“The Sign of Four” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1983)

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By Scott Ross

Two Sherlock Holmes adaptations written by Charles Edward Pogue for British television, shot simultaneously and starring one of my very favorite actors, the peerless Ian Richardson. If you don’t know his Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards  you are missing one of the great, sly characterizations of the modern age. There was much more to Richardon’s career than Urquhart, of course: Fifteen years with the RSC; Jean-Paul Marat in the original Marat/Sade (and the subsequent filmed edition); the first Henry Higgins in a production of My Fair Lady to more than challenge Rex Harrison, for which performance he won the Tony Award and in which role you can savor him on the 1976 revival cast recording; Bill Haydon (“Tinker’) in the Alec Guinness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a superb Anthony Blunt in the television movie Blunt: The Fourth Man; numerous small roles in American movies, dozens of English television performance and likely hundreds of appearances on the British stage. Pogue’s teleplays take more liberties with Conan Doyle’s novels than is required, even inventing sub-plots, especially in Baskervilles. But Richardson is so savory and the pair of movies so well mounted (by Desmond Davis and Douglas Hickox respectively) and thick with Victorian atmosphere, they may be forgiven these unwarranted alterations. And Richardson is such a treat in each that he alone more than justifies the making of both pictures; as well as luxuriating in that mellifluous voice of his and reveling in his unerring dramatic instincts, I particularly relish his unexpected displays of wry humor, winking at Watson or choking back a guffaw at a galumphing police inspector.

The Sign of Four - Ian Richardson and David Healy

The Sign of Four: David Healy (Watson) and Ian Richardson (Holmes) in the Sholtoes’ attic.

The Sign of Four boasts the less apt of the two Watsons in David Healy’s overripe (and over-aged) portrayal, although at least we are spared the May-December pairing that would have ensued had Pogue hewn more closely to Conan Doyle’s plot and driven Mary Morstan (the lovely Cherie Lunghi ) into the good doctor’s arms.  But the scenarist seems to have understood that Doyle based Thaddeus Sholto (Richard Heffer) at least in part on Oscar Wilde, giving him a home filled with Indian exotica and making the character a languid dandy. I don’t know why he felt is necessary to have the poor man killed by Jonathan Small (Joe Melia), or to have Small kidnap Miss Marston, but Pogue is otherwise reasonably true to the novel, and to its introduction of the redoubtable Toby — although that noble beast is once again portrayed in a movie by a bloodhound when Doyle, through Watson, specifically states that he is not of that breed. There’s also a surprise ending worthy more perhaps of O. Henry than A. Conan Doyle, and it’s rather a shame more isn’t done with the story of the Four in India. But the Thames atmosphere, as photographed by Dennis C. Lewiston, is almost palpable, Terence Rigby gives a fine account of Inspector Layton and John Pedrick as Tonga presents an image calculated to haunt the dreams of any young Holmes fanatic.

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Baskervilles: Denholm Elliott, David Churchill and Ian Richardson

Pogue takes even greater liberties in Baskersvilles than he did with The Sign of Four, what with adding a role (the mercurial, drunken artist Lyons, essayed here in typically swaggering style by Brian Blessed) merely alluded to by Doyle, and beefing up another, that of Lyons’ wife Laura (Connie Booth), estranged from him in the novel but here living unhappily with him on the moors. The scenarist further muddies the waters (or the bog, if you prefer) by having the strange bearded man in London not merely shadow Sir Henry Baskerville (David Langton) but take a shot at him on the street; making Laura a murder victim and Lyons a red herring; by having Jack Stapleton (Nicholas Clay) take pot-shots at Homes, Watson (Donald Churchill) and his sister Beryl (Glynis Barber) before running off to his death; and by Inspector Lestrade (Ronald Lacey) showing up to seek the escaped convict Selwyn. Most of these are unnecessary diversions, presumably added because Holmes would otherwise be off-stage for as long in the movie as he is in the novel… although the latter scene at least gives the viewer the unexpected pleasure of hearing Lestrade tell a heavily disguised Holmes to bugger off. (Richardson has a high old time of it in his gypsy make-up, telling fortunes and twitting a prototypically unsuspecting Watson on the moors.) In the flashback to the origins of the Baskerville curse, the midnight sight and sound of a horse being sucked down into the Grimpen Mire is a terror worthy of Goya, or at least Arch Oboler; Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography throughout is appropriately drear and unnerving; Denholm Elliott provides a characteristically warm and pleasing Dr. Mortimer; Churchill is a far less fustian Watson than Healy; Eleanor Bron and Edward Judd are an excellent pair of Barrymores; the hound is a ghastly sight; and the picture benefits from a truly inspired musical score by the perennially underrated Michael J. Lewis, a major composer perpetually toiling at minor projects. The ending suffers from a deep character lapse, however, when for the sake of conventional romance Sir Henry forgives Beryl Stapleton for conspiring against him with her mad brother Jack. Not bloody likely.

Hound of the Baskervilles - Richardson, Elliott, David Langton, Glynis Barber

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Quarterly Report: July — September 2019

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By Scott Ross

Home-viewing from The Armchair Theatre over the last three months; because there isn’t a single bloody thing in the cinemas worth the time, petrol, cash or personal energy it would take to go out. Although I will admit I was convinced by a friend to attend a special screening of Daughters of the Dust… thereby proving the point.

Tootsie Jessica Lang and Dustin Hoffman
Tootsie (1982) Take one vanity project for a notoriously self-involved actor (Murray Schisgal writing a screenplay about acting for Dustin Hoffman); mix with a separate script by Don McGuire concerning an out-of-work performer donning drag for a soap-opera role that borrows a bit too liberally from Some Like it Hot, even unto its blond object of affection and unwanted middle-aged suitors; add in re-writes by a small army of scenarists headed by the great Larry Gelbart and including, un-credited, Barry Levinson, Robert Garland and Elaine May; bake by a director widely known as one of Hollywood’s most notorious writer fuckers (Gelbart claimed the movie was stitched together from any number of scenarists’ drafts), and the result should have been a disaster. Instead, through some weird alchemy it not only wasn’t but somehow those ingredients contrived to blend so well the picture became a small classic of its kind. Revisiting Tootsie from a 35-year remove, it seems almost miraculous: A popular comedy that tickles the mind as often as it does the ribs. And the direction, by Sydney Pollack, never a favorite filmmaker of this writer, looks as good now as it did in 1982; whatever its internal flaws (including a series of consecutive events supposedly encompassing a single evening that Gelbart later wrote was “a night that would have to last a hundred hours”) the picture is strikingly lovely, with Owen Roizman’s sumptuous lighting and the crisp, witty editing by Fredric Steinkamp and William Steinkamp giving it a patina of warmth and sophistication, a rare combination for any movie comedy. Hoffman’s “Dorothy Michaels” ranks as one of the great comic creations in American movies, yet the actor also locates the loneliness of the character — or, rather characters, since everything Dorothy says and does is filtered through Michael Dorsey’s brain and emotions — and an essential sweetness and decency Michael himself lacks when he’s wearing pants.* As the unwitting object of Michael’s interests, Jessica Lange was a revelation in 1982, lightness and gravity in balance, and what she does is still astonishing in the sheer rightness of her every glance, inflection and wistful hesitation. Terri Garr is no less entrancing, in what is surely her best screen performance, and Bill Murray gets the picture’s best lines as Michael’s playwright roommate. (May created the character, and wrote his speeches.) Against his own wishes, Pollack took on the role of Hoffman’s agent, and their scenes together, reflecting some of the very real anger and frustration each felt toward the other, are among the movie’s comic highlights. The great supporting cast includes Dabney Coleman as the sexist television director, Charles Durning and George Gaynes in the Joe E. Brown role(s), Doris Belack as the savvy “daytime drama” producer, Geena Davis as a nurse in the soap-within-a-film’s fictional hospital, and the late Lynne Thigpen as the show’s floor manager. Dave Grusin, who often floundered when composing for dramatic pictures, wrote for Tootsie one of his most felicitous comedy scores. It isn’t funny in itself, nor does it try to be; its alternate moods of peppy urbanity and plangent emotionalism make for a perfect juxtaposition that reflects the plot’s development and moods without attempting either to compete with them, or to ape the action.

