Skip to main content

The best place to hide a needle is not in a haystack, but among a lot of other needles.

The Sign of Four
(1983)

(SPOILERS) The first of two TV movies featuring Ian Richardson as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest creation, and a very upbeat, personable Sherlock Holmes he makes too, making for an effective contrast with the more burdened Jeremy Brett incarnation of a few years later. The Sign of Four is lightweight but efficient, its biggest stumble being the manner in which it reframes the plot so as to present most of the salient facts upfront and as a consequence impinge on the mystery and sleuth's deductions.

               
A huge contretemps surrounded the production of this and The Hound of the Baskervilles regarding laying claim to the detective's cases. Producer Sy Weintraub, who had previously focussed on Edgar Rice Burroughs, including Ron "Doc Savage" Elly as a TV Tarzan in the '60s, had bought the rights only to discover they were about to expire in England, with Granada poised to make their (often definitive) adaptations. A subsequent out-of-court settlement saw Weintraub walking away with his costs on the truncated project covered and a profit too.


Something of a shame, as while no one is likely to claim a protracted stint in the role would have been anywhere near as essential as Brett's take, Richardson's performance goes a long way to embolden an otherwise competent but unremarkable production. Weintraub is reported to have planned a series of twenty-two two-hour (with ads) adaptations, and besides the two that got made (Richardson said he signed for six), Charles Edward Pogue also penned The Prince/Napoleon of Crime (featuring Moriarty). This later became the "rather awful" (Poe’s wordsHands of a Murderer starring Edward Woodward. The writer's intervening '80s saw an array of prolific projects, meanwhile, including Psycho IIIThe Fly remake (heavily rewritten by Cronenberg) and the underrated D.O.A. remake. 


Whatever Pogue’s virtues elsewhere (and The Hound of the Baskervilles fares much better), his decision to divest The Sign of Four of its investigative flair rather cripples any narrative tension. It doesn't drag exactly, but neither does it grip. Director Desmond Davis (Ray Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans) does a serviceable job, with a nod towards a gothic, Hammer tone at times, but his most notable decision is to perma-flood the exterior (and sometimes interior) locations with authentic period fog.


WatsonWhat a very attractive woman.
HolmesIs she?

David Healy offers an amiable enough Watson (Richardson much preferred working with him to Donald Churchill in Hound; Healy was unavailable due to appearing on stage in Guys and Dolls), although Cherie Lunghi’s Mary Morstan is so far out of his league, it’s ridiculous. This may be the reason that, while Watson is evidently smitten ("That’s a rather liberal dosage. For Miss Morstan’s benefit I presume" notes Holmes of his partner's cologne), there’s nary a hint of reciprocation or anything further transpiring between them. 


Holmes is amused by his friend's behaviour, but while he's clearly unswayed by the opposite sex, it's in a jolly rather than dismissive way ("Watson, the most winning lady I ever knew was hanged for poisoning her three small children for their insurance money"). Also in terms of regulars is Terence Rigby's Inspector Layton… Well, kind of. He was evidently playing Lestrade (the character's name is dubbed), but this was changed when Ronald Lacey was cast as the character in Hound. Layton's very much in the mould of idiots of the Yard.


LaytonOne legged man and a short savage? It’s straight out of some penny novel.

Comparisons with the Brett adaptation four years later, one of the best of that series, then firing on all cylinders, are inevitable. It had the considerable boon of John Thaw guesting as Jonathan Small; not that Joe Melia isn't very good here, but he doesn't bring the air of menace Thaw does. The Brett version also managed to avoid causing offence with its depiction of Tonga, casting Kiran Shah rather than treating us to John Pedrick (an Ewok in Return of the Jedi) in black face. It doesn't help any that this Tonga is also a savage pigmy (probable) cannibal. Richardson is delivered a nice bit of pre-Downey Jr action when he rushes in to save Mary from Tonga's clutches, wrestling with him and all but throwing him out of an upstairs window. Later, he manfully tussles with a knife-wielding Small and emerges victorious.


HolmesI never guess. It is destructive to logic.

There's much to relish in Richardson's portrayal. His brio is infectious, be it lacing his conversation with innuendos when speaking to a boat-owner's wife while disguised or winding up an oblivious Watson when he returns to 221B, the latter scoffing food and demanding he wait until Holmes returns ("If you’re going to force me to stay Watson, you might at least offer me a muffin"). He's generous of nature and spirit, be it towards the Baker Street Irregulars ("You'll make a first-class Scotland Yard Inspector one day" he tells Wiggins) or the bloodhound they enlist to track down the source of creosote ("Good old, Toby" he exclaims enthusiastically). Davis includes a nice visual conceit here, cutting progressively through modes of transport as Holmes and Watson converse; from walking, to riding in a rag-and-bone cart, on bicycles, and in the back of a coal truck.


HolmesOhhh, I'm drawn to these sordid affairs like a magnet.

Also of note is the presence of Radio 4's illustrious Holmes Clive Merrison as Bartholomew Sholto. And that, if Mary Morstan is spared a fate worse than Watson, she is compensated with part of the prize Agra treasure (the Great Mogul) by Holmes. The rest doesn't end up on the bottom of the Thames, since Holmes locates it in Small's peg leg. Will he do the honours and fence the Mogul for her? A solid Sherlock Holmes tale, then, but mostly for Richardson's exuberant take on the role. Be warned however, if tempted by the Blu-ray release; despite a 4K restoration, Second Sight have seen fit to cut the top and bottom of the picture to render it in widescreen. The dolts.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).