Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: Acquaintance (Lenfilm, 1979)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, the night before last Charles and I watched a quite interesting download: Acquaintance, the pilot for an occasional series of Sherlock Holmes TV productions made in the Soviet Union by Lenfilm Studios in 1979. It turned out to be unexpectedly good, locating Holmes (Vasiliy Livanov) and Dr. Watson (Vitali Solomin) in their proper setting in 1890’s London (represented by some buildings from the old quarter of the city of Riga that may have been built when Riga was still part of Germany; today it’s the capital and largest city of the Baltic republic of Latvia) and drawing its plot from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories — the first half of the film portrays the meeting and early days of the friendship between Holmes and Watson very much as described in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, while the second half adapts The Speckled Band. The download we had included “hard” English subtitles, and it was clear that whoever wrote them had simply translated from the original Russian script by Yuli Dunsky and Valeri Frid, and hadn’t bothered to cross-reference important phrases and proper names with the Conan Doyle original. Dr. Grimesby Roylott’s home at Stoke-Moran became “Stock-Moron” (as opposed to all those custom-built morons we’ve been dealing with lately” and Julia Stoner’s (Mariya Solomina, real-life wife of the actor who played Watson in the film) dying cry that she was being killed by “a speckled band” — the source of the story’s title — became “a motley ribbon.” It also didn’t help that everything looked so clear and bright; though director Igor Maslennikov had a good camera eye, the London exteriors looked unrealistically sunny (the next night, when Charles and I watched 21 Days and the first exterior shot was properly foggy, I told him, “This is what I expect a movie set in London to look like”) and I suspect this was shot during Riga’s “white nights,” the summer period in the extreme north of Russia and the Baltic states when it’s daylight nearly 23 hours a day because of where those countries are located on earth in relation to the sun.

Nonetheless, this was a surprisingly good adaptation of the Holmes stories, and Vasiliy Livanov turned out to be a fine Holmes; he looked right (the height, the aquiline nose, the overall air of imperiousness) and he projected the character’s authority effectively even if he wasn’t quite as convincing as Basil Rathbone in the action scenes (but then, as I repeated to Charles in my paraphrase of the opening of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “To me, Basil Rathbone will always be the Sherlock Holmes” — to Charles, I suspect, it will always be Jeremy Brett, who had the advantage of playing Holmes in the 1970’s Granada TV adaptations of all the Conan Doyle stories and thereby becoming only the second actor, after Eille Norwood in the 1920’s, to portray Holmes in the entire canon). Once we got out of London and out in the country to Dr. Roylott’s sinister manse, Maslennikov’s command of atmospherics got considerably better, and Mariya Solomina, portraying both the doomed Julia Stoner and her still-living sister Helen, whom Holmes and Watson spare from the fate of her sister (to be attacked by an Indian swamp adder, an especially poisonous snake which Roylott brought back from India along with a hyena and a baboon — there’s an amusing exchange in which Holmes asks Helen if Roylott has a cat, and she says no with an air that says, “You think someone that crazy would have as prosaic a pet as a cat?”), seems a bit bimbo-ish in Holmes’ office but becomes a quite spunky damsel in distress in the later scenes when her life is actually threatened. Lenfilm made quite a few of these Holmes adaptations for Soviet TV in the early 1980’s, and though not a major addition to the canon of Holmes on film this is certainly a quite entertaining one and avoids most of the mistakes made by other adapters — though I was a bit disappointed that the filmmakers included the famous scene in which Roylott, to demonstrate his strength and the inadvisability of messing with him, bends Holmes’ fireplace poker into a metal pretzel, and Holmes bends it back — only here he doesn’t bend it back until after Roylott has left, taking the edge off the famous confrontation. Still, this is good enough that the other items in the series would be worth seeing — though while trolling around looking for information on this film I found that the 1916 Sherlock Holmes movie, a feature from Essanay Studios with Arthur Berthelet directing and William Gillette, the first actor to play Holmes on stage, as star, was rediscovered as a negative in France last year and has been restored and reissued. Now that would be a major addition to the Holmes filmography!