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* Hoffman based Dorothy’s soft Southern vocal mannerisms on those of his friend Polly Holiday.


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George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward in the movie’s radiant, moving final moments.They Might Be Giants (1971)

They Might Be Giants (1971) James Goldman has long been one of my favorite writers. While nowhere near as prolific (nor as well known) as his brother William, his smaller output includes the 1965 play and subsequent movie 1968 The Lion in Winter (for which he won an Academy Award); the beautifully compressed book for the landmark Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince Follies, arguably the single greatest theatrical musical of the 20th century; the wonderfully conceived and unexpectedly moving Robin and Marian (1976); a superb novel about King John, Myself as Witness, in which Goldman re-examined an historical figure he felt he had maligned in his previous writing; and the play on which this lovely picture was based and for which he wrote the beautifully structured adaptation. Hal Prince produced the play’s only major production in London, later castigating himself for hiring the wrong director (Joan Littlewood) for the piece, although Goldman himself said he was unhappy with the script, which he subsequently withdrew from further production. The movie, while disappointing financially — presumably those involved expected another Lion in Winter — is a blissful variation on Arthur Conan Doyle, in which a mad retired jurist (George C. Scott) called Justin Playfair, who believes he is Sherlock Holmes, is examined by a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) named Mildred Watson. They meet as antagonists, form an uneasy alliance and drift toward romance, while Playfair seeks a rendezvous with the elusive Professor Moriarty. It may sound twee, and there are many on whom its gentle charms are no doubt lost, but it’s a funny, and surprisingly emotional, rumination on the relative insanity of a brilliant, harmless paranoid and of the increasingly mad society to which he is expected to conform. That last notion no doubt seems trite, but it has seldom been handled with such deftness and wit. Anthony Harvey, who also directed The Lion in Winter, shot the picture with a nervy energy that captures the New York City of the early 1970s, not as if under glass but as a living stage for Playfair’s intrigues. Scott and Woodward tear into their roles with the relish of great actors who know in their bones they’ve got their hands on some of the choicest dialogue around, and the rich supporting cast includes Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, Rue McClanahan, Theresa Merritt, Eugene Roche, James Tolkan, Kitty Winn, Sudie Bond, Staats Cotsworth, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Benedict, M. Emmet Walsh and Louis Zorich. There’s also a brief but extremely effective chamber score by John Barry, arranged and augmented by Ken Thorne. Two home-video versions exist: One (a Universal Vault DVD) running under 90 minutes, reflects the theatrical release while the other, the television edit (on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber) is longer, and includes the wry, delightful extended sequence in an immense Manhattan grocery store. It could, I suppose, be argued that the story doesn’t need the grocery sequence, and the climax plays well without it. But it also seems to me that the movie is enriched by its inclusion, and diminished by its excision. So, caveat emptor.

Dr. Mildred Watson: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

Justin Playfair: Well, he had a point. ‘Course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.


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Cora Lee Day as Nana Peazant

Daughters of the Dust (1991) Julie Dash’s dreamlike evocation of Gulla society on a small South Carolina island in the early years of the 20th century was well-received critically but not a box-office success. 20/20 hindsight by knee-jerk commentators now has it that the picture was badly handled by its distributor because its writer-director was not only a woman, but a black woman. Yet I don’t see how this luminously photographed exercise in non-linear rumination could have been a popular success in any era: It’s so diffuse it seems less Impressionistic than merely undefined; we can scarcely tell what the various narrative threads are, much less what they mean. What’s best about the picture, aside from Arthur Jafa’s exquisite cinematography, are the wonderful faces of the expressive actors, especially those of Cora Lee Day as the family matriarch clinging to her African roots and religion, Cheryl Lynn Bruce as her overly-devout Christian granddaughter, and Barbara-O as her mirror opposite, a wayward young woman who left the island for a man but who now is involved with a younger woman. But 60 minutes into this hour-and-52-minute glorified student film my eyes had long since begun to glaze over and even those interesting faces weren’t enough to clear them.


The Last Hard Men - Heston and Coburn

The Last Hard Men (1976) A tough, bloody Western from an unsparing Brian Garfield novel, starring Charlton Heston and James Coburn as old antagonists on a collision course. Although (unlike in the book’s ending) the movie’s climax seemingly leaves his character’s survival in doubt, and while the actor was too young for the role — as Garfield wrote it, the former lawman is in his 60s, and becoming increasingly frail — Heston is quite a good match for the ruthless Coburn, and the filmmakers (Andrew V. McLaglen was the director, and Guerdon Trueblood wrote the script) don’t flinch from the story’s most horrific moment, when the Heston figure’s daughter (Barbara Hershey) is gang-raped by Coburn’s team of escaped prisoners. The role of Hershey’s earnest suitor is the sort of part the young Jeff Bridges could have turned into a third lead by doing almost nothing, and while Chris Mitchum is attractive, he’s completely out of his depth; as an actor he was never much more than the pretty son of a movie star. While the performance of Michael Parks, as the sheriff who accompanies Heston on part of the quest to retrieve his daughter, suffers from his role being less interesting than in the Garfield book, the actors playing Coburn’s gang (Jorge Rivero, Thalmus Rasulala, Morgan Paull, Robert Donner, Riley Hill and especially Larry Wilcox and John Quade) are an impressively frightening bunch and Duke Callaghan’s widescreen cinematography is lustrous. Leonard Rosenman composed a terse, uncompromising score (it was later made available on CD) which was then replaced by a collection of newly-recorded cues from several of Jerry Goldsmith’s  previous 20th Century-Fox titles 100 Rifles (1969), Rio Conchos (1964), Morituri (1965) and the 1966 Stagecoach. I assume this was due to their being more traditional action cues and Western pieces than Rosenman’s dark, brooding compositions. But while they are splendid in themselves, if you’re already familiar with them from their sources they’re a needless distraction.


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The great title card for one of Jonny Quest‘s creepiest episodes. If only the animation for the show had been this good!

