11 December 2006 | catuus
An adequate Sherlockian pastiche
In 1991 and 1992, 2 long Sherlock Holmes pastiches appeared as TV miniseries. With Christopher Lee as Holmes and Patrick Macnee as Watson, we should have very high expectations of these presentations. For the most part, these were fulfilled to a large extent. Both men were associated with other Sherlockian endeavors. Lee had earlier (1970) played Sherlock's brother Mycroft ("The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes") and (1962) Sherlock ("Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace") ... and played Henry Baskerville opposite the late Peter Cushing as Holmes in Hammer Studio's fine "Hound of the Baskervilles" in 1959..
(Cushing in turn played Holmes also in 1984's Masks of Death and in a UK TV series in 1965-68.) Macnee had previously played Watson in 1976 ("Sherlock Holmes in New York") and went on to play Holmes himself in a 1993 TV movie ("The Hound of London").
What is amazing here is how few times these men have played Sherlockian rôles. Lee gave some of the best portrayals of the Great Detective committed to film on a par with Rathbone although not so fine as Brett. Macnee was a fine, assertive Watson much less wimpy than the rôle handed to Nigel Bruce and very much the equal of Edward Hardwicke. We may be grateful that Lee didn't affect the unSherlockian deerstalker. (And Cushing, again, is really incisive as Holmes.) The "Leading Lady" of the title is none other than The Woman, Irene Adler. Here the film stumbles. First of all, the rôle is given to Morgan Fairchild not exactly a bad choice, but not entirely a felicitous one, either. Although Fairchild pretty much walks the walk and talks the talk, in the end it's simply not possible to believe that Sherlock would ever have called her "The Woman". More than this, the film's producers obviously have no idea that in the early 1890s (the film takes place in 1910), Sherlock spent some months in Montenegro, during which time he lived with Adler and fathered on her a son the later great reclusive detective Nero Wolfe (please note the "er-o" of Sherlock and the "ol-e" of Holmes). We see no sign of this aspect of their relationship.
The film takes place in and around Wien (Vienna) after an introduction in London. The plot involves a device developed by an Austrian scientist one that will explode bombs remotely. He has both a prototype and the plans. Of course, everybody is after this new toy: the Austro-Hungarian government, the Russians, the Germans, and some Serbian terrorists who want to blow up Emperor Franz-Josef. Obviously the latter bunch don't succeed (old FJ died in his bed in 1916), but in retrospect it's too bad they didn't.
The inventor rather stupidly imagines that the British can be trusted not to make improper use of his creation and offers it to them. Holmes and Watson travel to Wien to collect the detonator. The remainder of the film (almost 3 hours total) involves disguises, double dealing, racing and chasing, and a good deal of confusion. In the process the prototype and the plans become separated. The film's director keeps things moving and keeps Holmes guessing. The various characters are colorful and, for the most part, effectively portrayed. The Emperor, alas, is portrayed as far too affable, whereas the man was stiff, formal, and distant.
The only member of the cast who is well known, aside from those already mentioned, is Engelbert Humperdinck not the excellent 19th-Century composer, but the rather less excellent stage performer (the connection being that the latter took the former's name as a stage name). Humperdinck invests his character (Eberhard Böhm) with a fine Old World feeling and fits in well with the general high tenor of the cast.
Probably the best joke in the film is the appearance of Elliot Ness, on his first post-training assignment for what would later become the FBI. The best part of the joke is that Ness was born in 1903 and would then have been 7 years old. Somebody (a) didn't do his/her homework or (b) is pulling our legs rather vigorously.
On the whole, while this film can't be regarded as an absolutely top-notch Holmes pastiche certainly not the quality of "Private Life" or "Seven Per-Cent Solution" it's entertaining and worth watching. Don't be put off by the occasional banality of the script. On more than one occasion I found myself saying the utterly predictable next line before the character who was supposed to say it. To the film's credit, not once to I recall Holmes saying that "the game is afoot". Lee was, however, saddled with the occasional "elementary".