Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The granddaddy of all detective movies

A few weeks back TCM's Silent Sunday Nights ran the 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes. I hadn't heard of it (well, that particular version; of course I've heard of Sherlock Holmes!), so I decided to DVR it. It turns out there's a good reason I hadn't heard of it, which is that it was considered lost for decades, and only found around 2014.

Holmes is played by William Gillette, who was a prominent stage actor at the beginning of the 20th century. With the blessing of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote the play on which this movie is based, a play that was extremely popular even if it's not quite the Holmes we think of today. After a brief scene of Holmes working in a laboratory, we get into the real action of the movie. Some time in the past, the younger sister of Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay) wrote a bunch of letters to a crown prince in a European royal family. It resulted in a romance that was eventually broken off, and afterwards the sister committed suicide. Alice has the letters, which would make the crown prince look really bad. So he wants them.

The Larrabees are used as go-betweens to get the letters, and they decide to hold Alice hostage since she isn't telling them where the letters are. This is where Holmes comes in. Perhaps he can get the letters, and more importantly, perhaps he can spring Alice from cptivity. It's also where Moriarty (Ernest Maupain) comes in. He's been embarrassed by Holmes one too many times, so he wants to gain revenge, and this case would be a perfect opportunity to do it.

That's pretty much it. There's not much mystery here as we know who the bad guys are, so the movie is mostly suspense in the Hitchcock sense of the audience knowing something bad is scheduled to happen, and will it happen to the good guy? That's not a knock on the movie; I'm just saying that it's not quite what I'd think of when I think of a detective movie.

If there is a problem with the movie, it's with the pacing. This Sherlock Holmes is slow slow slow, clocking in at 116 minutes, although to be fair that's in part because of what seemed to me to be a relatively high amount of intertitles. The surviving print had been edited into a four-part serial, so in addition to the regular intertitles there are the chapter intertitles and some reminding us what happened in "last week's" episode. That having been said, the print seemed quite good to me.

The acting is typical for silent dramas, which I say matter-of-factly again rather than making a value judgment. One thing about the movie that I thought was really good was the tinting; the indoor scenes are all tinted orange while outdoor and night scenes are in blue. The orange-tinted scenes in particular look quite good.

The is available on Blu-ray, but it's a very pricey Blu-ray, probably in part to recoup the restoration costs. In theory it ought to be in the public domain, but with the new intertitles and the score, nobody else has a print they could sell. It's a shame, because the movie really isn't that bad and worth a watch.


Wendell Ottley said...

Hadn't heard of this version myself. Not sure I'm going to watch it, though. I don't often watch silents but when I do I want them to snap along.

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

It probably wouldn't be so bad watching it in four parts the way it was distributed in France (where the surviving copy was found), but yeah, I like faster silents too.