Daily Film Thoughts: The Case of Sherlock Holmes

TCM has been doing a tribute to Sherlock Holmes all day. Despite my desire to watch them all, I felt a lack of motivation to do so; a weak will, so to speak. So I’ll get a huge boxset one day, but for now I’ll stick to the one I’ve heard most positive words about in The Scarlet Claw. Also on the docket, Guy Ritchie’s latest feature – which is on pace to make a cool 72 million this weekend – Sherlock Holmes.

NOTE: I do not, nor ever ‘try’ to, compare one film with another; one film with its source material; or one film with another film because they share some similarities. I do not speak phrases like “Well Robert Downey Jr. did this better than Basil Rathbone, but Rathbone did this better than Robert Downey Jr.” because I find its a childish method to come to a conclusion about something and merely base my opinion of everything on one set standard.

A character says to Sherlock Holmes (a brilliant composition of angst and wit merged by the almighty Robert Downey Jr.) in the later stages of the film “You could’ve made a great prisoner”, which prompts the question “Why is Holmes good?”. The background information on Holmes that is made apparent – he is a genius; he is an alcoholic; he has been betrayed by women – doesn’t indicate any sort of reasoning as to why Holmes does, in fact, use his knowledge for good. Is it because he is so clever that he is able to overcome his demons and use his powers to better the world? The villain in the feature, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) would disagree, as he too is genius and he does not choose to use his wisdom to assist to earn good will amongst society. This is why the film isn’t as good as it could have been because unlike Holmes, it doesn’t confront anything heavy or give insight to pertaining matters. Thin characters – though fleshed out brilliantly by the cast – drag down the dreary plot filled with snappy dialogue. This is essentially Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.

Many critics are lambasting this ‘modernized’ version of Sherlock Holmes for exactly that – it’s too modern – when it’s quite the contrary. If they’re ignorantly basing this opinion off of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes saga, sure. But his Holmes was charming and witty without the crassness because 40s cinema wouldn’t allot room for such behavior. Sherlock Holmes was first written in the 1880s. Back then he was a man with addiction (cocaine, not alcohol as seen in this feature, but a substance that affects the mind and is a crutch nonetheless) and who is also a master in hand-to-hand combat (as portrayed in Holmes). To suggest this interpretation is anything less than accurate is filled with stupidity. This isn’t relevant to this review per se, but rather a note on how confusing the critical response is and from where it is based.

If you’re familiar with Sherlock Holmes and his adventures in the slightest, expect the plot of this to divert very little from those you’ve heard/read/seen. Sherlock Holmes and his cohort Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) try to uncover the mystery of a man who has risen from the dead and is carrying out his sinister plan that involves the sacrificing of nine souls. Thrown into the mix is generic romantic tension between Holmes and former lover Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who is written as a good girl gone bad.

As formulaic as it is, Sherlock Holmes works. While it suffers from Guy Ritchie’s overbearing direction in areas (the relentless score that finds itself cluttering up perfectly good dialogue) and too neat of writing from the four scribes (Sherlock’s Scooby-Doo like explanation of events past and his deduction of it all in the final scene), the feature is genuine and entertaining enough to outweigh the overly Hollywood interpretation of the already pulpy tale.

What most will find themselves fixated with is how Guy Ritchie has changed in the past decade. It isn’t a matter of improving or regressing (in my eyes), but he has certainly done his job here in fitting the bill of director with a budget. The editing kinetics he made so infamous with films like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has been lost here, as has the brute within. In fact, Sherlock Holmes is the pinnacle of Ritchie’s style in decay. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t apart of the scripting process (as he was with each of his prior features), but he doesn’t do much to make it a film viewers would interpret as one by Ritchie, if not for the credits. Unlike the scripting, there is no balance between exciting and ritual design; Ritchie has succumb to the Hollywood machine. However, when Ritchie lets loose a neat editing trick or two or gives audiences a taste of his fervor, that’s when you’ll find yourself really sucked into the feature.

All in all, Sherlock Holmes isn’t nearly a bad film, just one you’d find yourself to expect more from when it’s all said and done. Plenty of paths are laid out that the film merely touches on and those are, for the most part, the ones you’d most like to see the film take. Intelligent performances allow for insight into otherwise flat characters which does save it from drowning in the mediocrity conjured by the writers (including the soon-to-be nominated Anthony Peckham). In turn, they have great moments of clarity in scripting dialogue (the narration of Holmes formulating a plan against an opponent in a fight, for example), as well as symbolism that is found insightful (Holmes’ trying to make sense of the world by plucking a pattern on his violin that he finds restores order in the chaotic world). It’s by no means perfect, but it’s a fine year-end addition to 2009.

As for the earlier Holmes, I tuned into The Scarlet Claw which is regarded as the best Holmes feature by Roy William Neill and Basil Rathbone.

It’s constructed very simplistically – as most thrillers of the time were – and doesn’t touch on the traits of Holmes (Basil Rathbone) or Watson (Nigel Bruce) deeply enough to understand either men. Holmes is a sly man that only speaks with purpose while Watson is mainly there to supply some comic relief – there is no real relationship built between the two and are more colleagues at work than friends with a common goal of spreading good. Though they’re drawn together like stick figures, their chemistry works and both performances keep the film rolling until each turn is made palpable by its audience.

The case at hand is about a man (or rather ‘monster’) that is at large and ripping the throats out of residents in a small village in Quebec. Fairly grizzly imagery through speech is conveyed that gives a sense for the killings (because, you know, 1940s cinema wasn’t too kind to such footage being shown), as Roy William Neill immerses the intelligible linguists in a brooding conundrum.

As most mysteries of the day were designed, this is meant to entice and frighten. Because people are finding themselves desensitized to people’s limbs being severed and eaten and all sorts of violence, The Scarlet Claw’s effect will undoubtedly be lost on many. If you have an apt sense of imagination and can take this rather innocent tale about a murderer seriously, you’ll find yourself in for a little treat. Where it lacks in shock appeal and explosions is made up for (well perhaps not completely) in nice plotting and a tidy overall product.

Though it isn’t symbolically ponderous or question the world we live in, The Scarlet Claw is a well contrived thriller that walks along briskly until its major twist and then zooms to the conclusion. Nice chemistry between the two main characters, a consistent mood and decent production values make for a fine little flick. Certainly enough to inspire me to check out the rest of the series.

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