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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that's good.

Cocoon (1985) Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon . Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires). Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg ( Kick the Can ). There