Johnny Quest: The Complete Original Series (1964 – 1965) When I was a child the Saturday morning re-airings of this 1964 one-shot, an impressive attempt by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna to create and direct a weekly prime-time animated adventure series,‡ made an enormous impression. It was the first “serious” animation I’d ever seen, its often eerie plot-lines were, for a 5-year old, fascinatingly scary… and in the titular figure, the irrepressible blond-topped All-American Jonny, lay my first big crush.† The gifted comics artist Doug Wildey designed the show and its central cast: Plucky Jonny, his slightly mystical adopted Indian brother Hadji, father Benton Quest and bodyguard Race Bannon (who, white hair aside, was, somewhat confusingly for me, almost a dead-ringer for my own father). Produced in the so-called “limited” format pioneered by Hanna-Barbera, and which Chuck Jones astutely referred to as “illustrated radio,” the series, re-viewed from an adult perspective, contains highly variable animation; there are times when the characters are beautifully drawn, while at others they are remarkably poorly drafted, and this older viewer could certainly do with less of Jonny’s annoying little dog Bandit. But the stories are nearly always, despite a 26-minute limitation, well-plotted and exciting, often with an agreeable avoidance of earthly explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomenon. Children, like many of their adult counterparts, love to be frightened, and they especially love ghost stories and impossible monsters; it was a consistent reliance on rationality than killed my initial enthusiasm for the later H-B Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Among the pleasures of the series were, and are, the voices, especially the appealing Tim Matheson as Jonny, the undemonstrably masculine Mike Road as Race, the charming Danny Bravo — who seems to have based his vocal characterization on Sabu — as Hadji, Vic Perrin as the show’s recurring villain Dr. Zinn and occasional guest artists such as Keye Luke, Jesse White, J. Pat O’Malley and even, astonishingly, Everett Sloan as an unrepentant old Nazi. Hoyt Curtin’s superb main title theme, with its bracing mix of big band and James Bond, is another asset; most of the incidental music is his, with additional and uncredited compositions by Ted Nichols. Many of the series’ best (and creepiest) episodes were written by William Hamilton: “The Robot Spy,” “Dragons of Ashida,” “Turu the Terrible,” “Werewolf of the Timberland” and “The Invisible Monster.” Among the others of especial note are “The Curse of Anubis” (Walter Black), “Calcutta Adventure” (Joanna Lee), and “Shadow of the Condor” and “The House of Seven Gargoyles” (both by Charles Hoffman). The recent Warner Archives Blu-Ray collection, while it contains few extras, looks terrific.

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† Like Top Cat and The JestsonsJonny Quest lasted only a single prime-time season. But when you’re a child, you’re not counting episodes, and due to repeated Saturday morning re-airings all three shows seemed to run forever.

‡How typical of me that my first big crush would be not another boy but a cartoon character… Still, I don’t know whether it was so much that I was attracted to Jonny as that I longed to be him. And isn’t hero-worship often what early same-sex crushes amount to?


Klute - Fonda and Sutherland (Klute comforts Bree)

Klute (1971)
The truly chilling paranoia thriller starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, who as the call-girl Bree Daniels gives what I consider the finest performance by an American movie actor of the last 50 years.


In the Heat of the Night - Sidney Poitier, Jester Hairston and Rod Steiger

Rod Steiger, Jester Hairston and Sidney Poitier

In the Heat of the Night (1967) This tense, unblinking police procedural coated in a patina of social critique was one of the great successes of its year, which also saw the premier of Bonnie and Clyde. And while the picture is very much of its time in its examination of racist bigotry in the then-current American Deep South, it’s also a brisk, exciting detective thriller that holds up remarkably well, not least due to the crisp direction by Norman Jewison and to the picture’s precise Stirling Silliphant screenplay. Indeed, I prefer Silliphant’s creative adaptation to John Ball’s original novel, in which race is an important component, yet is less central to the narrative’s tensions than in the much bolder, angrier, movie, especially via the incendiary central relationship between Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s Chief Gilliespie. It should be remembered that the picture was in release only three years after the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, and the sense of dangerous rot and slowly simmering violence Jewison captures onscreen is as palpable as the oppressive, humid heat of its Mississippi setting. (Although most of it was  shot in the southern Illinois town of Sparta.) Poitier gives a performance of wit, implacable inner strength and fierce integrity. There are a number of moments in the picture where what we see in a character’s face is more revealing, and quietly powerful, than what is said. Poitier has one such scene, when Steiger dismisses him, and his assistance in the murder investigation. Perhaps the most difficult thing an actor can do is to allow us to see him thinking. Too many actors project thought in those moments, and it’s nearly always phony. With Poitier, the impact registers itself in, first, his disbelief, followed by his fury, and, finally, a soft, subtle smile. He gets it; he’s been here before. Yet none of what we see is obvious, or overdone. Lee Grant, as the widow of the murder victim, has a similar scene where, shocked into silence by the news of her husband’s death, she reacts against Poitier’s gentle attempt to seat her with an anguished, rigid gesture that slowly turns to acceptance and, more potently, the need to be comforted. It’s devastating to watch. As the racist sheriff, Steiger, at the height of his screen prowess, meets his co-star blow-for-blow. Gillespie is as much an outsider in the town as Virgil, and as distrusted by the locals. His tension is coiled deep, and he expresses that inner explosiveness in the way he compulsively chews gum, stopping only when he has something to say, or when comprehension breaks through his consciousness. The supporting roles are so perfectly cast they seem inevitable — absolutely real: Warren Oates as a patrolman with a secret; Larry Gates as  a smooth and powerful old racist; the usually genial William Schallert as the bigoted mayor; Beah Richards as the local abortionist; Quentin Dean as a white-trash slut; Anthony James as a smirking creep; Scott Wilson as a prime suspect in the killing, whose changing relationship to Virgil is far warmer than what transpires between Tibbs and Gillespie; and Jester Hairston as an Uncle Tom butler outraged by Tibbs slapping his employer. (If you look sharp, you’ll also see Harry Dean Stanton as a cop.) That slap was a blow for liberty, and must have resounded sharply in many places across the globe, not merely the Southern United States. The dark, expressive cinematography is by Haskell Wexler — cheated by the constricted budget of a crane, he and Jewison make frequent, and often very effective, use of zoom lenses. Hal Ashby provided the fluid editing, and Quincy Jones’ score, mixing jazz and blues, has a nervous, funky energy perfectly in keeping with the movie’s sense of dark foreboding, and he composed a terrific main title song (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) that’s sung with passionate soul by Ray Charles. Jones’ cue for Wilson’s attempted escape (and suggested by Jewison) is a highlight, puttering out expressively as the murder suspect realizes he’s licked — the musical equivalent of a runner who’s out of breath.


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Ghostbusters (1984) Horror comedy was far from a new concept when Ghostbusters was made — Harold Lloyd starred in something rather redundantly called Haunted Spooks in 1920 — but until 1981 and An American Werewolf in London there had never been one with elaborate special-effects, and even that was modestly budgeted; Ghostbusters cost six times as much (its budget was between $25 and 30 million.) Most of its predecessors tend to be either comedies with a few ghostly appurtenances (cf., Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein and Don Knotts’ The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) or genuine horror with black comedy overtones (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, Phantom of the Paradise and, indeed, American Werewolf in London) but Ghostbusters takes nothing seriously. Its writer/stars, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, see everything as funny, and since The Ghostbusters themselves seldom panic, we spend the entire movie in a state of amused relaxation right along with them; the audience takes its cue from laid-back smart-ass Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, for whom the entire natural world is a sardonic joke, so why should the supernatural world be any different? Murray’s comic persona is so relaxed he’s like a more sarcastic version of Bing Crosby. The picture is inconsequential — you smile through most of it, even if you seldom laugh out loud — yet at the same time memorable; several of its set-pieces, phrases and gags became instant cultural touchstones, and after seeing the movie you’ll likely never look at a bag of marshmallows the same way. Sigourney Weaver has a good, serio-comic role as the woman whose apartment is being taken over by an ancient deity, Rick Moranis is sweetly oblivious as a dweeby neighbor, Annie Potts is the Ghostbusters’ preternaturally un-fazable secretary, William Atherton is an officious prick from the EPA (why do so many satires go after EPA rather than corporate polluters?) and Ernie Hudson gets a largely thankless role as the token black member of the team. László Kovács shot the movie beautifully, and the veteran Elmer Bernstein composed a score that, anchored to a loping main theme, was almost too effective: Despite his having composed in his long career everything from epics (The Ten Commandments) and Westerns (The Magnificent Seven) to thrillers (The Great Escape) and intimate dramas (To Kill a Mockingbird) and in every conceivable format from symphonic to jazz, the success of Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf, Trading Places and Ghostbusters got him typecast for years as purely a comedy composer.


