Du musst Caligari werden

Everything is crooked and claustrophobic in Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari, everything is warped and twisted and at an impossible, indecent angle. The proportions are all off: everything is either cramped and hideously uncomfortable or too terrifyingly huge. People walk like inanimate dolls, like crabs, or scurry like insects. The doors, it is clear to see, are far too high, much too narrow, open reluctantly like they have a will of their own. They never were designed to be used for entrances or exits. Well not by human beings anyway. The mountain in the background is like a naïve or demented version of Bruegel done on psychedelic drugs. The town clerk sits high on a peg or a perch, like a bird of prey, and has to bend deep deep down to reach his desk. The entire movie unfolds like a particularly heavy and disturbing nightmare. Like something Lovecraft might have dreamed after a very nasty meal. What is really crooked, and manifested in every tiny detail, is the soul.

Very unpleasant.

Wholly delightful.

The entire story is told in flashback by the protagonist Francis. It all begins when a mysterious Dr. Caligari comes to town. The arrival coincides with a series of brutal murders. Caligari is a shady, sinister looking character, in manner and appearance something like a cross between a severely demented black bug and a secretive penguin with a nasty attitude, who carries with him in a coffin or box a somnambulist called Cesare. Cesare has been asleep all his life but Caligari has the power to awaken him. This he does at the fair, for money. Cesare has got a rare gift: he can foretell the future. However, anybody asking when he will die gets a terrifying answer: You will die before the dawn.

At the fair Francis's friend asks Cesare the ominous question and receives the inevitable answer. He is slaughtered during the night, stabbed most viciously, becoming the second victim in the murder series. It can be no mere coincidence. Francis puts two and two together and goes to the police. Then another man is arrested for the murders - he's caught red-handed trying to stab a woman. He pleads his innocence.

Francis is less than convinced of the man's guilt. He decides to stake out Caligari's house. Through the window he sees Caligari sitting by the somnolent Cesare. Cut to Jane, Francis's beloved, sleeping in her maidenly bed. Jane has caught Caligari's eye earlier in the day when she sought her father and Francis at the fair. Is she to be the crazed killer's third victim?

Something lurks in the shadows, creeps silently nearer. It's Cesare. He breaks into her chambers, knife in hand. He approaches her bed, his bulging eyes reflecting madness and bottomless horror. He raises his knife, ready to plunge it in her heart, ready to rip her to shreds like the previous victims, then he stops. He cannot do it. His face softens, he reaches for her hair, caresses her forehead. She wakes up and screams her lungs out. He grabs her, lifts her up and carries her away.

Jane's screams rouse the household. Cesare makes his getaway through the cubistic rooftops, lugging the unconscious Jane to Caligari's lair. The men-folk pursue him. Exhausted he falls on his knees and is forced to abandon Jane. He manages to give the angry mob the slip only to collapse, all his energy spent, in the marsh-like wilderness.

Back home Jane regains her consciousness. She shouts out the name of the culprit: "Cesare!" Francis explains that this is impossible. He's been watching Caligari all night and Cesare has been sleeping in his coffin. Francis and a couple of constables pay Caligari a visit anyway. They find that Cesare isn't sleeping in his coffin: it's an effigy, a lifesize doll. Caligari makes a run for it, Francis is hot on his trail. Caligari slips through a gate. It's an insane asylum. Francis enters and demands to know whether they have an inmate called Caligari. They do not. But perhaps the director knows, he returned earlier today. Frances is shown to the director's office. Francis enters the office, the director looks up - it's Dr. Caligari!

In blind panic he rushes out and explains the situation to the incredulous staff. While the director is away Francis and members of the staff enter his office. There they find incriminating evidence. The director is a specialist on somnambulism. In one book they find the description of another murder series; in the 18th century there was another Dr. Caligari and a similar series of murders. Similar? More like identical. In the director's journal they learn that it has long been his ambition to recreate the murders - and when a suitable somnambulist was admitted into the asylum the director saw his chance and grabbed it. Oh the joy, oh the ecstasy! Now, finally, he can realise his dream! Now at last he can unravel the psychiatric secrets of the original Caligari! Can a somnambulist be forced to commit murders against his will?

In order to penetrate Caligari's secrets he needs must become Caligari!

Francis and the Staff are aghast. Caligari is confronted and seized - his madness now impossible to conceal any longer. He's put in a strait-jacket and locked away.

Cut back the first scene with Francis telling his tale. He is revealed to be an inmate at the asylum. When the director of the asylum - obviously Dr. Caligari - shows himself, Frances bursts out: "You all think that I'm insane! It isn't true - it's the director who's insane!" He assaults the director and has to be forcibly restrained. He's placed in a strait-jacket and locked away - in the same cell Caligari in which was locked in his story.

The movie ends with a disturbing close-up of Caligari, who's just realised what is wrong with Francis and how to cure him.

