by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles had downloaded a couple of episodes of a British TV series from the 1960’s based on the Sherlock Holmes stories, starring either Peter Cushing (who’d played Holmes in the Hammer remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959) or Douglas Wilmer as Holmes, with Nigel Stock as Watson (given the fame of Nigel Bruce in the role Charles joked that they almost had to get another actor named Nigel for the part!). There were 29 episodes in all, each one based on a canonical story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rather than any inventions of the screenwriters themselves, and the two he downloaded were “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Devil’s Foot” — the latter of which Charles dismissed as one of Conan Doyle’s silliest stories in the series but which I’ve always quite liked.
We watched “Charles Augustus Milverton” and it turned out to be a decent adaptation, somewhat restructured by screenwriter Clifford Witting, who added a prologue explaining who the woman was who would eventually murder Milverton at the end, what his hold was over her and the circumstances under which her husband committed suicide after he was disgraced when his wife refused Milverton’s blackmail — thereby turning Conan Doyle’s effective surprise ending into something a bit less surprising and a lot less effective. Other than that, though, Witting stuck close to his source, and the show’s director had an effective cast to work with — including Wilmer’s quite good Holmes (comparable to Jeremy Brett, who was able to play the entire canon in a similarly close set of adaptations on British TV in the 1980’s which, unlike these, managed to stay on the air long enough to film all the Conan Doyle Holmes stories) and a marvelously oily reading of Milverton by Barry Jones.
Despite being saddled with one of the most annoyingly obvious false pates in movie makeup history — the idea being to make him look balding without actually obliging Jones to shave his head — he plays Milverton as a marvelous study in controlled evil, clearly enjoying the way he makes life miserable for people but not letting his sadism get in the way of the profit motive. He had some interesting credits, including a small role in Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen and the part of Prince Rostov in the 1956 War and Peace, and he did a British TV miniseries as Martin Chuzzlewit the Elder in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit — but he doesn’t seem ever to have played Ebenezer Scrooge, a role which based on his performance as Milverton might have been made for him.
Witting nails most of Conan Doyle’s ironies — including Holmes’ putting off Inspector Lestrade’s attempts to get him to investigate Milverton’s murder by pointing out that the description of one of the killers given by Milverton’s servant was so vague “it might almost be a description of Watson” — as we know, it is a description of Watson (he and Holmes had gone to burglarize Milverton’s home either to steal back or destroy the letters Milverton was using in his blackmail schemes, without realizing that the same night a woman who was one of his former victims — whose husband had killed himself because not only had she written indiscreet letters to a lover but she’d also unwittingly compromised a military secret in one — would come over to Milverton’s, arranging a meeting by promising him more blackmail material, and shoot him), and eventually Holmes says his sympathies are with the killers rather than the law on this one and refuses to join in the investigation of a crime in which he is himself implicated. It’s a nicely done program, though the quality is pretty wretched and I found myself wondering whether the show was done live — the actors (especially Nigel Stock) made a few of the audible slips in remembering their dialogue that in live theatre you just ignore and move on, but on film (or videotape) usually provoke a retake. Still, this was an interesting byway in Holmes on film (or TV) and well worth seeing — and I look forward to watching “The Devil’s Root” and any others we may come across. — 6/1/10
I screened us the second of Charles’ two downloads from the 1960’s BBC-TV Sherlock Holmes series, “The Devil’s Foot,” a wild and woolly tale from the Conan Doyle canon about a root called Radix pedis diaboli from its fancied resemblance to a devil’s foot, which when dried, pulverized into a powder and burned, either kills anyone who inhales its fumes or renders them permanently and hopelessly insane. Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Stock) encounter this substance while Holmes is on vacation in Cornwall, seeking to recover from a nervous breakdown (or possibly a drug withdrawal, since his on-again, off-again addiction to cocaine is well known to Holmesians — so perhaps Robert Downey, Jr. wasn’t such a bad choice to play him after all!) when a flibbertigibbet reverend (John Glyn-Jones) comes in with the news that three members of the Tregennis family (when I read the story I’d always imagined this name pronounced with a soft “g” but the actors on this show use the hard “g”) had been afflicted by some mysterious ailment during the night which had rendered the two males, George (Derek Birch) and Owen (Frank Crawshaw), crazy and killed their sister Brenda (Camilla Hasse, who’s never seen as a live character).
Another Tregennis relative, Mortimer (Patrick Troughton), escaped the curse because he didn’t live in the family manse anymore — he’d had a quarrel with his relatives and moved out — and Holmes quickly pieces the events together, especially after a second attack during which Mortimer himself turns up dead with the same symptoms as his family members. Holmes recovers some of the devil’s-foot root powder and tries it on himself and Watson — Douglas Wilmer’s facial contortions to indicate the onset of insanity are quite convincing, and he’s saved only by a quick-thinking Watson (who was spared the full impact of the fumes because he was sitting by an open window) who hauls him out of the room and into the fresh air outside the building where they’re staying. Eventually Holmes deduces that Mortimer Tregennis was responsible for the first attack — he deliberately poisoned the other members of his family to get his hands on their inheritance — and the second attack was pulled by Dr. Leon Sterndale (Carl Bernard), a notoriously reclusive scientist who was doing research in Africa and when he wasn’t there lived a secluded existence in Cornwall.
The script for this one stayed surprisingly close to the original Conan Doyle story (if anything, even closer than the one for “Charles Augustus Milverton” later in the series) and was mostly well done and very well acted — Douglas Wilmer is one of the better Holmeses during the long interregnum between Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, having something of Rathbone’s vigor as well as something of Brett’s understatement (and he had Brett’s advantage of being able to act in the actual Conan Doyle stories instead of inferior ones concocted by hack screenwriters like Bertram Millhauser, who wrote most of the Rathbone Holmes films) — though Dr. Sterndale’s confession of his motive (for years he and Brenda Tregennis were a secret couple — they had to be secret because he had a wife whom he could not divorce under British law even though they were long since separated) ought to have been a chance for the actor playing him to drop his gruff, misanthropic exterior and show a heart irreparably broken by her death, and instead Carl Bernard barked out the key lines with the same bluster as he more appropriately delivered the rest of his part.
“The Devil’s Foot” came to us in quite inferior condition to “Charles Augustus Milverton” — the picture quality was about the same but the sound quality was far worse, overlaid with a nasty hiss that made it hard to make out some of the dialogue (people less familiar with the Holmes canon than Charles and I would have had a really hard time trying to follow this plot!) and there was one of those nasty digital counters permanently burned into the print on the lower left-hand corner of the screen — but it came through well enough for us to appreciate a rare and enviably faithful adaptation of one of the key Holmes stories (even though Charles described the plot as “silly” and made it clear this is one Conan Doyle Holmes work he likes considerably less than I do). — 6/5/10