the UK set issued some years ago by Optimum and the transfers sourced from the UCLA restorations are very good. There’s some damage to the prints of course but nothing major. Among the extra features on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a commentary track by Holmes writer David Stuart Davies. It’s worth noting here that there are various Blu-ray editions of these films available both in the US and in Europe – I’ve yet to pick one up but the quality is excellent by all accounts. As for this movie, it’s a fine tale with bags of creepy atmosphere and ought to satisfy fans of Holmes and the wider mystery genre too. It would serve as a good introduction to the Rathbone/Bruce take on Holmes and Watson and the brisk pacing is such that it never outstays its welcome.

Three Hours to Kill

The last few posts on this site have seen the subsequent discussions spin off in various directions, taking in the idea of the auteur in cinema, the use of sets vs location shooting, and also touching on the pluses and minuses of the studio system. Today I want to take a look at Three Hours to Kill (1954), a movie whose director is not likely to be described as an auteur yet one whose work is of interest and displays some distinct characteristics, and it’s also a good example of the kind of bread and butter material the studio system seemed to knock out effortlessly. It’s a sparse and effective piece of work with no flab whatsoever, pared down and streamlined entertainment made by accomplished professionals.

The opening, to the accompaniment of Paul Sawtell’s melancholic score, sees Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) heading back to his home town, heading back to see some of his old friends again. However much Guthrie might be looking forward to this reunion, it doesn’t appear to be bringing him any happiness, and his friends are even less thrilled when he turns up. The thing is Guthrie’s friends, as we discover via a short flashback sequence, tried to kill him three years before. To a man they were prepared to believe the worst of him and see him lynched for a murder he had no hand in. With friends like that, who needs enemies! So, what  would bring a man back to such a place? That he  survived at all, staying one step ahead of the law and just barely eluding capture, is largely down to his grit and determination. What sustained him as a fugitive those three years was his desire for justice and revenge, his hopes of making his tormentors feel the same slow, sliding dread he once did. Guthrie finds he has few allies left, the woman he once loved (Donna Reed) has married one of his former rivals, and mixed in with the dangers there are secrets beginning to stir in the shadows. The local sheriff (Stephen Elliott) has some sympathy but not much, in fact it amounts to only three hours’ worth: three hours in which to find the man who framed him on a murder charge, and helped tear his life to pieces. What Guthrie finds out, about others and about himself, has the potential to bring damnation or salvation, depending on which fork of his conscience he decides to follow.

One of the first things you notice about Three Hours to Kill is how packed the script is and how tight the writers keep things as a consequence. The story comes from Alex Gottlieb with the script coming via Richard Alan Simmons and Roy Huggins, and some dialogue credited to Maxwell Shane. The plot is based on a combination of revenge tale and whodunit, Guthrie’s quest for justice is conflated with a desire to avenge himself on his former friends, and even he seems unsure where the one ends and the other begins. In a film that runs just over an hour and a quarter that ought to be enough to be getting on with, but Three Hours to Kill offers even more. Underpinning all of this is the complex series of relationships between the protagonists, where jealousy, betrayals and moralizing all play a part in determining how everyone behaves. Even on the periphery of the main events and characters there are quite startling (considering the time the film was made) developments – there’s the frank admission that one of the subsidiary characters is overtly engaged in what can only be described as a threesome, for example. Situations which might have provided the dramatic basis for a number of different movies are simply laid before  the audience without any exposition or even analysis – they just are, and the viewer is expected to be sufficiently mature to appreciate that such things are part of life.

The writing is of course important under these circumstances, but it’s also imperative that a confident and well-organized director is on hand. Alfred Werker, who was in charge of the similarly trim and compact The Last Posse, was the kind of man needed to ensure everything stayed focused and on course. Furthermore, it was a boon for Werker to have a talented cameraman like Charles Lawton working alongside him, ensuring his setups looked as good as possible.

A film like this, where the lead is scarred both externally and internally, whose demons are a short step away from fully consuming him, needed a man with a strong fatalistic sensibility. Who better under these circumstances than Dana Andrews, that veteran of so many westerns and films noir. The structure of the movie, with that flashback sequence, lets Andrews explore the change that comes over Guthrie (something which can be applied to a greater or lesser extent to other cast members too) and the contrast on view is a nice showcase for the kind of barely controlled emotional turmoil he was so adept at handling.

Aside from Andrews, the other big name in the cast is Donna Reed. She appeared in a handful of goodish westerns around this time as well as prestige productions like her Oscar-winning role in Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity. Her part as Andrews’ old flame gave her some depth to work with, and so there was more to it than the kind of one-dimensional fare sometimes handed to actresses in programmer westerns of this type. Dianne Foster was the other woman in the cast with a significant role and spars well with Reed for the attentions of Andrews. Carolyn Jones was generally good value or better and was both touching and amusing as one side of a triangle involving Charlotte Fletcher and Laurence Hugo. Stephen Elliott and Richard Coogan are among the “friends” who would rather not renew their acquaintance with fugitive but the more memorable work is done by the seemingly ubiquitous Whit Bissell and James Westerfield.