The impact of the movie is surprisingly deep and complex. What ought to be phony and childish becomes somehow, quite mysteriously, terrifying. The acting is hammy; it only increases the effect. The settings are cardboard and at best clumsy - that only makes the nightmare more hallucinogenic. I can't explain it. I can only watch, mesmerised.

The way one watches a nightmare.

The ending (which supposedly was thought up by Fritz Lang; it wasn't in the original script) has been admonished a great deal. I find it only enhances the impact - it's one extra layer of madness in a totally mad universe. Nothing can be trusted. Nobody is sane. Especially not those who think they are. The strait-jacket is never far away.

In 1933 the movie was banned in Germany as "entartete Kunst", degenerate art. Which seems quite logical. Talking about lunacy.


SF 100

I rather like lists. I may not always agree with then - in fact I seldom do, come to think of it - but that's not important. That may make them even more interesting.

100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, edited by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison, with a foreword by Christopher Priest, is a splendid book, especially on a short tube or tram trip (or indeed on the bog). It lists, you probably guessed it, one hundred science fiction novels that everybody ought to read. I've read forty of them. In case you're wondering. Will probably end up reading quite a few more, as several of the unread ones really do seem quite interesting.

The choices are, for the most part, fairly obvious. There are a few exhilaratingly quirky books thrown in. It begins alphabetically with Brian Aldiss (Hothouse) and ends with Roger Zelazny (This Immortal). The earliest novel is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818/1831) and the only other 19th century novels are Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and a trio of Wells's - The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The War of the Worlds. Apart from Conan Doyle's Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars - which by the way came out the same year: 1912 - it's all pretty modern stuff. The most recent is Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon (2002), with close runners-up J. G. Ballard (Super-Cannes, 2000) and Stephen Baxter (Moonseed, 1998).

The POV is excessively Anglo-American, frighteningly so. Only three novels published in another language are deemed worthy to grace the pages of the book. They are the aforementioned Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (written in French), Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (written in Polish) and the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic (written in Russian). There are about three times as many American novels as UK ones. And, oh, one Australian one: Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994). Probably only a slip-up.

So this we learn, well and proper: valid Science Fiction is written in English (most preferably American English) and written sometime around or after 1950. Good to know.

The violent American slant amazes all the more as the book is a British one, A Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide, in fact. Though what the old Bloomsbury lot, Virginia Woolf and company, would have made of good old honest science fiction I have no idea. Actually I do. They'd have loathed it. Well, they couldn't even stand James Joyce, he was far too horrid and grubby and plebeian for them.

A few authors are in with two books: Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik), Isaac Asimov (I, Robot and The Foundation), J.G. Ballard (The Drowned World and Super-Cannes), Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man and Stars My Destination), Ursula K. LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Robert Heinlein (Orphans of the Sky and Starship Troopers) and Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451). And Wells, of course, is in with three. Ballard is clearly over-represented, and so is Heinlein. Frightfully so. And probably Asimov as well. I doubt their work will retain its value over the years. They won't be forgotten, they're too good for that, but most of their stuff will be. And justly so.

A lot of authors clearly belong on the list, but haven't quite got that seminal piece of work. Robert Silverberg's book is The Man in the Maze. Could have been any of a dozen others. He does keep his standard even and extremely high, but the stellar performances may be missing. Arthur C. Clarke's book is Childhood's End. Not a bad choice, not at all. Philip José Farmer's is The Lovers, which is actually a wise and inspired choice. The Lovers is actually a seminal work, now that I reflect upon it a moment.

Michael Bishop's Ancient of Days is a superb choice and quite surprising. It's one of those books that you can't categorize, a book that transcends the narrow constraints of genre, a book that is good science fiction, delightful fantasy and a full-bodied and thought provoking mainstream read - at the same time. And so is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. An obvious choice, painfully so, but a necessary one. He's written a few other science fiction novels but nothing as lasting as this one.

D.G. Compton's The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is one of the books I haven't read but certainly shall. I've seen the movie though and it had a great impact on me. This is one of those instances where the author has nailed the future with amazing accuracy. Much to our distress. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is one of the self-evident ones. It had to be chosen. Barry N. Malzberg's Guernica Night is another one I've managed to miss. He's a bit elusive, one doesn't come across his stuff very often. But it's always worth reading. And it always tends to be funny, dark, more than mildly deranged and mind-bogglingly amusing.

I have my doubts about Samuel R. Delany. To me he seems wildly overrated. Especially books like Nova. So that's a choice I'm not entirely happy with. Larry Niven's Ringworld, however, I do agree with wholeheartedly. Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao I've tried to get my hands on for years. I'm still trying. John Sladek's Tik-Tok was quite far-out and cutting edge for it's time but has it lasted? I certainly hope so. Connie Willis's Doomsday Book seems a little light-weight in this company. I did enjoy it, immensely. But more as an easy-reading entertainment than as a serious science fiction novel. And of course there's Orwell's 1984. Another self-evident choice and an imperative one. I can't argue with Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-five either.