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Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles‘ minor masterpiece, and the last time he was permitted the luxury of the studio system’s largess.


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The Pink Panther (1963)
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978)
The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)

How Blake Edwards took his love for silent comedy routines deep into the post-War pop consciousness.


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Chinatown (1974) The modern classic by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski.


Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice (1988) I misunderstood Beetlejuice when it was new; my contemporary review (fortunately now lost to the landfills) betrayed a certain — and to me, now, inexplicable — inability to keep pace with Tim Burton’s patented blend of amiability and dark comic outrage. It wasn’t that I couldn’t appreciate his often exhilarating blend of comedy and horror; the Large Marge sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of my seat. But I somehow wasn’t ready for an entire feature with that sensibility, unfettered. Revisiting Beetlejuice now, as I feel compelled to do every few years, I can’t help wondering why my younger self couldn’t relax enough to embrace such a cheerfully anarchic comedy as this one. Written by Michael McDowell (sadly, one of all too many creative men who succumbed to AIDS) and Warren Skaaren (also now prematurely dead, of bone cancer) from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, it’s a spook-fest for jaded children, a supernatural comedy that stints neither on the humor nor the paranormal. As the nice young Connecticut couple who discover they’re dead and doomed to live with the wacko modern artist and her bourgeois real-estate developer husband they can’t scare away, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis embody the spirit of the whole enterprise; they’re too sweetly gentle to make decent ghosts. As the titular “bio-exorcist,” Michael Keaton was a revelation, and his performance still amazes; nothing he’d done in movies up to that point had prepared us for the primal forces he unleashed in himself as Beetlejuice. His non-stop patter, loopy asides, gross-out wit and sheer brazen crudity were like nothing we’d seen in a movie comedy before. I think you’d have to imagine how movie audiences reacted the first time they saw the Marx Brothers to understand the impact that performance had on us in 1988. The strong supporting cast includes a very young Winona Ryder as the developer’s slightly off, death-obsessed teenage daughter; the peerlessly self-satisfied Jeffrey Jones as her father; the ever-treasurable Catherine O’Hara as his nasty, pretentious wife; Sylvia Sidney, in her of her final performances, as Baldwin and Davis’ case-worker, making the most of a role that is really little more than a delicious sick joke; Glenn Shadix as an obnoxious interior designer§; and Dick Cavett as a blasé society snob. Danny Elfman composed one of his brightest early scores, which deftly incorporates some of Harry Belafonte’s calypso hits. The first time I saw Beetlejuice, the use of “Day-O” offended me; now that sequence strikes me as one of the happiest in the picture. That’s one of the perks of revisiting old movies: Realizing that it wasn’t the original, uncategorizable, picture that was to blame for your dismissal of it, and being happy that you’ve lived to become a person who can surrender himself to it.
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§ Although Shadix’s performance struck me at the time as an exercise in extreme stereotype, the actor was himself gay.


The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duvall, Arkin, Williamson watch

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) Nicholas Meyer’s ingenious Sherlock Holmes pastiche.


Blackbeard's Ghost - Ustinov and Jones

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) I don’t know how I missed this one when it was released, as I habitually saw every new (or newly reissued) Disney movie, animated or live-action. It’s just possible it didn’t make it to the small Ohio town we were living in then, although every other children’s movie of the time did. In any case, I only discovered it when I came across the Disneyland soundtrack album — receiving the record for Christmas of 1970, I nearly wore it out through re-playing. It was my introduction to Peter Ustinov, who narrated it, and who starred as Blackbeard; the LP featured dialogue, mostly between him and Dean Jones, with a little Suzanne Pleshette shoehorned in, and I was entranced by Ustinov’s idiosyncratic way with a funny line, his ineffable charm, and (to borrow a phrase from Harlan Ellison in a different context) the “ineluctable rodomontade” of his florid verbiage. As I grew older and became more familiar with Ustinov, and with his performances and his work as a playwright and screenwriter, I began to suspect that he had re-written the Blackbeard script (or at least, his lines) as he had on Spartacus. And if you love Ustinov as I do, Blackbeard’s Ghost, while silly, generates a lot of laughter. Although basing their screenplay on a very good children’s novel by Ben Stahl, in which two boys accidentally conjure up the shade of the pirate, still very much the bloodthirsty ghoul of legend, the movie’s writers (Don Da Gradi and Bill Walsh) ditched that premise in favor of pure comedy, making this far tamer Blackbeard’s more-than-reluctant compatriot the new coach of a hopeless college track team. That the coach is played by Jones is a help; whatever criticisms might be levied at the Disney pictures in which he starred, the actor (on whom I had a slight childish crush) always brought enormous conviction to them, and his outbursts of incredulous anger are as ingratiating as the engaging grin that occasionally splits his handsome face. The slapstick in the picture, directed with no special distinction by Robert Stevenson, is sometimes dopey and occasionally better than that, and the invisibility effects by Eustace Lycett and Robert A. Mattey are, as usual with Disney, well done, as are the lovely background matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw. The screenplay has a pleasing lightness, enriched by what I again assume were Ustinov’s additions. The laughter the Disney Blu-Ray drew from me was considerable, even if nearly all of it was generated by Ustinov, who still makes me roar at lines I memorized off that record album when I was nine. Although Elliott Reid overdoes his bit as a television sportscaster, Pleshette is, as always, simultaneously biting and adorable as Jones’ inamorata; Joby Baker makes a good showing in the unaccustomed role of the villain; Elsa Lanchester gets a good scene or two as Jones’ dotty landlady; Richard Deacon is amusingly dry as the college dean; and Herbie Faye, Ned Glass, Alan Carney and Gil Lamb all have good bits in Baker’s restaurant-cum-gambling den. The plot revolves in large part around Blackbeard’s old home, maintained as an hotel by his descendants, little old ladies with nothing else to cling to. I mention this because one of them — and I have no idea which — is identified on the imdb as Betty Bronson. That’s a name more forgotten now than it was 50 years ago, but 45 years before, that Bronson was enchanting youngsters as the screen’s first Peter Pan. I would like to think that Walt Disney, one of whose final productions Blackbeard’s Ghost was, knew that, and gave the old trouper a job. Anyway, it would be pretty to think so.


