Sherlok Kholms Revisited

The Twentieth Century Approaches is the final instalment in the excellent Russian Livanov-Solomin-Maslennikov Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes is retired and keeping his bees somewhere in the sticks (and sporting a dashing goatee), Watson lives with his wife (who, at aquick glance, seemed to me to be the former Miss Morstan) and runs a private practice. Poor Mrs. Hudson is dead and the illustrious Baker Street residence of yore has been turned into a museum for Sherlock, filled with Sherlockian memorabilia and impressive regal busts of The Great Detective. There are sheets and shrouds over everything, lending the place a somewhat funereal air. It isn't as much a museum as a shrine.

The mood is now very different. Gone are the leisurely times of yesteryear and the gentle - and genteel - unhurried pace of the Victorian age. This is a new age, this is the future. Efficiency is the key. Watson now writes his stories with a clanking typewriter. There are loud clunky telephones everywhere, the lights are electric and harsh, the mode of transport the automobile or - heavens - a motor bicycle! (I love, by the way, Watson's motoring attire: a long dark oilskin motoring coat, extremely stylized goggles and a sinister black balaclava - making him look like he's just sprung from a Tardi comic book.) This is indeed a mechanical age, and men have turned into stiff automatons: the caretaker at 221b is nearly a robot, Lestrade's successor speaks like a computer and even Mycroft Homes is now very much the epitome of modern inhumanity. Sherlock the cold calculating machine, as he was, seems now like a clumsy relic of the primitive past.

No wonder, then, the retirement. No wonder, then, the preference for bees over men.

But the retirement isn't to last. Watson motors over from the city and lays before Holmes the strange case of a patient of his, the young engineer Victor Hatherley, who most savagely has lost a digit. Holmes is off like a shot and in no time he solves the case and finds out it revolves around a counterfeiting operation. The birds, however, have flown the coop. And, by the way, highly significant fact, they spoke German amongst themselves.

Then Mycroft has a most important case for his brother. A certain highly sensitive document is gone. If it falls in the wrong hands, the Prime Minister informs Holmes, it could cost England millions of pounds and the lives of a hundred thousand men. The document has gone missing from the home of the Secretary of State, in a most mysterious fashion. There aren't many foreign operatives in London who have the clout to handle such a document. Holmes quickly narrows the list of suspects to three. And, in the morning paper, Watson simultaneously reads that one of them, a certain Eduardo Lucas, has been found stabbed to death.

Can this be a mere coincidence? I think not, exclaims Sherlock. And the pair head to the scene of the crime where they encounter Lestrade and his successor. It turns out that Eduardo Lucas and Lysander Stark are one and the same. Holmes very quickly discovers the hiding place of the letter, but finds it distressingly empty. It takes him but a brief instant to deduce where the letter is now and who has it. They hasten to the house of the Secretary of State and confront his wife. She cracks and owns up. Yes, she has the letter, Lucas was blackmailing her. When she delivered it to him his wife stormed in, made a scene, accused him of infidelity, and stabbed him. The following day, upon learning of the huge importance of the letter, she returned to Lucas's home and by means of trickery recovered the letter. Holmes places it in the dispatch box from which it was stolen and the case is closed. War is averted. End of part one.

In the beginning of part two we come upon German villainy. The dastardly von Bork has resided in England for years and is the king-pin of his country's espionage. He is the spider in the centre of the intricate web of Hunnish dirty tricks. Now he is awaiting the arrival of the new Naval signals from a traitor, an Irish-American called Altamont. It may be worth mentioning that by some curious chance von Bork seems to reside next door to Sherlock Holmes who provides him with honey from his bees.

And once again his government needs Sherlock. A clerk is dead and the plans for a revolutionary new submarine, held in his department, are missing. The signs would seem to be pointing to the spy Hugo Oberstein. Sherlock, with the aid of Watson, decides it's time for a spot of well-aimed burglary, much like in the case of the blackmailer Milverton. They confirm the suspicion: Oberstein is indeed involved. Finding out that Oberstein keeps in touch with his lackey through the personal columns they set a trap and catch the culprit. It is now time to take care of von Bork.

The Irish-American traitor Altamont delivers the new signals to von Bork - but Altamont is Holmes. It's been a trap all along! Holmes has been under cover for years and on the track of von Bork for quite a while! Even Mrs. Hudson is involved (seems like she wasn't that dead after all). Holmes and Watson foil the evil schemes of the nasty Teutonic warmongers - but even they cannot avert the coming war, only delay the inevitable. August 1914 is but a few short months away. The war will come. And with it dies the old century, for good, and what little was left of the old world.