Disch (The Genocides), Budrys (Rogue Moon), Spinrad (The Iron Dream), Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz), Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) are splendid choices. In many cases I approve of the author but not the selection. Can't be helped, I suppose.

Re-reading Priest's foreword I notice that he shares my concerns in most cases. I don't know if that's good or bad. But I guess it boils down to this: a question of what one sees Science Fiction as. Is it an entertaining vehicle for space adventure and suchlike - or a serious, and I might add powerful, tool for intellectual curiosity. Is it an end in itself or a means for posing important and interesting questions? The latter, I think. But also, in a lesser and blatantly self-indulgent degree, the former. One certainly does tend to like Science Fiction just simply because it is Science Fiction.

To my dismay I find that I've read hardly any of the novels written in the '90s. Naughty me. Will have to look into it. All of them can't be rotten.

But. There's a lot missing. Where's Stapledon? Where's Douglas Adams? Where's Stanley G. Weinbaum? Where's Richard Cowper? Where's Poe? Insanity!

Another thing. The meat of the genre is more often than not in the short story. That's the best vehicle for the idea hence the entire genre. The novels, well they're mostly padded out just for profit. That's what readers want. So they get fix-ups and one-trick ponies and a lot of useless pages. A lot of science fiction novels really don't need to be novels, don't want to be novels. But still, some of them really are worth the reading, all the same, abundantly worth it. In fact, many of them.

So the problem remains. There are too many books. And, alas and alack, too many good books. Can't possibly read them all.

Oh, the misery of it all.

And, of course, reading rubbish also has its definite charms.

So I guess we're buggered both coming and going.

But if one can't read all the books one ought to read, one can at least read about them. It's something, anyway.


The Bat

Is Mary Roberts Rinehart quite forgotten or does somebody still read her today? She seems to have a somewhat bad rep, did at least when I read her sometimes in the early 80's. I found her particular brand of semi-gothic thriller rather refreshing, probably because so much time had gone by and all her horrible clichés seemed, well, almost original. "Had I but known" is the key phrase in her books, the heroine always doing something remarkably stupid and getting herself and everyone else in a mighty jam just because there's this crucial bit of information that's been withheld from her or there's something she never understood to pass on.

The Bat is a 1926 movie based on Rinehart's play (written together with Avery Hopwood), and partly on her first and best novel The Circular Staircase, set in a secluded old mansion - with a particularly nasty criminal known as The Bat looming around somewhere in the neighbourhood. An elderly lady rents the mansion from its owner, the president of the Oakdale Bank. The bank has just been robbed and the president is dead. It seems like the culprit has stashed the loot somewhere in the mansion. There are, of course, several secret passageways in the house for nocturnal creepers-about and clandestine rooms for mysterious villains to reside in.

The menagerie of the house is colourful: the elderly lady, her niece, the kooky maid, the sinister Asian butler, the crooked nephew of the president, a shady doctor, a gardener who is in reality the cashier of the bank and suspected of embezzling the money, an inept private eye, a policeman with remarkably piercing eyes, a masked figure who creeps around the house in the dark as if he owned it and a creepy dazed guy who seems to have been hit over the head with something, or maybe he's just severely unbalanced and most likely dangerous. And one of them may indeed be the much feared Bat. Must be.

And The Bat certainly is around - and he's after the money stolen from the bank. And the money is hidden somewhere in the house, in a concealed room. But nobody knows where the room is located.

What follows is action somewhat akin to the better known The Cat and the Canary (which in fact is written and filmed later than The Bat - and hence probably influenced by it), suspense, laughs, horror, claustrophobia, death - and the unmasking of the villain. Who turns out to be the policeman. In fact he's an impostor, the real policeman is the dazed fellow whom The Bat has hit over the head and whose papers he's stolen.

Now The Bat is an interesting character indeed. In the very first scene of the movie he sends a gloating note to a millionaire announcing that he's going to steal the millionaire's invaluable emeralds - and there's nothing anybody can do to stop him. The millionaire alerts the police and soon his house is bursting with boys in blue. The Bat goes ahead and steals the emeralds anyway, makes an easy getaway and leaves an acerbic taunting note written on bat-shaped paper. He's dressed in a frightening bat mask with pointy ears and wears a black cape. He scales any wall with his ingenious ropes almost as if he were flying. He has got his own bat signal - he projects a bat on the wall with a lamp to scare people.

Now of whom does this remind one?

Batman, obviously.

