"Why wasn't England's greatest mystery solved by England's greatest detective...?"
In an earlier article, we studied how Victorian serial killer Jack The Ripper was a staple in some notable horror films.Γ Probably most notable of these are the two films in which the Ripper comes up again the fictional Great Detective himself.Γ So, slip on your deerstalker and fire up your cherrywood pipe, for the game is afoot as we we examine those cinematic outings where...
By DON MANKOWSKI
Why wasn't England's greatest mystery solved by England's greatest detective?
England's Greatest Mystery: At least her most notorious mystery. In the autumn of 1888, five women, all of them prostitutes, were viciously slain and mutilated in London's East End. The crimes were attributed to a serial killer known popularly (and later perhaps self-identified) as "Jack the Ripper." There may have been more victims, and the case has never been resolved. Indeed, briskly debated theories about it continue to surface to this very day (e.g., the recent film From Hell).
England's Greatest Detective: Elementary. It's Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. Holmes was quite active and usually successful in 1888. His biographer, W.S. Baring-Gould places the cases of The Valley of Fear, "The Yellow Face," "The Greek Interpreter," The Sign of Four, and something involving a certain nasty Hound in the earlier part of that year!
Devotees of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes are known internationally as "Baker Street Irregulars," adopting their banner from that of the young street urchins whom Holmes occasionally employed as a secret espionage force. And when you're an Irregular in the company of fellow Irregulars, a peculiar species of game is afoot, and it cannot be properly stalked without the assumption that Holmes and Doctor Watson were true historical figures who really did make London safer in the latter part of the nineteenth century. (Indeed, amongst true Irregulars, this writer would be ostracized for the use of that adjective "fictional.")
In the authorized, "canonical" Holmes chronicles, offered to the world by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and narrated by Watson himself, Holmes punished the villainy of brilliant bank robber John Clay, master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, assassins Rodger Baskerville and Colonel Sebastian Moran and of course the archfiend, Professor James Moriarty.
But not the Ripper. Therein lies dissonance and the Irregulars of the world are devoted to the dissolution of such dissonance. They have offered numerous solutions to the Ripper mystery involving the Great Detective, and two of these have reached the screen. We will deal now with the first of these, A Study In Terror.
London, 1888. Three women, prostitutes, have been violently slain (onscreen) in the Whitechapel district. Consulting detective Sherlock Holmes receives in the post a mysterious package. It is found to contain a surgeon's instrument case, complete save for a large scalpel. Holmes' long-time associate, John H. Watson, M.D., suggests that the missing item is a post-mortem knife.
Although the package was sent anonymously, Holmes declares that the paraphernalia belonged to a medical man fallen upon hard times, because "The instruments of one's trade are always the last things to be pawned." And how does he know that they were pawned? "Observe this speck of white: silver polish. No surgeon would ever clean his instruments with silver polish. They've been treated like common cutlery by someone concerned only with their appearance. This is substantiated by these chalk marks; they relate to the pawn ticket number."
Perhaps they were stolen from a doctor and then pawned, suggests Dr. Watson. Holmes won't hear of it. "If the pawnbroker had thought they were stolen he would never have displayed them in a window. The shop faces south in a narrow street, and business is bad. I should also add that the pawnbroker is a foreigner ..."
Watson, surely speaking for us as well, begins "I cannot see how you ..."
"On the contrary, you see everything but observe nothing," chides Holmes. "Observe how the material has faded here. The sun has touched the inside of the case only when at its height and able to shine over the roofs of the buildings opposite. Hence the shop is in a narrow street facing south. And business had to be bad for the case to remain undisturbed for so long."
How does he know that the pawnbroker is foreign? "The seven in the pledge number is crossed in the continental manner."
Indeed! But there's more. The address is scrawled in the hand of a woman who seldom puts pen to paper. Concealed within the lid is a coat of arms of the elder son of a Duke, and Holmes uses his handy copy of Burke's Peerage to identify it as the crest of the Osbournes.
The detective believes that the surgical kit was sent to get his attention following the third murder. The detective and the doctor pay a call upon pompous old Osbourne, the Duke of Shires, who identifies the instrument case as one that belonged to Michael, his estranged and absent son. Edward, Lord Carfax, the Duke's other son, corroborates the fact.