Well, what can one say? It's quite a mix. The Twentieth Century Approaches makes use, quite freely too, of four short stories: The Engineer's Thumb, The Second Stain, The Bruce-Partington Plans and His Last Bow. The settings are once more quite lovely, even when they never remotely look English. They still manage to convey the atmosphere of Sherlockian magic very nicely indeed. There's even a house that sits right smack on top of a railway track and the trains run beneath it in a tunnel - you can't get more perfect for the Bruce-Partinton Plans even if you try. Is, by the way, the machinist in the very end the director Igor Maslennikov himself, or do I see sights?

As a whole I didn't really enjoy this episode as much as the previous ones. Why? I like spy stories, so that isn't the reason. The script took several liberties with the original stories, but not, I think, too great liberties. The whole thing was mostly pretty firmly rooted in the Canon. And lumping together the spy stories (plus Engineer's Thumb) I find justified, if not well advised. The script, however, was rather weak and there were several embarrasing blunders that destroyed the episode for me.

There are simply too many aspects of the script that do not work. The role of Lysander Stark's woman in The Engineer's Thumb works. She's an unwilling participant in the events and tries to warn off the engineer. The role of Lucas's wife in The Second Stain works. She's mad with jealousy after having discovered that her husband leads a double life in London. But you can't have the same woman do both. It makes no sense whatsoever. In the film the woman is in London to begin with. She knows her husband leads a double life and is a spy. Why should she suddenly go mad with jealousy? Second point: von Bork pays his spies with a cheque? No master spy he, let me tell you, even if the cheque is worthless. The mind boggles.

Thirdly and most importantly: Holmes has been deep under cover for years establishing a false identity in order to get close to von Bork. Yet he at once dashes off to solve cases when Watson asks him to. Wouldn't that immediately blow his cover? Especially when he gets involved in cases that directly concern von Bork? Is von Bork really that stupid and inept? Somehow I don't think it's just a matter of putting on or removing a false beard. And if Holmes is under cover (and presumably so on orders from the Government - ie. Mycroft), why the devil would Mycroft then ask him to solve less important cases and by so doing blow his cover and kiss off the really important case he's spent years on? Once you are under cover you are under cover and that's it. It really makes no sense whatsoever to surface as Holmes. It's pure madness. But once you do surface it's plain madness to go back under cover. And if he really is under cover how does Watson even know where he is? This is really bad thinking on the script-writer's part. It's such a huge lapse in logic that one cannot take the film seriously.

There's also a strong parodic element in the episode and at times it gets to be too much. It just isn't that interesting and pretty much destroys the Sherlockian atmosphere. Mycroft as a mechanic man is a funny idea but not much more than that. Ultimately it leads nowhere. And we know the war is coming. We know what it causes. Yes, war is a crime. The greatest crime. But what we're interested in is Sherlock and his cases, not the First World War (fascinating though it is).

No, I much prefer the gentle and genteel Sherlockian atmosphere of the earlier entries. And Sherlock working his criminal cases.

Somehow it completely escaped me that the first episode was in fact in two parts, the second part having a further go at the very first Sherlock story A Study in Scarlet. Now, having seen the whole, I must admit that I quite liked it - especially after The Twentieth Century Approaches. A Study in Scarlet is always difficult to dramatise with its unwieldy back-story that engulfs pretty much half of the book. Wisely they've omitted most of it. Too much perhaps? I don't know. At least it works better than in The Agra Treasure where everything was omitted and no one could understand why Jonathan Small done what he did. Here Jefferson Hope gets to explain himself and his deeds. His is of course a tragic story, he has been treated most vilely and most unjustly and we're quite saddened to see him put behind bars. As is of course Sherlock himself.

It's a good mystery and a romping yarn, is A Study in Scarlet.

I can't help it but I don't particularly care for the actor who plays Lestrade. He annoys me. I do wish the fellow who played Gregson had played Lestrade instead. He strikes me as being an intelligent and capable policeman. Lestrade is just comic relief. And not really that funny either.

Earlier I, in my infinite cleverness, bemoaned the fact that the only missing Slavic element in the series was the Samovar. So, lo and behold: in the end of the second part they do take their tea from a Samovar (or what very much looks like a Samovar), which I find only charming and appropriate.


Baron-Münchhausen said...

Thank you for your detailed analysis of this film. I also love all the series made by Maslennikov about Sherlock Holmes. For me it was very interesting to read your views on the Russian adaptation of Conan Doyle's stories. In Russia, these series are very popular so far.

Alexander S said...

Hello, Petri

I have read your review with a huge interest again (It's an excellent analysis is well written), and though I inclined to agree with you as a whole (concerning the mood of that episodes), I'd argue regarding the details that were defined as the blunders by the filmmakers.