I'd be immensely, hugely surprised if Bob Kane hadn't seen the movie and been quite influenced by it, maybe even got his hero almost directly from it. It's clear that this is the world from which Batman stems, the world of the silent movies with their pulpish plots and theatrical characters. Indeed, many of the early adventures could be straightforward silent movie scenarios. And the Joker, for instance, is simply a comic book version of Conrad Veidt's unforgettable Gwynplaine from the 1928 The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni - physically that is. It's the same leer, the same deathlike grin. Those who've read The Black Dahlia (or even seen the pretty lacklustre movie version) will remember the movie; it has got a really ghoulish nightmarish quality to it, but it's also extremely tragic and touching.

The Bat is not a particularly good movie, even in it's own genre. It's ludicrous, none of it makes much sense at all, but it's fun. Ripping fun, actually. It was even remade twice, in 1930 as The Bat Whispers and 1959 as, again, The Bat, with no less an actor than Vincent Price.

It may be worth a mention that the director Roland West, who also did the 1930 version, gained unwelcome notoriety a few years later when he was implicated in the possible murder of his girlfriend Thelma Todd. Todd was an actress, pretty famous, as it happens, as she'd appeared in several Laurel & Hardy features, two Marx movies (Monkey Business and Horse Feathers where she played the vampish College Widow) and, this pretty much clinches it for me, in the 1931 original version of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon where she played Iva Archer, the wife/widow of Spade's unlucky partner Miles Archer. She specialised in tough, hard-as-nails blondes, and never was there a more convincing tough blond than she. Never were nails quite as hard as in her case.

The Todd murder is one of the legendary Hollywood murders and it never was solved. West was a strong suspect, but so was Lucky Luciano. It's interesting, however, to notice that West never worked in Hollywood after the Todd murder. And naturally there is supposed to be a deathbed confession, which, a bit conveniently, only surfaced some thirty years after West's death.


End Game

I came across Michael Dibdin surprisingly early. He'd published his first novel in 1978. I purchased it in 1982, a couple years after the Sphere paperback came out. I'd never heard of the man, obviously. I don't think much anybody had. He'd only written the one book and it was by no means a runaway bestseller. The reason I bought the book, the reason I had to buy it was simple. The book was called The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and it was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche.

This was back in the day when Nicholas Meyer had recently published his seminal pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent solution, and everything seemed possible. Meyer had taken a jaded, hackneyed, severely vulgarised character and made him exciting again. After that it was another game entirely. The old rules no longer applied. Anything could happen.

Dibdin went one further. His pastiche was cheeky, oh yes very cheeky indeed, it was clever - and above all it was dangerous. After all - the man had the nerve to make Sherlock Holmes not only face Jack the Ripper but be Jack the Ripper. How macabre! How absolutely refreshing and delightful!

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story quite simply altered my consciousness. I don't think I've ever fully recovered from the book. From that moment on Dibdin was a marked man. Anything he wrote I read.

Took eight years for him to follow up with another book. A Rich Full Death, while not as exciting as the first one, was still a wonderfully grotesque book. It had the poet Robert Browning as the protagonist (and possible murderer), it had a series of macabre murders, it had eerie atmosphere in spades and wit in buckets. It also began the Dibdin's long literary association with Italy.

The next one, Ratking, came out after two years. This time the protagonist was an Italian policeman called Aurelio Zen. It showed us the seamy underbelly of Italy, the Italy we all knew and suspected existed, but to the existence of which nobody would admit. Not as good a book as the two previous one, but still entertaining. The Tryst, the next novel, was short, cryptic, hard to define or even to grasp. It was polished, elegant, obscure. Maybe there was a crime, maybe there wasn't. By the end one didn't much care. Then another Zen, Vendetta. Hang on, he wasn't trying to turn this Zen chap into a serial character was he? He wasn't? I mean, that's where the money is, churning out the same book over and over again in slightly different form, that's what the readers and thus the book publishing industry wanted, but surely Dibdin was above such petty and grubby thinking? Wasn't he?

In 1991 it was time for Dirty Tricks. And what a brilliant novel that was! Dark, funny, ironic, and with the snotty and superior narrator ending up with egg on his face, justly so. Dibdin even had the cheek to let his protagonist meet an oddly familiar Thames Valley Inspector called Moss who liked doing crossword puzzles and listening to Wagner. Oh the dramatic irony of the book. Superb. This was a masterpiece.

Now there seemed to be a pattern. The Zens and the non-Zens seemed to alternate. And the Zens weren't that bad, really, once one got used to them. Cabal was quite amusing, Dead Lagoon and Cosi Fan Tutti positively splendid. In Dead Lagoon we were granted a wonderful view of Venice, Cosi Fan Tutti was a criminal opera buffa (after the fashion of Mozart's opera of the almost identical name) where impostors flourished and identities were mistook and life was just one delicious game. Here was Dibdin at his best, bubbly, sparkling, witty, ironic.

