Sherlock Holmes, the impossibly brilliant and enigmatic detective fond of cocaine and the violin, burst upon readers of 1887 with Arthur Conan Doyle’s debut novel A Study in Scarlet. Within a few years, the moody, sometimes exasperating hero achieved sensational fame. Holmes can embody the insular genius, the elitist, the sociopath, even the autistic savant.
His continuations, re-inventions, and inspirations are too numerous to count. In name and template, he’s been presented in Victorian England, the present day, in alternate realities, as male and female incarnations, in multiple races and ethnicities, and crossing paths with real and fictional icons. He’s probably the most successful, multifarious, and recognizable character in literature, and certainly in crime fiction.
No surprise, then, that he’s also the most-filmed, not even counting parodies and knock-offs. Some of the films are lost and many badly need restoration. For now, The Film Detective has put together a useful Blu-ray box, The Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection, consisting of four 1930s features plus bonus shorts dating from 1900 to the 1950s.
Three of the features are modestly budgeted British productions starring Arthur Wontner, who strongly resembled Sidney Paget’s original drawings of Holmes. Wontner’s almost avuncular persona shows a sense of quiet mischief and patient indulgence with the low-wattage fools around him. Wontner dominated the public’s perception of Holmes during the ’30s until Basil Rathbone defined the role with more aristocratic panache in Hollywood productions.
Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931)
Director: Leslie S. Hiscott
An almost pitch-black opening uses lighting effects to indicate some act of robbery and murder involving a raid upon a bank vault. This part of the film allows director Leslie S. Hiscott and his photographer, Sidney Blythe, to indulge tricks borrowed from German Expressionism.
It’s a good way to begin, for most of the film will be on the stagy, talky side, as in the following scene of a dubious bridge game involving bright young ass Ronald Adair (Leslie Perrins) and his sister Kathleen (Jane Welsh), who’s afraid he’s getting a reputation as a card sharp.
Through her friendship with Dr. Watson (Ian Fleming, not the famous writer), she hopes to engage Sherlock Holmes to speak to Ronald about it. Unfortunately, these precautions ultimately lead to Ronald’s death in a locked room, though not before Ronald is blackmailed in another locked room by a voice behind the portrait of a cardinal. A major confrontation occurs between Holmes and his arch-nemesis, an awkwardly disguised Professor Moriarty, who’s played to the cheap seats by a barnstorming Norman McKinnel.
Such is Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, the US title of a film known in England as The Sleeping Cardinal. Julius Hagen’s Twickenham Studios produced it as a “quote quickie” in a deal with Warner Brothers.
The credits declare a source in two Doyle stories, “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House”. Moriarty’s warning is the only element borrowed after a fashion from “The Final Problem”, while Adair’s murder and the killer’s arrest are the only vestiges of “The Empty House”. In other words, the film partakes of cinema’s tradition of Holmes stories only tenuously connected to any of Doyle’s scenarios.
Scriptwriters can’t be blamed, for Doyle’s Chinese-box structures aren’t easily filmable without rearrangements. Doyle was much more interested in backstories, both in the clients’ narrations when they consult with Holmes and the more elaborate revelations explained in the solutions. When dramatizing such things, the scripts often put events in chronological order, thus giving the explanation to the audience even before Holmes is brought in. You can see an example of that in the 1912 version of Copper Beeches included in the second disc.
In three of Doyle’s four Holmes novels, we receive the impression that Doyle’s fascination lies in the blood-and-thunder adventures on foreign shores (twice in the wilds of lawless America) that pre-date the puzzle solved by Holmes. It’s as though Doyle would have been happy just to tell those backstories but felt the necessity of bracketing them with Holmes to engage readers.
It’s no secret that Doyle was sometimes frustrated with Holmes’ popularity, and part of the author’s genius was in communicating that frustration through Watson and some of Doyle’s narrative choices. The height of his frustration came when he killed off Holmes in “The Final Problem”, only to yield to public pressure and explain Holmes’ miraculous survival in “The Empty House”. None of this is touched on in Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, despite its source in those tales, and its handling of Moriarty yoking the stories doesn’t make much sense.
The description of Moriarty as a “Napoleon of Crime” and master of disguise who secretly manipulates the criminal underworld through countless minions became a staple pulp idea, as in the French novels about Fantomas (leading to many serials and features), Fritz Lang’s handling of the German mastermind Dr. Mabuse, and organizations like Spectre and SMERSH in the James Bond novels.
The disc’s two bonus shorts are important. Running under a minute, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) is what was called a trick film. That is, it uses the in-camera possibilities of the new medium to create visual tricks, in this case making a burglar vanish and reappear to foil Holmes. This is evidently the first Holmes film, and it’s one that mocks and bests him.
This disc offers two versions of A Black Sherlock Holmes (R.W. Phillips, 1918), a heavily deteriorated item from Chicago’s short-lived Ebony Film Company. Imagining a slapstick, all-black reality, the film stars Sam Robinson as private detective Knick Garter. His name parodies pulp hero Nick Carter as he dresses in Holmes’ iconic deerstalker and cape. He and pal Rheuma Tism (Rudolph Tatum) help inventor I. Wanta Sneeze (George Lewis) and his kidnapped daughter Sheeza (Evon Junior).
An abstract of Ann McClellan’s article “A Black Sherlock Holmes (1918): A Case Study in Racebending” (Adaptation, Volume 14, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 23–42) argues that the film should be read in light of its possibilities rather than limitations, for “the film (re)inscribes Black people into prominent literary and cultural history. Because Knick Garter is doubly descended from two notable fictional detectives … his very existence posits a new world where famous Black characters are as much a part of the American literary landscape as canonical characters.”