Next, Holmes finds rather easily the pawnshop that fits his prediction. The shopkeeper's name is Beck, and that presumably sounds foreign to a Victorian. Beck (who is occasionally spotted throughout, skulking about in other scenes) is a belligerent sort, but Holmes makes the right legal threats and he falls into line. A woman pawned the case two years ago: her name, Angela Osbourne; her address, Montague Street Hostel. It was recently purchased by an unidentified man.
The Montague Street address houses a soup kitchen, and a clinic supervised by Dr. Murray, an Irish physician who also serves as police surgeon. Holmes meets Murray during the autopsy of Annie Chapman, the third Ripper homicide. Murray, we shall learn, is a bit of a radical, disgusted by his government's lack of concern for the impoverished.
For reasons known only to himself, Holmes sends Watson sent to the soup kitchen with instructions to demand an audience with Angela Osbourne, be refused, and "create a scene"and this is the sort of thing at which Watson excels. A scruffy old vagrant takes advantage of the Watsonian commotion to trail Murray's niece, Sally, to a flat where she is met by none other than Lord Carfax. An elaborate disguise is shucked, and the ragged tramp is revealed as Sherlock Holmes.
"How did you get here?" Carfax asks Holmes.
"I followed this young lady."
"I saw no one!" protests Sally.
"That is exactly what people may expect to see when I follow them," is the reply.
Carfax currently assists Dr. Murray in his humanitarian endeavors. He admits that his brother, Michael, had given up his medical studies in Paris, returned to England, and subsequently disappeared. He then learned from a blackmailer that Michael had married a prostitute. With a family disgrace hanging in the balance, Carfax bought the man's silence out of fear for its effect upon his father's health. By the way, the objective of Michael's medical training was a career as a surgeon.
As if magnetized by Holmes' mental energy, the forsaken medical kit continues to draw suspects into the web with mad acceleration. (I only mention the most prominent; be assured, it's Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.)
The blackmailer is one Max Steiner, landlord of the Angel and Crown Inn. Holmes confronts the brutish Steiner, and forces him to confess complicity with Angela Osbourne. His inn, in fact, was purchased with spoils of extortion.
Steiner says that Angela has disappeared and warns Holmes to probe no further. Indeed, shortly afterward, Holmes and Watson are set upon by a trio of thugs. The detective produces a sword cane to drive away the attackers. He will later learn that the Ripper claimed a fourth life that very night.
Apparently, the crisis has imperiled even Her Majesty's government. Even now in the streets, Dr. Murray excoriates the officials' indifference to the plight of the poor in an impassioned, rabble-rousing speech. "Thanks to Jack the Ripper," he claims, "the world is watching Whitechapel." He argues that the crimes will beneficially focus attention on the wretched denizens of the district.
"It's not the killings by a demented hand the world finds horrible," shouts Murray. "No, it's the murder by poverty, the murder by misery, the murder by hungerin Whitechapel. Whitechapel! The cry of the starving, the moan of the sick. It is the social and moral crime that must be ended in Whitechapel."
The Prime Minister and Home Secretary are forced to appeal to a most valuable advisor, the brilliant Mycroft Holmes, in the hopes that he will recruit his redoubtable brother to the case on their side. As Mycroft possesses all of his brother's skills at detection, their spoken request is entirely redundant. When asked, "You know the Home Secretary?" Mycroft replies, "I knew your predecessor, sir. No doubt I shall soon be making the acquaintance of your successor, unless the police do a good deal better than they're doing at the moment."
Inspector Lestrade announces that Scotland Yard has received a letter allegedly from the murderer. Holmes alone perceives from it that the writer is intelligent despite a semi-literate faΓ§ade, and adds that the facts indicate a killer possessed of some medical aptitude.
Harboring his own disdain for the governmental attitude towards the rampant human suffering, Sherlock refuses his brother's demands that he come to the rescue of Parliament. Without saying a word to Mycroft, but rather by bowing aimlessly upon his violin, he declares his intention to go about this in his own manner.
It all comes together the next night. Holmes and Watson patrol Whitechapel in thick fog as the Ripper slashes a woman once again. Holmes pursues, and clashes with his quarry in the nearby mortuary, where the fiend tips a corpse-laden table upon the detective to effect his escape.
In one of the adjoining houses, Holmes finds Carfax preparing soup in the kitchen, and in another, Dr. Murray, working late at his forensic duties, a bloody scalpel in evidence. Holmes' knowledge of the case has reached the stage where Murray is forced to admit that he knows indeed the whereabouts of the elusive Angela, and that his own mute, demented helper happens to be Michael Osbourne.