Three Hours to Kill was a Columbia picture, produced by Harry Joe Brown, and has been released in the US by Sony as part of its MOD program. The film is also available in Europe, in both Spain and Italy. The Spanish disc I have presents the film 16:9 and looks reasonably good. There is a bit of softness but the colors look true and the print used doesn’t appear to be damaged. The soundtrack plays in the original English and there are the usual optional Spanish subs that can be disabled. I enjoy this kind of solid lower budget affair, a type of film that is actually enormously satisfying if done properly. There’s an impressive roster of talent on both sides of the camera and that helps to make Three Hours to Kill a modest but successful piece of filmmaking.

The Last Posse

Small films with big themes, that’s perhaps as good a summation of the successful B movie as any. Low budget films were always capable of using a superficially simple tale to disguise layers of depth and complexity, the smarter and more skillful efforts using standard cinematic techniques to do so. The Last Posse (1953) is all about the past, both the recent and distant forms, and how the events which occurred drive the actions of men in the present, and indeed have shaped how they and others view themselves.

A posse is usually a group of residents sworn in as temporary deputies, charged with upholding the law via the pursuit of criminals. The film opens with one such group, tired, dusty and disheveled, making their way home to a small New Mexico town. Among them is one man who is clearly in considerably worse shape than his fellow riders. John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) is the town sheriff, a man  of once mighty reputation who is now gut-shot and dying. The drawn faces of the men, the mortally wounded lawman, and the tension writ large on the countenances of the townsfolk leave no doubt that something went badly wrong out there in the desolation of the desert. As the remainder of the posse head off to clean up we can see by their furtive manner and whispered conversation that all may not be the way they’re telling it. Their story has it that the fugitives died after a shootout which also claimed the leader of the posse and, most tellingly, that the $105,000 of stolen money was nowhere to be found. While these leading citizens reappear freshly scrubbed and suitably spruced up there’s no hiding the fact that there are other stains, those on the conscience, which can be neither washed away nor wished away. So what did happen out there in the wilderness? It seems wholly appropriate that a film which concerns itself so much with the past should be told and find its ultimate resolution by means of three lengthy flashback sequences seen from three separate perspectives.

The Last Posse was directed by Alfred Werker, and it was the strong endorsement of both the filmmaker and this title by regular contributor John Knight which led me to view it. I was already familiar with a number of Werker’s other movies (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, He Walked by Night, Shock, Three Hours to Kill and At Gunpoint to name just a few) and I’m keen to see more, Repeat Performance in particular. He was a director capable of packing a good deal of atmosphere and tension into what were, for the most part, small productions. Here we get another fine piece of work, an hour and a quarter of sustained suspense delivered at a smart pace from a smooth script by Seymour Bennett, Connie Lee Bennett and Kenneth Gamet. In the best tradition of western filmmaking, the layers of hypocrisy and faux civilization are gradually stripped away to allow the truth to be revealed as the action moves away from the town, out into the desert and the rocks of Lone Pine. It’s here in this harsh and sparse landscape (beautifully shot by Burnett Guffey) that the illusions and cant are burned away by the merciless sun, and the deceit of the past collides with the brutal reality of the present.

Broderick Crawford is one of those actors I can take or leave, often depending on the kind of role he’s playing. He could have a loud, almost mechanical quality leading to some one-note performances. However, there was also something bruised and lived-in about him, I suppose you could call it the weariness of his years. Whenever he tapped into that, as he certainly does in The Last Posse, he had a lot more to offer. It could be argued that a few characters in the film are somewhat underwritten, more on that shortly, but Crawford doesn’t suffer in that respect. Frazier is a man who has been almost broken by life, propping himself up mainly with alcohol, and with little regard for the quality of men he now has to associate with. What comes across most powerfully is a sense of guilt and regret for a life badly lived, and a good deal of that seems connected to the relationship with Charles Bickford’s Sampson Drune character. The exact nature of the men’s hostility and enmity becomes slowly apparent the deeper they move into the desert but it also highlights one of the weaknesses in the script. Bickford always shone in villainous parts, those craggy features and penetrating eyes were ideal, and he’s suitably arrogant and cruel as Drune. The problem, as I see it though, is that the writing of his character allows for little else; it’s heavily alluded to that he’s also driven by fear and a kind of warped paternal instinct, but the script permits little if any of that to be actively shown. As a result, the vital backstory – the actual core of the movie – is of course ever-present yet lacks a little due to the presentation of the character.

John Derek is one of those actors whose contribution to the movies tends to be underrated or glossed over. I think I first saw him in his breakout role in Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door and I’m of the opinion he was a perfectly competent performer. He recently came to my attention again during the Republic blogathon when The Outcast was featured, a film I’ve since acquired for future viewing. Derek’s role in The Last Posse is an important one within the context of the picture but he’s overshadowed for much of the running time by both Crawford and Bickford. Much of the cast is made up of familiar character players: notably Henry Hull, Warner Anderson, Will Wright and, as one of the trio of fugitives, Skip Homeier. This is very much a film dominated by the men and the only female role of note goes to Wanda Hendrix, although it’s really a nothing part – I was actually more intrigued by the uncredited Hispanic girl, the one with her eye on Anderson’s blowhard editor, as her two brief appearances hinted at an altogether more fascinating relationship.

The Last Posse is available as a MOD disc from Sony in the US, it was a Columbia production, and looks good. The film has been given a nice clean transfer and the crisp black and white photography is very attractive. Overall, this is a solid, pacy little western with plenty of depth, even if all aspects of that aren’t explored as fully as they might have been. Definitely worth checking out if the opportunity arises.