In particular, as for the madness and jealousy of Lisander Stark's wife. It's importantly remember that Mr. Stark (Eduardo Lukas) was not a regular officer/spy, but rather was a typical adventurer. The German intelligence service could just buy his favours/secret papers etc. So he could have a mad wife, because he didn't bind himself to maintain a moral discipline or regulations. Besides, if I'm not mistaken, Conan Doyle himself presented a mad wife to Eduardo Lukas (in the story).

I think we can easily imagine how she went mad owing to a double life (it's clearly that she gained the neurotic syndrome). So, in this point I have not any complaints to the filmmakers.

I have the audacity to translate and post your review in my Live Journal again :)


By the way, as for the false cheque...
In the comments to my post (to translated text), a blogger shared the story about German Spy who paid the false cheques in the United States during (sic!) the Second World War.

PS said...

Hullo Alek.

Go right ahead and translate - so nice if people want to read my rambling notes.

Ah, the poor Mrs Stark/Lucas.

I may have been less clear about her than I ought to have been. I shall try to explain myself.

I quite agree with you that Stark/Lukas could very well have a mad wife. And indeed that his life might in fact drive a wife mad.

However, in the bit where she helps the engineer to escape she certainly doesn't seem mad. Nervous, maybe, neurotic even. But her husband is trying to murder an innocent man. That would make anyone go a bit off the rails. What she does is brave and admirable, not madness.

Therefore in her first scene she's established as a very good and courageous woman indeed. Quite like Doyle wrote in his story.

But then in her next scene she goes quite mad and murders her husband just because she thinks he's having an affair. Again like Doyle wrote in his story.

My point is this: dramaturgically it makes no sense. While both scenes work as such, put them together and it creates something of an oxymoron.

Scene one: heroic person. Scene two: madwoman.

You can have that in a larger whole - when you establish the charcter and the motivation properly and have the right steps in between. You can't have it like this - in two brief scenes. There simply is too much missing to make it credible.

Lukas's wife is believable in Doyle's story, as is her action, because: a) her husband lives alone in London, b) her husband uses another name and leads a double-life in London, and she knows nothing of it, c) her husband sees strange women in London. The wife spying on her husband and finding him with another woman late at night in his apartment would very naturally think he was cheating on her (because she doesn't know that he's a spy and it's his business to meet strange people at odd hours); and being French might well stab him. Nothing curious about that.

Now in the film this scenario doesn't work. Because: a) the wife lives in London with him and knows he leads a shady double life, b) she knows he's a crook. So from the beginning the wife's provocation is much less than in the short story.

Also, in the short story we at this point (Lukas's murder) know nothing of the wife. In the film we know she's something of a saint.

Madness and jealousy are indeed fine and believable causes for a woman to kill her husband. But the film never establishes the fact properly. It just leaps from a) woman being a big hero and almost saint and saving man's life to b)woman going mad and stabbing husband to death because she's jealous.

Dramaturgically and psychologically it makes no sense. The two pieces just don't fit together. It would work, very beautifully, if the jealousy motif were somehow present in the first scene and it was established right at the beginning.

At least that's my opinion. Maybe I'm just too hung up on the original short stories.

I can see another way it would work: the wife becomes a bit mad because Stark/Lucas tried to murder the engineer and then on further provocation she finally murders him. But in this scenario I don't see her doing it because of jealousy, at least not just because she finds a woman in the apartment. There would have to be some other serious provocation that would push her over the edge. And also she'd need to be more clearly mad in the first scene. Perhaps this was what Maslennikov was going for, but in my mind not quite acheiving?

And about the cheque: when a spy-master pays his spy with a cheque one of them is a fool. The spymaster if he pays with a good cheque, the spy if he really believes he will be paid with a good cheque. Either way it makes very little sense.

On the other hand: when real life spies get caught they've usually made the most horrendous blunders . . .

Alexander S said...

Perhaps, it is a little off-top, however, I'd offer the link on video of yet Soviet film, by the way, produced in the same 1979 as the first Sherlock Holmes episodes.

It is an adventures & musical "D'Artagnan and Three Musketeers".

here is 1 segment:

I have to say that Russian D'Artagnan is not less popular among Russian audience than Livanov's Sherlock Holmes.

Indeed, giving this link, I have own "mercenary" interest. If you write the review - I can thanslate and repost it again ;))

On another hand, I assume that a musical based on Alexander Duma's novel is not your cap of tea...

Anyway, I must offer this link, knowing how interestngly you review the movies and that YouTube admins can delete these links at any time (as it was with Maslennikov's Sherlock Holmes series).

If you will interest with "D'Artagnan", I can give some information concerning the film.

P.S. By the way, after reading your review one 221b.ru forum blogger expressed own delight of your attention to the minor details (especially, your notion about little cameo of director Maslennikov in the end of the film) and expressed an idea that author (possibly) is a Russian spy.

PS said...

Thank you for the link. I will, most certainly, have a look. Who wouldn't love the Musketeers?