INTO THE WOODS

Anna Kendric sings “On the Steps of the Palace,” my favorite number in Stephen Sondheim’s dark/light score. “He’s a very smart Prince / He’s a Prince who prepares / Knowing this time I’d run from him / He spread pitch on the stairs…”

Into the Woods (2014) Although I have been a Sondheim fanatic since discovering the Company cast album in 1976, and while the original production of Into the Woods was the first Broadway musical I saw before its cast recording had been released, I deliberately avoided the movie of it when it was new, on the basis of three proper names with which it was associated: “Disney,” “Rob” and “Marshall.” Perhaps only in Hollywood could a minimally talented hack like Rob Marshall reap such rewards (and a-wards) by removing the guts from ballsy musical plays like Chicago and Nine. After countless producers and screenwriters, including Larry Gelbart, had worked at it, what was Marshall’s great “break-through” on Chicago? Turning all the musical numbers into dream-fantasies Renee Zellweger imagines. If you have to justify why people are singing and dancing in a musical, why the fuck are you making a musical? Still, with a screenplay by James Lapine, the original book writer and director of Into the Woods, perhaps there was only so much damage Marshall could do to it. Well, it was someone’s brilliant idea to cast the magnificent Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s Father and then butcher his role so completely he’s left with no songs and only a couple of lines, confusingly delivered, since we can’t tell who he is, whether he’s real or a phantom, and haven’t any idea whether his son (James Corden) knows either; and to let Chris Pine as an 18th century prince sport a trendy two-day growth of beard on his chin.‖ The picture looks splendid, which I attribute largely to its cinematographer Dion Beebe, its set decorator Anna Pinnock, its costumer Colleen Atwood and its production designer Dennis Gassner. And it’s largely well cast, with actors who can sing: Corden; Meryl Streep, sardonic but subdued as The Witch; lovely Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife; cute Daniel Huttlestone as a full-throated Jack; Lilla Crawford as a foghorn-voiced Little Red Riding Hood; Johnny Depp as her Wolf; Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother; and Anna Kendrick who, although attractive only from a single angle… and that one her director seldom favors… is an otherwise charming and effective Cinderella. Into the Woods was significantly better than I’d expected. Yet I still tremble whenever I hear another name yoked with this director’s: “Rob,” “Marshall”… and Follies. Hasn’t that poor show suffered enough?

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‖As my friend Eliot M. Camarena once asked, do people like that when they’re children announce, “When I grow up, I wanna look like Fred C. Dobbs!”?


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The Art of Love (1965) A surprisingly brainless affair to have come from the typewriter of the witty Carl Reiner, riding high in 1965 with the deserved success of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he created and oversaw, and for which he wrote many of the most memorable early episodes. The best thing about this moderately black farce concerning a failed American artist in Paris whose supposed suicide instantly drives up the prices fetched for his work by his duplicitous best friend (James Garner) is Van Dyke as the artist. His comedic timing, seemingly boneless body and inimitable way with a line or a situation are the equal of the great comedians he worshiped, and it’s one of the great ironies of modern history that he came along at a time when movie and television comedies were so often loud, witless and inane. Had Blake Edwards not already collared Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon, what a find Van Dyke would have been for that fellow student of slapstick! Reiner can’t really be blamed for the general dopiness of the movie, since he was working from an existing story by two other writers (Alan Simmons and William Sackheim) and the movie’s young director, Norman Jewison, doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of help to him. The Art of Love is attractive to look at — it was shot by Russell Metty — but inert, marking time with things like Angie Dickinson’s fainting shtick (it’s funny the first time), Elke Sommers’ perpetual innocent act and the braying of Ethel Merman, apparently cast as a madam just so she could belt out an instantly forgettable nightclub number. The usually ingratiating Garner has little to play here but his character’s cheesy self-centeredness, and Reiner stoops to such things as plunking a cartoon Brooklynite Yiddishe couple (Irving Jacobson and Naomi Stevens) in the middle of Paris. Still, Jay Novello has a couple of funny bits as a nervous janitor and little Pierre Olaf does miracle work as an umbrella-toting police detective, Cy Coleman provided a perky score (with additional music by Frank Skinner), and DePatie-Freleng came up with some modestly amusing main title animation. There’s little excuse, however, for a comedy — especially one with Dick Van Dyke — whose only big laugh comes at the very end, and absolutely none for its indulging in such feeble wheezes as the periodic introduction of a Madame Defarge-like hag, complete with knitting needles, who shows up every now and then to screech her delight at Garner’s impending execution. But at least I now understand what my mother meant when she once told me that after seeing this one on television when I was a boy I walked around the house for a week saying, “Guillotine! Guillotine!”


Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree (1978) That Sherlock Holmes occupied a revered, albeit fictional, place in the same late Victorian Britain that saw the appalling murders in Whitechapel has intrigued Sherlockians for decades. What more natural meeting could there be than between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant consulting detective and “Saucy Jacky,” as that figure of horror known popularly as Jack the Ripper styled himself in a letter to the papers? Derek Ford and Donald Ford (the former known primarily for his snickering sex comedies) imagined Holmes investigating the murders in the 1965 A Study in Terror, and the same year in which this more recent attempt was released saw the publication of Michael Didbin’s dark little novel The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, very much concerned with Jack. The elements are there even in the mind’s eye: The dimly gaslit cobblestone streets, the hansom cabs and private cabriolets, the enveloping fog that swallows up forms, faces and screams of terror and pain. That Bob Clark, the onlie begettor of Porky’s should, of all people, have directed as beautiful a fiction as Murder by Decree is as puzzling as his making that perfect adaptation of Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story. But then, as Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, “Peter, you only need one.” The literate screenplay by the playwright John Hopkins emphasizes a more riant, and more passionate, Holmes than is the norm, and Christopher Plummer could scarcely be bettered in the role as the filmmakers, if not Conan Doyle, conceived it. His performance reaches two peaks, one infinitely quiet (his reaction to Geneviève Bujold’s heartbreaking madwoman), the other bristling with outrage at what his betters (including John Gielgud as the Prime Minister, unidentified in the picture but clearly made up to resemble Robert Gascoyne-Cecil) have been up to. Hopkins also, blessedly, gives us a Watson who is as far from the Nigel Bruce model as can be imagined. And while the irreplaceable James Mason is a bit hoary for the role, his aplomb is undeniable; a moment of especial charm is the way he expresses dismay at Holmes, and with a look of genuine hurt, when the former squashes the lone pea on the doctor’s plate. And if he is occasionally the voice of hidebound Empire, Mason’s (and Hopkins’) Watson is also equally as capable of wit as Holmes as, for example, when Sherlock asks his compatriot why his friend deems him only “the prince of detectives” and wishes to know who is king. I won’t spoil the joke here, nor the conclusion of this intricately plotted exercise, based on some theories by Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd in their contemporaneous book The Ripper File. The exceptional cast includes a starchily smug and imperious Gielgud; the wrenching Bujold; Frank Finlay as an uncharacteristically deferential Inspector Lestrade; David Hemmings as the police inspector in charge of the case (and who bears absolutely no relationship to the very real Frederick Abberline); Susan Clark as a heartrending Mary Kelly; Anthony Quayle as the dangerously reactionary Sir Charles Warren; Peter Jonfield as a chillingly psychotic chief villain; and Donald Sutherland as the shaken spiritualist Robert Lees, who believes he’s seen the Ripper. Despite a few unnecessary visual flourishes, Clark’s eye is nearly unerring, abetted to an exceptional degree by the rich and expressive cinematography by Reginald H. Morris and the astonishing production design of Harry Pottle; I don’t know whether Pottle is responsible for the staggeringly effective matte paintings of London used in the picture, but whoever painted them, they put you absolutely there. The only real miscalculation in the movie is the highly derivative musical score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer from which I heard distinct liftings from John Williams (the scene in Jaws of Richard Dreyfus investigating Ben Gardner’s boat), Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann (those eerie strings) and Richard Rodney Bennett (the opening sequence of Murder on the Orient Express) and in which — aside from the plaintive traditional Irish tune for Mary Kelly — there is little that is either original, interesting, useful or pleasing to the ear.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Pastiche génial: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

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By Scott Ross

A number of years ago Andre Previn told of overhearing a disgruntled patron at Tom Stoppard’s Travesties say to his wife as they were walking out, “I don’t see what’s so great about that play — it’s just a pistache!”

