Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sherlock Sunday:
A horse brings murder to Baskerville Hall

Murder at the Baskervilles (aka "Silver Blaze") (1937)
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Lyn Harding, John Turnbull Lawrence Grossmith and Arthur Goullett
Director: Thomas Bentley
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Wontner and Fleming) are spending some quiet time in the country at the home of their old friend Sir Henry Baskerville (Grossmith) when an attempt to fix a race involving Sir Henry's prize horse Silver Blaze leads to a double murder.

Although this was Arthur Wontner's final outing as Sherlock Holmes--after a string of five films that caused critics of the day to describe him as the perfect screen Sherlock Holmes--I am choosing to make it the first of his films that I include in the Sherlock Sunday line-up, because of my love of continuity. Story-wise, it seems like it is best placed before the other Wontner Holmes films currently easily available, because it has him still actively employed as a detective and it describes his first direct clash with Professor Moriarty.

I can see Wontner's Holmes appeals to both fans and critics alike. He, moreso than any other actor in the role I've considered in a critical mindset, resembles the illustrations from the original printings in "Strand Magazine" and his Holmes is lively without being too aggressive and often sardonic without being excessively cruel to those he puts down. Best of all, from my perspective, although he is not shy about showing Watson how much smarter he is, he still treats him with the consideration due a friend and one never wonders why Watson bothers spending time with him. Wontner presents a charming Holmes that is somewhat low key when compared to the actors who followed him, but still entertaining. (And watching this Wontner film again makes me think that there must be another reason for why I didn't find Matt Frewer's Sherlock Holmes particularly engaging as the two portrayals are very similar.)

As for Watson, Ian Fleming provides a decent if unremarkable portrayal of Holmes' friend and biography. Both from the way the role is written and the way Fleming portrays Watson, it easy to understand why Holmes associates with him, which is a flaw in many on-screen interperations of the character. Watson even gets a moment in the sun when he is captured by Moriarty's men and remains brave in the face of certain death.

Speaking of Moriarty, who, like Sir Henry Baskerville has been added to the mix by the writers of this adaptation, I very much like the approach taken to him in his film. He and his main henchman, Colonel Moran, are set up like dark reflections of Holmes and Watson. Moriarty is to the underworld what Holmes is to the law-abiding citizen, a genius to whom they can appeal for help when all other avenues have been exhausted. It adds a great deal to the flavor of Moriarty and it makes it even clearer why the two men admired and hated each other so much and why it was so hard for one to defeat the other. (At least in concept. For a criminal mastermind, Moriarty is somewhat hamfisted and clumsy in this particular caper, although that can be excused by his own admission that fixing horse races is not his usual area of activity.)

All-in-all, this is a pleasant Holmes film. It's a little on the bland side, but I think fans of Holmes and 1930s mystery pictures will enjoy it. It's a shame that there does not appear to be a decent copy available on the DVD market. (I've come across three different versions, all equally faded and ragged... perhaps even taken from the same print?)

(I mentioned Matt Frewer's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes above. I invite you to check out my review of "A Royal Scandal" by clicking here and perhaps even leave a comment about why I might be wrong about Frewer as Sherlock Holmes.)

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