Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: “A Study in Scarlet” (Lenfilm, 1979)

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

After Charles and I got back from the Organ Pavilion I was tired enough I’d wanted to go to sleep, but he was eager to grab the chance to see something else and so he brought out Krovavaya nadpis, a.k.a. “A Study in Scarlet,” the second of that 11-episode series of Sherlock Holmes stories made by Lenfilm Studios in the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union?) in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A Study in Scarlet is one of the Holmes stories with real potential as a movie, largely because (like the later Holmes novel The Valley of Fear and Earl Derr Biggers’ third Charlie Chan novel, Behind That Curtain) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle structured it so the first half featured a mysterious crime which the sleuth solves, the second half is a flashback involving the murderer and his victims and depicting why the murders happened, and then there’s a brief tag scene in which the detective explains things at the end. In 1914, a pioneering British filmmaker named G. W. Saintsbury made a big-budget (for the time) feature adaptation of A Study in Scarlet that reproduced the structure of Conan Doyle’s original story and featured an elaborate re-creation of the Mormon trek — the murder victims, Emil Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, were Mormons who decided they wanted the fiancée of Jefferson Hope (the quite attractive Nikolai Karachentsov) as Drebber’s fourth wife; they kidnapped her and forced her to marry Drebber, but she only survived one month as his Wife No. 4 before she caught sick and died, and Hope (whose last name is hilariously given as “Hop” in the subtitles, which also refer to a “gait” when they clearly mean “gate”) tracked the two men to London and killed them for revenge — that has led to the 1914 A Study in Scarlet being listed as the first British-produced Western. Alas, though the 1916 Essanay Sherlock Holmes has actually been miraculously rediscovered via a negative in France, the 1914 A Study in Scarlet remains lost — though enough production stills survive to indicate how prestigious a movie it was and how well-budgeted the production was.

This version is comparatively dull, with nothing of the Mormon flashback and a plodding pace; one of the traps filmmakers doing Holmes stories can easily fall into is making them too talky and static, and director Igor Maslennikov and writers Yuli Dunsky and Valeri Frid (the same team who did this series’ much better first episode, “Acquaintance,” which combined the meeting of Holmes and Watson from A Study in Scarlet with the Conan Doyle story “The Speckled Band” — or, as those rather demented subtitlers had it, “The Motley Ribbon”) fall into that trap big-time. Also, for some reason they had Hope write the word “Revenge” in blood on his crime scenes in English instead of the German “Rache” which Conan Doyle used, though they did include Holmes’ (Vasily Livanov) testy relationships with Scotland Yard inspectors Gregson (Igor Dimitriev) and Lestrade (Borislav Brondukov) — he has a grudging respect for Gregson but finds Lestrade almost totally incompetent — and the writers include Holmes’ marvelous speech upbraiding the police for having let the crime scene of the Drebber murder (an isolated abode shrouded in the legendary London fog, thank goodness) become so degraded “a herd of buffalo might have tramped through it.” I’ve read one book on Holmes that said real police officers respect the Holmes stories because Conan Doyle was well ahead of the real police of the time in many of the basic tools with which modern-day cops investigate, including forensics. Apparently Conan Doyle was aware of the importance of securing a crime scene well before actual police were!