Ever since, I’ve thought that anonymous theatregoer’s malapropism has an even more charming quality than the word he meant, and “pistache” has become my preferred private term for something that goes beyond pastiche to create a unique work evoking the art of others, invoking a mix of historical figures to rub shoulders with fictitious ones, and fashioning from the mix a creation which goes far beyond mere cleverness or canny imitation; E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime perhaps represents the apogee of this ideal. And while Nicholas Meyer did not invent the Sherlock Holmes pastiche (there had been others: The Holmes/Jack-the-Ripper picture A Study in Terror in 1965, and some Nero Wolfe stories as far back as the 1940s) his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was surely the most successful to then, a movie adaptation virtually guaranteed by that success.

Holmes is, in a way, a natural for such enterprises; the Victorian era is so stuffed with remarkable personages, from the Queen herself, who makes a memorable appearance in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, to “Saucy Jacky.” (See also a later entry in the cinematic canon, the 1979 Murder by Decree, with Christopher Plummer a surprisingly outraged and passionate Holmes.) Indeed, after so cunningly yoking Holmes to Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyer conjured up an entire raft of contemporaneous figures of the Victorian theatre (G.B. Shaw, Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, W.S. Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Oscar Wilde) for The West End Horror, his somber 1976 follow-up. And if they are rather more peripheral to that narrative than Freud is to its predecessor, they add immeasurably to the author’s conjuring of the milieu into which Holmes and Watson immerse themselves.

Other writers’ Holmesian pastiches have embraced such historical personae as Alfred Dreyfus (The Prisoner of the Devil by Michael Hardwick), Jack again (Michael Dibdin’s brief and disturbing The Last Sherlock Holmes Story), the young Bertrand Russell (The Case of the Philosopher’s Ring by Randall Collins) and Charles Dickens (Stephen Fry’s “The Adventure of the Laughing Jarvey” — and yes, both Fry and I are keenly aware that Dickens represents an anachronism; you’ll just have to trust us both on this one) as well as fictional counterparts like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll (in Loren D. Estelman’s two short and not wholly satisfying Sherlock Holmes vs. novels), Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu Manchu (in the much finer Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash) and even several entries revolving around Professor Moriarty. And in the early Aughts, two Holmes pastiches by important writers arrived within a year of each other: Michael Chabon’s portentously titled The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Cullins (later filmed under the insipid title Mr. Holmes) is completely satisfying while the Chabon is oblique and, as seems increasingly and depressingly true of this writer, all too satisfied with itself.

Author Nicholas Meyer

Only Meyer — whose Holmes grappled with the Phantom of the Opera in 1993 and is about to embark on an adventure concerning the spurious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in October — really delivers the goods. He is pretty obviously steeped in what is somewhat stuffily and rather over-protectively referred to as “the Canon,” and his evocation of Conan Doyle’s style has the ring of perfect mimesis.* Not only does Meyer get Conan Doyle’s style down, in his descriptive prose, his dialogue and his wit, but in his thoughtfulness as well: In Meyer, Watson’s ruminations have depth and philosophical gravitas. They are the furthest thing from the hackery of mere connective literary tissue.

Meyer’s facility served him well when it came to re-imagining The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as a screenplay. Although there is nothing in the slightest wrong with the book, it does lack a certain glamour, and there is very little in it that feels light — two essentials for successful escapist fare at the movies, then as now. The two central plot strands of the novel (Holmes being tricked to Vienna for treatment by Freud of his cocaine addiction, and the abduction, escape and re-abduction of a blameless young woman) remain. The more ominous aspect — the fraudulent acquisition of an enormous supply of armaments with which the Kaiser may start a world war, 20 years in advance of that eventual conflagration — the filmmakers jettisoned, perhaps wisely; it’s more a literary conceit than a cinematic one, both darker and, because more abstract, less felicitous to the production of mass entertainment. For color, Meyer and his director, the highly variable Herbert Ross, made the abductee a noted theatrical figure, and added an unscrupulous Pasha and a mysterious, nasty little accomplice who nearly lures Holmes, Freud and Watson to their violent deaths. They also revised the book’s ending, embroidering an intriguingly romantic note to the close, and enriched, in an ingenious fashion, the chief reasons for Holmes’ sense of justice, his addiction and his obsession with Moriarty. Indeed, when you re-read the novel after seeing the picture you may,  during Homes’ final hypnotic state, think, “God, Meyer — you couldn’t see it, but you were so close!

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One of the great pleasures of revisiting The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in its Shout! Factory Blu-Ray edition is relishing the beauty of Oswald Morris’ deep, somewhat muted cinematography, its atmosphere enriched immeasurably by Ken Adam’s opulent production design. The picture was (wisely, I think) shot in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio rather than in 2:35:1 widescreen; the higher frame allows for a fullness of image denied the wider screen, and Morris’ are exceptionally rich even when he shoots through gauze, as he does rather noticeably whenever Vanessa Redgrave is on-screen. Another is the sheer wit and intelligence of a movie intended solely as light popular escapist fare, something American culture has lost, seemingly without hope of retrieval: Imagine even a modestly budgeted studio movie today, outside of science fiction, containing a casual use of the word “ratiocination.”

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As in 1976, the first glimpse of Nicol Williamson as Holmes is startling, used as we were then to seeing actors like Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, John Neville and Robert Stephens — or even Douglas Wilmer, in Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother — with the requisite cragginess to evoke Sidney Paget’s Strand Magazine illustrations (themselves cannily reproduced in the opening titles); we were greeted instead by a tall Scot with resolutely regular features. The moment he begins to speak, however, babbling at Robert Duvall’s Watson about the pervading evil of Moriarty with sweaty, cocaine-induced mania, all doubts are cheerfully cast aside. We can relax; we’re in good hands. A few similar doubts lingered about Duvall who, although he looks splendidly Wastonian, intones his initial lines in a somewhat studied, self-consciously Oxfordian accent. Yet this too becomes, like Williamson’s famously glottal vocal timbre, merely a matter of difference: This is not going to be a repetition of that famous double-act of clipped Rathbone and bumbling Nigel Bruce. Only once does this Watson make an observation, concerning a trail of long-stemmed lilies (“Perhaps she was wearing them in her hair”) of the type that has so often made the good doctor a figure of ridicule. I’ve always thought the concept of the blundering Watson a brazenly false one; if the doctor was as asinine a fuddlehead as Bruce portrayed him, would a man as bright and acerbic as Holmes have bothered with him for a minute?

