Friday, January 17, 2014

Speckled Band, The (Lucky Strike “Your Story Time,” TV, 1949)

Last night Charles and I watched a 1949 episode of the Lucky Strike-sponsored TV show Your Show Time, a half-hour drama anthology series that in this episode adapted (quite well, all things considered) the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” This is one of the classic stories from the early days of Holmes (before Conan Doyle’s boredom with the character set in) and pitted Holmes (a surprisingly effective Alan Napier) and his client, Helen Stoner (Evelyn Ankers in one of her typical damsel-in-distress roles), a young woman whose parents died and left her in the dubious care of her stepfather, against said stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott (a quite effective Edgar Barrier). Dr. Roylott retired after his wife died and left him an income, partially for his own support and partially to take care of Helen and her sister Jean (dead two years before our part of the story begins but played in a flashback by Gail Roberts), but with the proviso that once the women got married their part of the estate would be transferred to them and their husbands. Jean got engaged to John Armitage (Richard Fraser, who comes off as simply annoying — one wonders what either of the Stoner girls sees in him, and how producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson got Fraser to deliver a quietly effective performance in Bedlam when he’s so infuriating in his other roles), only just before they were married she died in a bizarre way, simply collapsing in her bedroom, though before she expired she made it out of her doorway and told Helen, “The speckled band!”

Despite a red herring — a nearby band of gypsies — Holmes deduces that Dr. Roylott somehow murdered Jean and is now targeting Helen (especially since he’s moved her from her old room to the one her sister was using when she died) so he can keep the part of his late wife’s fortune that was supposed to support her daughters after they married, and Helen is now engaged to John Armitage — that’s right, the same man whom Jean was engaged to when she died. As all Holmes mavens will remember, Dr. Roylott had an extensive collection of wildlife from India (screenwriter Walter Doniger and director Sobey Martin have a lot of fun with a chattering monkey that jumps around a lot and at least twice lands on Watson’s shoulder), including a particularly deadly sort of snake called a swamp adder, whose skin makes it look like (you guessed it) a speckled band. Roylott trained the snake to crawl through a ventilator shaft and down a bell-pull (the ventilator shaft doesn’t ventilate and the bell-pull isn’t actually connected to a bell), whereupon it would land on the bed of his intended victim and bite her, injecting her with its venom and killing her. (To make sure she’d be in the right position for the snake to attack, he also bolted the bed to the floor so it could not be moved.) The night Dr. Roylott is going to attack Helen, Holmes and Watson (Melville Cooper, alas playing the part as the comic-relief foil of Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone Holmes movies) decide to stand watch in the murder room (while she sleeps in her old one) and see just how Dr. Roylott plans to attack — and when the snake emerges from the ventilator shaft, Holmes uses a poker to drive it back and thereby inadvertently kills Dr. Roylott, who’s bitten by the snake when it returns from whence he sent it.

I hadn’t realized it before but “The Speckled Band” is a locked-room mystery story (I suspect Doniger’s screenplay makes that even clearer than Conan Doyle’s story did) and Dr. Roylott is a fascinating villain, a simple bully but one whose murder scheme is decidedly imaginative — and this film retains the famous scene from the story in which Roylott tries to warn Holmes off the case by bending a fireplace poker, and, after he’s left, Holmes proves he’s as strong as Roylott by bending the poker back to its original shape. (This scene doesn’t appear in the currently available version of the 1931 movie The Speckied Band, starring Raymond Massey as Holmes, though since the extant print is missing a reel I’m sure it was in the original release.) This 1949 TV version of The Speckled Band is actually quite good technically — it helped that, unlike most TV shows then, it was done on film (at the old Hal Roach studios, with a side trip to RKO since some of the sets were recycled from the 1948 Joan of Arc, with Ingrid Bergman) instead of live, and director Martin keeps the camera moving and does some highly successful suspense and even horror editing (his cinematographer was William Bradford and his editor was Daniel Cahn). It’s also generally well acted, though I could have done without Arthur Shields as the narrator (called “The Bookshop Man” in the credits — apparently the conceit was that he was an old bookseller who would pick out a story and tell it to you after having come across it while browsing in his own shop). Alan Napier is a surprisingly good Holmes — tall, aquiline, authoritative; he’s taken a lot of flack over the years for having starred in The Mole People but he was good enough for Orson Welles to cast him as the “Holy Father” in his film of Macbeth and he made a late-in-life comeback as Alfred the butler in the 1960’s Batman TV series.