The non-Zen books, however, took a turn for the worse. The Dying of the Light and Thanksgiving were pretty bleak. Dark Spectre was a surprisingly un-Dibdinian thriller about an American religious cult with deplorable suicidal tendencies. Not bad, with many fine insights in fact, but nothing special. In America Dibdin seemed to be on alien turf, not really at home with the language or the ethos. Any number of American thriller writers could have churned out the book. For them it would have been a high point. Not so for Dibdin.

So the Zen books were the thing, then. In them one could find the old clever, bubbly Michael. Right?

Which is of course when it all went down in flames. A Long Finish was pretty boring. Bleak and boring. The next ones, Blood Rain and And Then You Die were positively depressing. It was like Dibdin was fed up with life in general and his own life in particular and the only way to fight it was to pour it all out on paper. It was like he had to take all that was dark and miserable in his soul and chuck it in his books to cope. Unfortunately the depression did not elevate the books. The depression just went in a corner and sagged there, too tired and weary to stand up and give a mighty roar.

Time perchance to kiss Dibdin off?

I never made a conscious decision to stop reading his books, to sever the connection, to finish our fruitful relationship that had lasted a good twenty years. He just faded away. There were other books, there always are other books. That's the curse and the blessing of it. I was half conscious of the fact that new books about Zen were being written and published. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of them in a bookstore. They didn't register particularly.

Then suddenly he died. In 2007, far too early.

Sometime after that I came across the penultimate Zen novel, Back to Bologna. And of course bought it. Reading it I was flabbergasted. This was the old Dibdin! The man was back on form, at the top of his game! The book was funny, clever, ironic, cheeky, bubbly - everything one expected and hoped for. The characters were lively, the plot suitably arabesque, the patter delightfully tongue-in-cheek. It was a marvel. One of the best Zens.

Of course I had to dig up the previous Zen, Medusa. While not as brilliant as Back to Bologna, it was still a splendid read. Things had definitely taken a turn for the better. The slump was over.

Then there was the last one, the posthumously published End Games. The positively last one. No more Dibdin'd to be had neither for love nor money. Kept putting it off for the longest time. Last one. Not to be wasted.

End Games is in many ways the typical Zen novel. Once more Zen has been posted in unfamiliar territory. This time he's a Questore in Calabria, as the previous fellow accidentally shot off his own toes. The Americans are making a movie in the area about The Apocalypse. Except that they aren't. They're really looking for the tomb of Alaric and the treasure buried with him. An American with the film crew is kidnapped for ransom, then savagely executed. Except that he isn't American at all but a scion of the local ruling family. Except that he isn't.

As usual identity is a shifty thing in Dibdin's world. People very often aren't what they're supposed to be, aren't even what they think they are. Dibdin again uses multiple protagonists and tells his story through them, never explaining much, not explaining much at all. The plot consists of "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, and, in this upshot, purposes mistook fallen on th'inventor's heads", to quote old Horatio. The last thing, by the way, quite literally.

Zen manages to solve the convoluted case, after a fashion. Of course he gets bollocksed by his superiors. Well, time to go home anyway. So he gets stuck on a railway platform, temporarily unable to get home, as the trains seldom if ever run on time anymore.

The image of Zen, having accomplished his task, stuck on a platform, in a sort of limbo, unable to get home, seems haunting - like the "hail and farewell" of the author himself.

Hail and farewell, old fellow.


Mr. Holmes Goes to the Moving Pictures

I'm pretty sure I've read Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels's The Films of Sherlock Holmes some years ago, but when last week I came across it window shopping I had to buy it. As a guide to Holmes movies up till 1978 (when it was published) it's fairly unbeatable, even if there's more than a bit too much attention given to the Rathbone series (which to me seems pretty much the villainous low point in Sherlockian cinema, not to put too fine a point on it). The pictures are glorious, absolutely delicious, and there are plenty of them. They make even the weak movies seem like something one definitely wants to see, nay needs to see.

The history of the Sherlockian cinema is long, if not always particularly edifying. The first Holmes movie hails from as early as 1900. It is a short short comic bit, lasting only a minute or so, called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. In it Holmes takes on a burglar who is audacious enough to break and enter into the sacred Baker Street premises. It's hardly more than a joke. Holmes corners the burglar who then, in an utterly baffling manner, disappears through the cinematic magic of stop-camera action.

In 1905 we have The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the esteemed American actor Maurice Costello. He repeats the role in the particularly inaptly named 1908 film Sherlock Holmes and the Great Murder Mystery. In the movie Holmes solves the case by revealing that the murderer is in fact - a deranged gorilla. Poe anyone? His client is none other than his "old college chum" Dr Watson. Right. This film sounds so bizarre and ludicrous that I'd definitely want to see it.