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No uncertainty, however brief, attached itself to Alan Arkin’s extraordinary performance as Freud then, or does so now. Whether Freud was as warm as Arkin’s portrayal renders him is less important than the intelligence and honor with which this treasurable actor embodies him. And with his black beard and stylish wig, Arkin has never cut so attractive a figure as he does here. The picture’s most cunning bit of casting, however, is that of Laurence Olivier as a disheveled, timorous and inconsequential Moriarty. Olivier had lived so long with the mantle “Greatest Actor in the World” attached to him that it was easy to forget in those days what a splendid comedian he could be, perhaps especially since his most recent screen appearance at the time was as the quietly terrifying old Nazi of Marathon Man.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As Fraulein Deveraux, the victim of the kidnap plot, Redgrave is a dream of beauty, even when ravaged by captivity and the effects of forced addiction. Long before her actual appearance we glimpse her, in a Mucha-like poster reminiscent of that Art Nouveau master’s depictions of Sara Bernhardt, and the comparison suits her perfectly, as do those lilies the character adores. I have long thought Redgrave the most ethereal of all actresses, and she floats through The Seven-Per-Cent Solution like a goddess of unearthly pulchritude. I don’t know how so serious an actor is able to speak a line like, “A woman as beautiful as I, has seen everything fearful by age seventeen” without blushing in embarrassment, much less making us believe she believes it, and the small cry Redgrave gives when she realizes she has been made an addict again contains within it whole worlds of despairing disbelief.

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The supporting roles are almost too well cast, leaving us wanting far more of such radiant figures as Samantha Eggar (Mrs. Watson), Georgia Brown (Mrs. Freud), Anna Quayle (as the maid Frida) and, although he is both warmer and less corpulent than Conan Doyle’s description, Charles Gray as Mycroft. Joel Grey, who has only a handful of brief lines, makes a marvelously off-center figure of mystery as the homicidal little brigand, Jeremy Kemp is an appropriately haughty and sneering villain, and Régine gets to sing a tantalizing bit of the Stephen Sondheim “Madame’s Song,” known after its more fulsome appearance in Side by Side by Sondheim as “I Never Do Anything Twice.” (Kemp, interestingly, later played the despicable Dr. Roylott in the “Speckled Band” episode of the Jeremy Brett Holmes series, and the name “Roylott” is invoked here as well, although in a far less sinister context.) And if Watson was at pains to tell us that the redoubtable Toby was not, as he is depicted here, a bloodhound, the magnificent beast who portrays him in the picture performs the role so well he may surely be excused the fact of his breed.

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The great Richard Amsel’s initial pass on the Muchaesque poster art. He would later place Redgrave above Williamson and Arkin, remove Olivier’s face in favor of just his inscrutable hooded eyes, and take away the tempter’s cup.

Ross, who could be terribly good when he wasn’t indulging in (highly suspicious) gay-baiting, or cranking out bad Neil Simon adaptations, proves wholly up to the task here, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution looks as good as any American movie of its time. The picture’s art director (Peter Lamont) and costume designer (Alan Barrett) surely share in that credit, and while I don’t know who designed the cocaine-withdrawal nightmares Williamson’s Holmes endures, I suspect Ken Adam had something to do with it. In any case, Meyer’s conception is both disturbing and witty, calling forth as it does surrealist images from not only The Hound of the Baskervilles but “The Red-Headed League” and “The Speckled Band,” Roylott’s Indian swamp adder turning into Moriarty, an effect accomplished by Chris Barnes with rapid “subliminal” cutting. (Although no especial fan of c.g.i. myself, I imagine this might be more satisfyingly done today with computer animation.) Equally effective is the marvelous score by John Addison, anchored to an appropriate —  and appropriately melancholy — violin theme, a secondary Viennese waltz which can when necessary mutate into a more menacing state, and a tertiary Ottoman theme played on what I assume is a qanun or something very like. Astonishingly, this delightful score was only released at the time on vinyl in a composer’s LP, which was later transferred to CD along with Addison’s delicious score for Sleuth, but has never been given an official release.

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Holmes in the extremis of withdrawal.

In an otherwise curiously apologetic interview on the Shout! release, Nicholas Meyer claims credit for casting Duvall, certain the actor would provide to the picture an anti-Nigel Bruce Watson. But I am not sure for what, given the splendor both of this movie and his own contributions to it, Meyer could possibly feel the need to apologize; this almost profligately entertaining pistache owes him everything.


*Fry’s effort is the only one I’ve encountered that can truly challenge Meyer, leaving one to wish he would consider a full-length Holmesian adventure. But I strongly suspect that, for Fry, “The Laughing Jarvey” was the literary equivalent of a schoolboy jape, never to be repeated.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Neither rotten, nor wonderfully brave: “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975)

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By Scott Ross

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For reasons that no longer matter (my mother had grounded me, okay?) and even though I had the dialogue soundtrack in my small but growing LP collection, I managed to miss Young Frankenstein when it opened in 1974. I saw, it, finally, a couple of years after, at a late show to which I was taken by my sister and her fiancée, a screening memorably marred by the movie-long ululations of some insufferable fool who apparently also had the album and who, as if Mel Brooks’ movie was a Rocky Horror Picture Show avant le lettre, shouted out the punchlines before the actors on the screen could. Why he wasn’t beaten up, or at the very least forcibly gagged, during the show remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. In any case, I did know Gene Wilder, from the ill-fated 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I saw at the age of 10, from a television airing of the somewhat logy but intermittently hilarious 1970 spoof Start the Revolution without Me, and from another dialogue soundtrack of a movie I hadn’t seen, The Producers. Although I could not have articulated then quite what it was that so appealed to me about Wilder, the boy I was would surely have nodded in complete agreement had he encountered Pauline Kael’s contemporary comments concerning that inspired comedian.

Reviewing Revolution Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it — his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.” Assaying Young Frankenstein four years later, Kael again returned to this theme, which was so much a part of Wilder’s unique comic persona: “It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal — his hysteria mocks hysteria — but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension — he delivers what Harpo promised.”

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If you think of him intoning Leslie Bricusse’s mad doggerel with increasing — yes — hysteria on that boat trip through psychedelica in Willy Wonka, or screaming gynecological imprecations at the innards of a row of baked chickens in everything you always wanted to know about sex, or at his most panic-stricken in the early scenes of The Producers (“I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!”) you know precisely what Kael meant. And it’s a sustaining shtick; it goes with his slightly popped blue eyes and those unruly shocks of curly blonde hair. You wait for him to explode into hysteria just as you anticipate his disbelieving “Son of a bitch!” every time he’s thrown off the train in Silver Streak. It works more than once; it works every time.

Having deprived myself of Young Frankenstein, which he co-wrote, I was even more determined, at the end of 1975, to see Wilder’s debut as both screenwriter and director. I remember laughing a great deal at The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother then, more than I did on seeing it again recently, but what stayed with me were less the big set-ups that are often only modestly successful and more the odd curlicues that give it flavor: The wanton use of song and dance, exemplified by the delicious music-hall parody “The Kangaroo Hop” which Wilder performs with Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman and in which he is all jointless hips and boneless feet; Dom DeLuise’s fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller Italianate line readings; Marty Feldman’s distinctive orbs that shoot off in separate directions and his big, ready, close-mouthed smile; Leo McKern’s peerless delight, as a plummy Moriarty, in sending up the sorts of villain roles to which he was all too often consigned before Rumpole saved him; the way, after John Le Mesurier utters an insupportable faux pas to Queen Victoria and a document flies out of his hand, he then emits a Brooksian “Woof!” (much funnier than the sovereign’s muttered “Shit!” with which the scene ends); and Albert Finney’s amusing cameo as a member of the audience at an appalling English-language version of Un ballo in maschera and asking, in an aside to us, “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” (It’s rotten.)

