Saturday 7 June 2008

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

A corpse is found in a lavatory at Victoria Station with all the doors and windows locked from the inside. Yes, this is a locked room mystery but it ought to be a good one because it's based on an original Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. Well Doyle may have written a book called A Study in Scarlet, which introduced us in 1887 to the famous detective, but it has very little to do with this film. Beyond the major recurring characters of the series: Holmes, Dr Watson, Inspector Lestrade and Mrs Hudson, there's very little overlap when it comes to characters, plot or anything. This is effectively a completely new story featuring the same title, one not written by Conan Doyle and thus unsurprisingly pedestrian.

The victim, apparently a suicide, is a member of a secret society to whom he's leaving all his money. I'm sure you know how often suicides in detective stories really turn out to be suicides, and Holmes investigates. He is hired by the victim's wife who has an intriguingly cryptic message to pass on, more of which turn up in further murders, all of which tie back to the same secret society and a lawyer by the name of Thaddeus Merrydew. Holmes has already discovered a process of communication in the classified ads of the Daily Telegraph and naturally is able to put everything together long before anyone else.

The biggest downside to this film is its creakiness, but only part of that is due to the acting. Mostly it's due to the age of the film and the quality of the print, or the lack of it. The bizarre thing is that many silent films appear in better quality nowadays than many B movies from the thirties, purely because they've gone through a restoration process. Because there are so many films to restore and so few people available to do the work, things like this tend to get overlooked. There's an omnipresent hiss to this one and a blurry print that feels like a highly compressed dollar DVD release. TCM tend to play decent prints if they're available, which does suggest that there simply isn't one available for this film.

The cast is solid without anyone really standing out, with the possible exception of Anna May Wong, whose English accent was always far more believable than those of any of her fellow Americans because she spent quite a few years in London very consciously fixing her accent. Most of the rest of the cast are actually English, including Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes. He was a regular supporting actor in 1930s Hollywood and I've seen him often, though this is the earliest thus far. Interestingly he played Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes, made one year earlier. Alan Mowbray, who plays Inspector Lestrade here was also in that film in a different role. Watson is played here by Warburton Gamble, who I've only seen in a Greta Garbo movie called As You Desire Me.

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