In 1908 we get a Scandinavian Holmes - the Danish Sherlock Holmes i livesfare. In the movie Holmes faces not only Moriarty but Raffles as well. Other Danish films follow, Denmark being one of the early super powers of silent film. In 1915 there's a German Holmes movie (bit odd that actually, when one thinks of it, Germany being in a war against England) Der Hund von Baskervilles. Maybe the first movie version of the novel? Other German films follow.

The first British movies seem not to have survived. Georges Treville played Holmes in eight films. Most of them apparently based on the Canon.

The American William Gillette is of course the Sherlock Holmes of the turn of the century. He was a distinguished actor but also an extremely successful playwright whose play Sherlock Holmes (1905) pretty much moulded how Holmes was viewed in those days. He even got the Conanical seal of approval for his treatment of the great detective. When he asked for permission to marry Holmes in the play, Doyle's legendarily nonchalant reply was: "You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him." Carte blanche. At that point Doyle was so fed up with Holmes he just didn't care.

I wonder. Had Doyle's reply been less nonchalant, would Holmes's cinematic fate have been less degrading? Would he, in the subsequent movies, have received a less cavalier treatment?

It was inevitable that the hugely popular Gillette play be turned into a movie. This happened in 1916. The movie was called, plainly, Sherlock Holmes, with Gillette of course in the title role. Sadly, like so many other early silents, it's lost. At the time Gillette was no less than 63. Perhaps a bit long in the tooth to play Holmes? But maybe not entirely past it?

The English Eille Norwood enters the picture in 1921. He too, at the time, is almost in his sixties. But still seems to be able to pull off the role. Between 1921 and 1923 he makes no less than forty-seven films, most of them long destroyed. In the stills he looks quite impressive: lean, brooding, imperial, haughty, beak-nosed and hatchet-profiled - quite the aloof calculating machine. The scripts follow the Canon closely.

The films are short, only 20 minutes a piece, which was probably a good thing. There was no need to invent any extra action for Holmes or unnecessarily convolute the plot, it was quite sufficient to follow the short story in question - it was a perfect fit. As the films were presented in three blocks of fifteen films each - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - they seem to have been a precursor of the television series. Furthermore two longer features were filmed: The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1922 and The Sign of Four in 1923.

Norwood (what a good Canonical name he has!) took his brief with the utmost seriousness. "My idea of Holmes is that he is absolutely quiet. Nothing ruffles him but he is a man who intuitively seizes on points without revealing that he has done so, and nurses them up with complete inaction until the moment when he is called upon to exercise his wonderful detective powers. Then he is like a cat - the person he is after is the only person in all the world, and he is oblivious of everything else till his quarry is run to earth."

He also seems to have been quite the master of disguise. Like Holmes Norwood spent many an hour perfecting his disguises, inventing new methods and devices, and many of his disguises (if the stills are anything to go by) really are quite impressive.

In the book Steinbrunner and Michaels note that most of Norwood's films are falling apart, reel by reel, frame by frame, and urgently need restoration. This was in 1978. I wonder how many films are intact and in perfect viewing condition today, thirty years later?

Then in 1922 it was time to film Gillette's play a second time. Again with the plain title Sherlock Holmes. Now John Barrymore of the famed acting dynasty donned the deerstalker and trusted meerschaum. Interesting choice. I'm not entirely convinced of his greatness as an actor, not as a movie actor anyway, as he's always hamming it up for dear life, though I must admit he's pretty good in Cukor's Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio (which obviously is the perfect choice for a dedicated ham). I haven't seen the film. In the pictures he looks quite convincing - and one must bear in mind that Gillette's Holmes is indeed a romantic hero and the play ends in Holmes proposing to the heroine. The film ends with Holmes shooting off on a honeymoon with his blushing bride. So probably the young Barrymore (young? he's forty actually, but looks far more youthful) is a fine choice in this instance. In the pictures the most interesting thing of the film would be the Moriarty of Gustav von Seyffertitz - who's made up as a protosimian, something primeaeval that's escaped from Doyle's Lost World, a truly ghastly and atavistically terrifying creature. Though, perhaps, not very much to do with Doyle's original creation.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929) gives us the first Holmes, the very British Clive Brook, of the sound era. The film is directed by Basil Dean and based on the short story The Dying Detective. Based? Well sort of. In the movie Holmes dashes to the rescue of Watson's grown-up daughter and Moriarty and his dastardly sidekick Colonel Moran are up to their old tricks again (this time Moriarty heads an international "radio-tapping ring"- with "super criminals using the illicit information to plot huge capers"!). The whole thing takes place on a plush modern ocean liner. So no, it's not really a totally faithful rendition of the Doyle original. Another one I haven't seen. Well worth a look, it sounds like.

