Thursday 1 June 2017

A Study In Terror

Ripping Yarn

A Study In Terror
UK 1965 Directed by James Hill
Compton Blu Ray Zone B

 I’ve been wanting to see A Study In Terror for quite a few years now and I was lucky enough to receive it for my birthday, earlier in the year... so that was handy. It’s a film I’ve mainly wanted to see because it’s one of those kind of movies which pitches a literary character against a real life, historical foe. In this case, this is one of two films I know of (and I’ve only seen this one, so far) that pitch Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, against the infamous Jack The Ripper. And, of course, whether you believe, like Patricia Cornwell, that this is irrefutably Walter Sickert or not... since that’s only a recent ‘proof’, you can bet the culprit in the majority of fictions based on the real life character don’t turn up the same answer and, of course, A Study In Terror is no exception in that matter.

Another reason I’ve always wanted to see this is because, after seeing him playing the title role in Terry Gilliam’s remake, The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, I was always keen to see how John Neville did taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes, 23 years before he played the Baron. Well, the answer to that is... pretty interestingly as it happens. Most actors who play Holmes tend to do it in a flamboyant way which makes every pearl of wisdom dropping from Holmes mouth seem like it should be framed in space for at least ten seconds after it hits the air and, frankly, that’s as valid a way of doing it as any other. Even my two favourite Holmes impersonators, Basil Rathbone and Benedict Cumberbatch, have a tendency to do this. John Neville, though, plays it very naturalistically, speaking Holmes’ incredible deductions quite flatly, as one person to another and... it kind of gives his character a huge dose of credibility although, obviously, it’s less theatrical. Both ways of doing it are equally fine, of course, but I found this approach really refreshing, it has to be said.

He’s aided and equally abetted by a very strong cast here, too. We have Donald Houston playing Dr. Watson but, alas, I didn’t think he really had a chance to shine much in this. He plays the slightly bumbling, ‘in awe of his partner’ version of Watson (totally inaccurate to the stories) as if he’s based it on the much more lovable performance of my all time favourite Watson performer, Nigel Bruce... but, alas, he doesn’t quite have the charm or the slightly older look to pull it off sufficiently. We also have Albert Finney playing Inspector Lestrade but, really, he doesn’t get much of a chance to do anything in this one either, to be fair. Less so than Dr. Watson even. Interestingly enough, though, Finney would go onto to play Lestrade again in the other film to pitch Holmes against Jack The Ripper, Murder By Decree, some 14 years later.

They are all surrounded by an amazing line up of cast including Anthony Quayle, Barbara Windsor, Adrienne Corri, Georgia Brown, a much younger Judy Dench than I am used to seeing and, in a strange bit of casting, the great Robert Morley as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. I also managed to fixate on a German actor who had a really, ‘I’ve seen this guy before’ type of character actor presence in the movie and, by about halfway through it, I finally realised it was Peter Carsten who played Hegel in the quite excellent spy thriller The Quiller Memorandum, which came out in cinemas the same year that this did (and is reviewed by me here). He also turned up a few years later in Dark Of The Sun and, although a little known actor, always strikes me as someone who brings a certain kind of presence to a movie.

Now this film isn’t exactly a thrill fest, it has to be said. The cast make it very enjoyable but the pacing is quite slow and, somehow, quite single-minded in its approach. By this I mean it's unusual in that it tends not to cross cut between various scenes like most films do in a rapid manner (even in terms of film of the same era of cinema). When you stay with a set of characters in this, you tend to stay with them for a while over a few sequences before going back to another character. Holmes doesn’t even appear for a while and this way of following through on one set of characters at a time seemed to be to be an interesting but, at least in the case of this movie, less entertaining method of revealing the intricacies of the plot. Also, although I appreciate the beauty and the singing voice of Georgia Brown, the sequences where she sings to entertain the crowds in a pub setting are overlong and bring the movie to almost a stand still each time it happens.

That being said, there are a few good things on offer too, apart from the novelty of the quite strong cast.

The use of vivid colours recalls the contemporaneous use of bright colours of Hammer film studios and the redder than red of the blood spilled in this movie is nicely highlighted throughout... especially in a scene where a ripper victim is being stabbed while her head is ducked under water and the camera is looking up at her from beneath the surface as the redness of her vital fluids slowly flows around the screen in the water. There’s some pretty cool lighting in a few of the sequences too, reminiscent of some of the better Italian giallo movies of the decade after and some nice use of framing the actors within the shots at times.

Another quite interesting thing is John Scott’s score which had a vinyl release at the time but which, alas, hasn’t had a CD release to date. It’s quite strident and full of character with a definite use of a strong theme for Holmes, evocative of Victorian London to some extent... but it’s the music used in some sequences where most directors would not use any at all which is really attention grabbing. In some of the talking heads style scenes, where the film is all about deduction and conversation, there’s often a fairly low volume and very impressionist, almost surreal kind of tonal noodling going on (for want of a better description... I’m not very good at writing technically about music, I’m afraid). It almost reminded me, at times, of something Eric Satie might have written in his less melodic, musical furniture style pieces. It’s hard to put a finger on and I’m not sure if those sequences really needed any musical lift or not but... well it got my attention so I must have quite liked it, I think.

A Study In terror is not the best Sherlock Holmes film nor, indeed, the best Jack The Ripper film you are likely to see but, there’s something about this which gives it a certain nostalgic charm when looked at today. The film finishes with a lead in to The Adventure of the  Blue Carbuncle and I had to wonder what Neville might have done with the part if he’d gone on to do a few more Holmes films. I know that he went on to play the character on Broadway in the 1970s and it would have been nice to have seen him do that, I think. I wonder if he played it much differently to the way he played it here... well I guess he would have to since stage acting and film acting are two very different things. I suppose I’ll never know. I will, however, watch this film again some day because it has a certain mid-1960s British flavour that I like to see captured on film and, certainly I would say that if you are a die hard Sherlock Holmes fan, then you might want to give this one a look.

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