Sunday 31 January 2010

A Study in Terror (1965)

Director: James Hill
Stars: John Neville, Donald Houston and John Fraser
Given that my last visits with Sherlock Holmes were the John Barrymore silent version from 1922 and the fourteen films with Basil Rathbone in the thirties and forties, a colour version was always going to look a little different, but this is vibrant Eastmancolor. That's clear from moment one as we watch Jack the Ripper follow a prostitute with very red shoes and stab her through the neck, literally. This version came out in 1965 with John Neville in the lead, a long while before I first came across him as Baron Munchausen in the Terry Gilliam version of that story. He's pretty good, all things told, and he's blessed with a Watson who isn't a complete idiot, courtesy of actor Donald Houston.

Given that were dealing with Jack the Ripper, there are more murders to come, of course. Three days later Polly Nichols is stabbed to death in a water trough with copious amounts of red paint to indicate just how dead she is. She's played by Christiane Maybach, a German actress in a rare English language film role, but after her comes a bastion of the British cinema, no less a bubbly blonde than Barbara Windsor. Having her murdered in a Whitechapel street is bad enough, without the wicked laugh of Sid James to accompany the deed, but she'd also just failed to even give her body away for free in return for a bed for the night. The last person to see her alive, the Ripper excepted, was another prostitute in red played by another major British actress, Kay Walsh, who had played Nancy to Alec Guinness's Fagin a couple of decades earlier.

Enter Sherlock Holmes, who is precisely the sort of character we might expect, thank goodness, after my last experience with the character. John Barrymore may have been a great actor but his 1922 version was heresy to the Holmes afficionado. Neville plays him with a heavy nod to Basil Rathbone, full of the classic deductions and memorable lines we might expect. Most of the old Holmes chestnuts are wheeled out in the first five minutes he's on screen, as if to get them out of the way early so the real fun can begin. Hardly surprising for a great British stage actor, Neville also proves adept in the art of disguise, conjuring up a false identity that's good enough to convince everyone in the film, Watson included, but not quite enough to stop us seeing through it.
The trail leads them to a number of characters played by faces I recognise, but of course the underlying question throughout is which one is Jack the Ripper. Given that the obvious suspect is Michael Osborne, eldest son and heir to the Duchy of Shires, who went to study surgery in the Sorbonnes two years earlier only to leave mid-term and promptly disappear, it presumably can't be him. He does appear in the film but not much more than the third name with lofty billing alongside John Neville and Donald Houston. He's John Fraser, playing Michael Osborne's younger brother, Lord Carfax, and he's suspiciously absent for much of the film. It isn't difficult to work out who the real alternative suspect is and why, but I'll let you work that out for yourselves.

The supporting actor we probably see the most of is Anthony Quayle, who as Dr Murray runs a soup kitchen in Whitechapel and protests the poverty that runs rampant through the district. Working for him in his soup kitchen, the Montague Street Hostel, is his niece, Sally Young, in the amazingly young form of Judi Dench. This was only her third film, though she was already an established actress on television and the stage. It would be another thirty years before she'd become M for the first time, a part that is starting to take over her filmography. Insp Lestrade is played by Frank Finlay, who was Oscar nominated for a different 1965 film, having played Iago to Laurence Olivier's Othello. There's even Robert Morley as a surprisingly emotional Mycroft Holmes, rather easily flustered by his younger and supposedly not so smart brother.

The film is an intriguing piece, well played and well progressed, with a dependable script. It's set in the appropriate era, unlike most of the Rathbone films, and the sets and costumes back it up well. Neville is a decent Holmes and Houston a capable Watson. I particularly liked the garish Eastmancolor, which often put me in mind of a Hammer horror, especially with German actor Peter Carsten so prominent in the film as the landlord of the Rose and Crown. I was surprised to find that Carsten never appeared in a Hammer, because I could have sworn I remembered him from films like Twins of Evil, but perhaps my faulty memory just highlights how much he looks like the epitome of one frequently cast sort of Hammer horror actor.

Somehow though it all fails to ignite. All the component parts are there but it doesn't quite know how to put them all together in the right order to stun us. Perhaps some people realised that at the time. John Neville returned to Holmes on Broadway in the seventies, for one. For another, Frank Finlay returned to Lestrade in 1979 in another film that once again merged the Holmes and Jack the Ripper mythos into one story, a film that also saw Anthony Quayle return but in a diferent part. That film is Murder By Decree, and from what I read it's more successful than this one, perhaps benefitting from even greater names than here. Holmes and Watson are Christopher Plummer and James Mason, and backing them up are David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland and Geneviève Bujold, among others. Now I guess I'll need to track that one down too. It'll be the Arthur Wontner Holmes films first though.

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