Brook, whom one remembers best from Sternberg's movies (he was Marlene Dietrich's love interest in the superb Shanghai Express), did another Holmes film in 1932. This was Sherlock Holmes , the third film version of the Gillette play. Again it's wedding bells for old Sherlock. Watson is played by Reginald Owen.

In 1931 it's time for a different Holmes. This Holmes is a very modern Holmes. Away with the deerstalker, away with the calabash. "Curiously, the house number is not 221B but 107, and there are other far more startling changes as well. Baker Street is "computerized" - in a 1931 version of up-to-the-minute efficiency. The anteroom to Holmes's study is filled with secretaries, stenographers, intercoms and automated filing systems." When Watson comes with the details of the case Holmes informs him that the entire discussion has been recorded over an intercom.

The film is called The Speckled Band and as Holmes we have the Canadian born Raymond Massey. The villain, Rylott (sic), is played by Lyn Harding, later a hissing and particularly hammy Moriarty in the Wontner series. It seems odd to have such a super modern Baker Street clashing with the very eerie atmosphere of the country manor where the villainy takes place - this is after all one of Doyle's most poignantly Gothic tales. Apparently the director Jack Raymond pulls it off quite nicely. Another film I'd dearly like to see.

1931 also gives yet another version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. This time it's pudgy Robert Rendel who plays Sherlock. Rendel doesn't look entirely wrong for the part, he does indeed bear a certain resemblance to the legendary Paget drawings, but he's far too stocky to convince. And, what's far worse, he looks sedentary and middle-aged. That won't do for Holmes who must look alert and ageless, however old he is. The most interesting thing about this film might be that the dialogue is by Edgar Wallace.

Arthur Wontner begins his stint as Sherlock in 1931 (a plentiful year that) with Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour. He goes on to make four more Holmes movies.

Then 1933 it's A Study in Scarlet with Reginald Owen, who played Watson in Brook's Sherlock Holmes the year before - making him the only fellow to do them both.

And after Wontner and Owen it's Basil Rathbone. His first movie, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) isn't actually bad. It is in fact quite good, if one can faze out that infernal idiot Nigel Bruce. (I don't like Nigel Bruce. I really don't like him. He's a living insult to Watson and Doyle, a slap in the face of every true Sherlockian.) And the interesting thing about it, the positively revolutionary thing about it is - it is set in the past, it's a Victorian period piece. This is quite amazing. They'd been doing Holmes on the silver screen for forty years and this is the first Victorian Holmes movie.

Now when one thinks about it a little further it isn't so odd after all. When they started doing the films Holmes was still active. He was a contemporary character, and remained so for almost thirty years. He did his bit in the Great War, as can be read in His Last Bow. The last collection of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, came out in 1927. Small wonder then that Holmes wasn't seen as an exclusively or even primarily Victorian character.

The second Rathbone entry, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, also 1939, was another period movie. Then it changed. The first two movies were produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The next twelve movies were produced by Universal. They had the bright idea to modernize Holmes, have him fight the Nazis. And what rubbish most of the movies are. Blimey. What utter rubbish. The angels weep.


A Will by Any Other Name

What is Shakespeare's name? It certainly doesn't seem to be "Shakespeare", or very rarely, at least if one goes by the contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean documentation. Bernard Shaw always spelt it without the last "e", "Shakespear", after the 18th century fashion.

The man himself ought to know, surely. However, as far as we know, William only ever signed his name upon six occasions. Three of the signatures are in his will. There he signs his name twice as "Shakspere" and once as "Shakspeare". His other signatures are "Shakspe" (with a wavy line on the "e", actually, but I don't seem to be able to reproduce it here, more's the pity), twice, and "Shaksp".

This seems to indicate that, however the name is spelt, the first part of it is pronounced with a short and rustic "a", with a similar "a" as that in shack or back, instead of the longer and more genteel "a" in shake or take. And it seems highly probable the last part was pronounced with a short, almost semi-glottal "e".

In the official documents there is a plethora of inventive spelling variations. F.E. Halliday's A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964 gives the following list: 1564 (christening) Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere; 1582 (betrothal) Wm Shaxpere; a day later and another parrish the delightful and faintly ribald William Shagspere; 1582 (christening of daughter Susannah) William Shakespeare; 1585 (christening of Hamnet and Judith) William Shakspere; 1594 (paid for court performances) Willm Shakespeare; 1596 (burial of Hamnet) William Shakspere; again 1596 (the cryptic William Wayte writ) Willelmum Shakspere; 1597 (buying a house) Willielmus Shakespeare; same year (tax dodging) William Shackspere; 1598 (corn hoarding) Wm. Shackespere; again 1598 (Frances Meres writing in his diary) "mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare"; again 1598 (Stratford Chamber Account) Shakespeare and Shaxspere; 1599 (Globe ownership) William Shakespeare; 1599 again (defaulting on a debt) Willelmus Shakespeare; yet again 1599 (and the same debt) Willelmus Shakspeare.