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Albert Finney’s cameo.

The Sherlockian parody itself is often droll, and certainly erudite. Feldman’s Scotland Yard sergeant is called Orville Stanley Sacker, a name close to Ormond Sacker, the one Conan Doyle initially gave to John Watson. Wilder’s insanely jealous (and apparently Jewish) brother to Sherlock, Sigerson, also recalls an alias under which Holmes himself went in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one used by Nicholas Meyer in an equally playful context at the end of his Holmes pastiche The Seven Per Cent Solution. Kahn’s character is named after the Victorian singer Jenny Hill, and initially attempts to pass herself off as one Bessie Bellwood (“Won’t you come in… Miss Liar!”), another contemporary songbird. Indeed, the very title of the movie is in keeping with Doyle’s — or, if you prefer, Watson’s — method of naming his Holmes stories. If the screenplay itself is, like Blazing Saddles, rather more scattershot in total effect than the well-integrated Young Frankenstein and The Producers, it’s still a very respectable first solo effort, and certainly more intelligent than the typical American comedy then… and the depressing current norm today.

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Marty Feldman as Orville Sacker.

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Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes alerts Throley Walters’ Watson to the presence outside their 221-B Baker Street digs.

Partaking of Wilder’s movie now is a bittersweet event. Kahn, Feldman, McKern and DeLuise are gone now, not to mention the wonderful Roy Kinnear, who contributes one of his droll turns as Moriarty’s henchman, while Wilder himself is older, and less active, although he has found a third career as a novel writer and memoirist. Brooks’ longtime musical amanuensis John Morris, who contributed the spirited underscore (and the deliciously fulsome melodies to Wilder’s song parody lyrics) is in his 80s now, and retired, as apparently is the great British production designer Terence Marsh, whose work here gives the movie much of its period authenticity and satirical wit. As with so much in American culture since the ’70s and early ’80s, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother seems the product of an entirely different country.

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Caught in murderous impulse McKern’s Moriarty remarks, “You’ve got a lovely vase.” To which DeLuise pinches the professor’s cheek and ripostes, “And you got a lovely vace!”

Although the climax of the movie is a bit like an undernourished romantic dream from which the fizz was unaccountably let out, the deliberately bad opera libretto is of the type that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud, and the enterprise as a whole is curiously insubstantial, Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother still holds undeniable pleasure.

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Feldman’s Orville Sacker as a supernumerary in the opera sequence. Those wigs don’t do much for either of them.

The single most charming sequence in the movie is the one in which, having extricated themselves from a tiny room with a buzz saw careening down its center, Wilder and Feldman cause a shocked sensation in the ballroom to which they escape as they slowly realize the blade has sheared away the seats of their fancy dress suits. I could have done without the flaming bandleader simpering his approval at the pairs’ exposed backsides, but the way in which Wilder conceived the gag, his acutely comic execution of it, and the delicious sang-froid with which the two comedians meet the challenge, places the scene as among the most surprising and delightful of any shot in the past 40 years. (And, anent that faggy conductor, you have to admit that Wilder did have a cute tush.)

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Feldman and Wilder in the movie’s most charming sequence. Wilder had a cute tushy.

It’s hard to imagine Woody Allen coming up with this, or even Mel Brooks, and certainly neither would have given the moment its air of sweetly inevitable innocence. Perhaps, more than his comic bluster, that very guilelessness is the reason so many of us responded to Gene Wilder as an earlier generation took to Harpo Marx, and why his essential decency belongs to another century.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Looking Back in Anger

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By Scott Ross

For the past two days, I have been listening to Quartet Records’ meticulous reconstruction of Miklós Rózsa’s exquisite score for the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond masterwork The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in, if not exactly a state of rage, at least fits of reasonably manageable pique.

A note on the Quartet website explains, to a large degree, the reason for my fury: The company’s producers and engineers, it tells us, “spent almost three years searching for the best possible sources, but the original masters are, unfortunately, forever lost […]  We have used three different monaural music-only stems from the MGM vaults for this release — none of which was in ideal condition.”

This is, sadly, an old story, all too often replicated. It is an especially cruel irony that, while the loss of priceless soundtrack masters is not unheard of within the vaults of the major Hollywood studios, this deplorable state of affairs holds true with much more depressing regularity on movies produced outside the system — in those very places where the filmmakers and their collaborators had more freedom than anywhere else. Time after depressing time, we who love film scores are told that the soundtrack for X movie, the cherished LPs of which we’ve worn to hockey pucks over the years, is simply gone.

For older studio scores, the major problem is often that effects and music (and, occasionally, some dialogue) were stored on the same tracks. Nothing to be done about that… at least for now; who knows what digital magician of the future may arrive to perform some as-yet unknown feat of prestidigitation that will ameliorate that issue? Fortunately, later scores were isolated, often with their stereo components intact, or their composers kept master tapes in their own collections, so many of the glories of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s can come to us more or less in full, sometimes with astounding aural freshness (Kritzerland’s release of the Les Baxter Black Sunday is a good example.)

In the case of an entity such as United Artists, however, home-from-home for so many gifted screenwriters, directors, actors and composers during that time, the elements were sometimes scattered to the four winds when not destroyed outright. (Often, the LP masters, which can differ markedly from what’s heard in the movies, are all that remains.) Varèse Sarabande just barely caught Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent Hawaii in time, after nearly giving up hope, and Quartet recently performed a miracle resuscitation on Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royale. Jose Luis Crespo has done a remarkable job with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and deserves the praise and thanks of so many who love Rózsa, and revere this movie, and its score. But the facts behind this release are intolerable. The London studio where the score was recorded in 1970 has since been demolished. Well, fair enough. These things happen. But much of its holdings were destroyed in the process. And that is damn near unforgivable. It’s very much akin to Warner Bros. in the ’60s quite literally bulldozing decades’ worth of its animation department’s irreplaceable history just to make more room for its publicity department.

Wilder and Diamond envisioned, and shot, Holmes as a three-hour “roadshow” presentation, with four distinct segments. By the time the picture was edited the Mirisch Brothers of U.A., leery of the shellacking Hollywood studios had been taking on so many big-budget flops, demanded Wilder cut the picture by an hour. Not that it mattered; the movie, a comic/melancholic exercise of rare beauty and rue, died anyway. Of the two trimmed episodes, one is extant only without sound while the other exists solely as soundtrack, the filmed footage having disappeared decades ago. If what exists were not, like Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and Stroheim’s Greed, so exceptional, it might not hurt so much to know that the possibility of a true restoration is, in all likelihood, nothing more than a pretty but ultimately foolish dream. And so, the loss of Rózsa’s achingly beautiful score in its optimal presentation somehow just feels like the perfect capper to the entire, doomed project.

Wilder asked Rózsa to base the score on his alternately plaintive and exhilarating Violin Concerto, cannily equating both its moods and its primary instrument with Holmes. The result is one of the finest scores, not merely of the composer’s own impressive oeuvre, but in the annals of movie scoring. It should be said that Crespo & Co. have done wizard’s work, given what they had to work with, and that their sheer determination to present The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in anything like Rózsa original earns them a special seat in Paradise.

Still. The losses to music history, and to its future, are incalculable. So, if you’ll forgive me for it, and even if you won’t… I’m still angry.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross


Post-Script, January 2014

If you didn’t order this one fast, I’m afraid it’s already too late; as with so many limited edition soundtrack releases, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is already sold out.