On to the new century: 1600 (Stationer's register) "Wrytten by Master Shakespere"; same year (debt again) Willelmus Shakspeare; 1601 (will) "Anne Shaxspere, wyf unto Mr Wyllyam Shaxspere"; 1602 (purchasing land) William Shakespere; again 1602 (securing a warranty) Willielmus Shakespeare; 1603 (receiving Royal Licence) William Shakespeare; 1604 (supplying red cloth for royal coronation) William Shakespeare; again 1604 (court case) Willielmus Shexpere; same year (property survey) William Shakespere; 1605 (will) William Shakespeare; same year (transaction) William Shakespeare; 1606 (property survey) Willielmus Shakespere; 1607 (marriage of daughter) Shaxpere; 1608 (becoming a share-holder in the Blackfriar's theatre) Willelmus Shakespeare; 1609 (court case) Willielmus Shackspeare; same year (burial of mother) "Mayry Shaxspere wydow"; 1610 (property business) Willielmus Shakespere; 1611 (bill of complaint) "William Shackspere, gentleman"; again 1611 (contributing towards prosecuting a bill in parliament) William Shackspere; same year (lease of a barn) Mr Shaxper; 1613 (will) William Shackspere; same year (purchasing a house) William Shakespeare; also 1613 (receiving payment) Mr Shakspeare; 1615 (bill of complaint) Willyam Shakespere; 1616 (marriage of daughter) Shakspere; same year (burial) Will Shakspere, gent.

While there are some "Shakespeares" in the lot they really aren't that plentiful. Most of them appear in documents from London and the theatrical circles. The more official and pompous the occasion, the more likely that his name is spelt "Shakespeare". To his actor friends he is mostly "Shackspere" or "Shakspere". Back home the spelling is consistently erratic with such gems as "Shagspere", "Shaxper", "Shaxpere" and "Shaxspere". Not to forget the pearl "Shexpere"!

Then there is the published work. The first publications are poems: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. In the first volume there is no name on the title page but in the dedication the poet signs his name as William Shakespeare. (Or actually, the second "s" is a long and narrow Germanic "s" of the old-fashioned variety.) The same is true of the second volume.

In 1598 the first play Love's Labour's Lost is published with Shakespeare's name on the title page (there have been several anonymous quartos). The spelling is the regular one of today: "Shakespeare". The 1603 edition of Hamlet, however, the infamous Bad Quarto, has Shakespeare's name spelt on the title page as "Shake-speare" with an unnecessary and really quite inexplicable hyphen. Next it's more poetry. The sonnets come out in 1609. Again Shakespeare's name is spelt with a hyphen. The hyphen recurs in John Webster's 1612 Quarto The White Devil where Webster, in a preface, writes about "the copious industry of M. Shake-speare". (Though my Penguin English Library edition of The White Devil looses the hyphen. This is a particular problem with modern editions - they tinker with spelling blast them!)

Before the Folio of 1623 there are about thirty quartos published with the author's name on the title page. In about half of the volumes his name is spelt with the hyphen, "William Shake-speare". (The King Lear edition of 1608 has the name, curiously, as "Shak-speare".)

What is the significance of the hyphen? Why does it suddenly appear on the title pages, out of nowhere as it were? The Anti-Strafordians have a pat answer: the hyphen is there to signify that the name "William Shake-spear" is in fact no real name but rather a pseudonym. And meant to be understood as a pseudonym or nome de plume. Spelt like that it does indeed smack of one.

But if so, then why isn't it on every title page? And why isn't it there from the start: why, one wonders, were the earliest Shakesperean volumes as by "William Shakespeare" and not "William Shake-speare"? And why do both versions (including the slightly bizarre "Shakes-speare") peacefully coexist in the prefaratory material of the Folio?

It is well known that spelling was a very personal matter in the 16th and 17th centuries, most names were spelt by ear and were therefore at the mercy of the clerk in question. Most names, it seems, had no commonly accepted spellings. Not unless they were really noble and not always then. Quirky variations were no exception, a shaky grasp of the language never a rarity.

But it does seem to me that all the misspellings cannot be purely aleatory. There are so many of them and there would seem to be some method in the madness. In fact I believe that there are certain higly interesting patterns in the misspellings of Shakespeare's name. Patterns that might reveal quite fascinating things about the man and the author.

One thing is certain: the pronunciation of "Shakespeare" or "Shake-speare" is huguely different from that of "Shakspere" or "Shaxspere". Is that merely due to gentrification? Surely, if the name is spelt by ear, the forms are not interchangeable? Not even in those erratic days? Or is it all a matter of rustic northern spelling versus citified southern spelling?

At the moment the name is yet another unsolved mystery in the conundrum that is William Shakespeare. As if there weren't enough of those without it.