Michael was, Murray tells us, his medical associate, a good man who fell for a vicious and depraved woman with an angel's face. Eventually, Michael's wife Angela joined with Max Steiner in an attempt to involve Michael in the blackmail of the Duke of Shires. A savage fight ensued, in which a flask with corrosive contents was seized. Acid intended for Michael was diverted into Angela's own face, whereupon Steiner led the horrifically burned woman away. Due either to blows to the head or massive shock and guilt, Michael's mind snapped, and Murray has since cared for him without revealing his identity to anyone.
The embittered Angela lives with Steiner in hidden rooms atop their inn. Holmes hears her side of the story, one that confirms Murray's but with a different emphasis as to guilt. Angela sent Holmes the surgical gear to implicate Michael, whom she blames for the failure of their marriage, the extortion scheme and her disfigurement. She speaks in profile, revealing her hideous facial scars only for emphasis. Watson will state, "My God, Holmesthere's a woman of great character," though Holmes is less impressed. Holmes returns the pathetic Michael to his chastened father the next morning, then girds for the inevitable.
That night, the Ripper visits Angela with murderous intent, but is startled to hear "Good Evening, Lord Carfax!" from a hitherto unseen Sherlock Holmes, lying in wait.
Even as a thrown lamp sets the rooms ablaze, Holmes fights with the maniacal Carfax. Steiner arrives and attempts to carry Angela to safety, but the conflagration swiftly swells, and it would appear that all concerned perish.
Well, not Holmes, who turns up little the worse for the wear. As he tells his friend, "You know my methods Watson: I am well known to be indestructible." Holmes explains how he made much of an early clue: When he, with affected clumsiness, dropped the important surgical toolkit and scattered its contents, Lord Carfax was able to replace the instruments quickly and correctly, attesting to his own medical training
Holmes' research uncovered insanity in the Osbourne line, and this served to implicate the family further. While returning Michael home, Holmes revealed Angela's whereabouts to set up the final confrontation with Carfax, whose murderous career was forged out of an insane desire to protect the family name, certainly coupled with a thirst for revenge.
Holmes feels no urgency to clear up the record for the official police. In the best interests of the innocent survivors, the Ripper's identity will remain a mystery. "Lestrade has his three buckets of ash," he vows, "but we will keep the name."
As he is relaxing with a cigar (rather than the stereotypical pipe), Holmes abruptly receives another mysterious deliveryβa man's hat. Going over it with a magnifying glass (literally) Holmes is off and detecting once again at the fade out, with the promise of a sequel that never came to be.
Owing that A Study in Terror was produced by Herman Cohen, notable for such lurid offerings as I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula and Horrors of the Black Museum, one might be surprised to find it a rather stylish, if economic, thriller. Credit must go to British director James Hill. The violence was rather harsh for the middle 1960s (it includes a submerged knifing in a horse trough), but looks positively restrained in retrospect. Columbia Studios and Compton Pictures had the approval of the author's estate: Study was credited a Sir Nigel Production, a name derived from another Conan Doyle character.
Desmond Dickinson contributes some moody photography with omnipresent fog. (In fact, Fog was an alternative title for the piece.) This was only the second Sherlock Holmes film made in color, and good use was made of dreary sets. A decidedly non-Victorian music score (it's heavy on bongos) by John Scott somehow works; perhaps jazz suits well the bohemian Holmes.
The film does have a very convoluted plot, and plays fast and loose with classic Ripperology. Upon its release, it had to endure rather silly ad campaigns that tried to exploit not only the recent James Bond phenomenon but also the Batman craze. "Spell it with excitementβthe name is Sherlock Holmes" advised one advert, while another heralded, "Here comes the original caped crusader!"
Remember, however, that the 1960s were about resistance to racial and cultural discrimination and a general questioning of authority. In the film, an upper class Ripper preys upon the downtrodden, and it's the man who operates outside the System that brings justice. It's the correct formula for the times.
John Neville, a classically trained stage actor, makes for a very capable and convincing Holmes. When he seems to be turning a bit too assuredβwhich is oftenβit's all abruptly defused with a modest smile. He wears the morning suit and topper when required (and is quite the scrapper even in the tux), switching to the expected deerstalker and Inverness only when things get gritty. We expect to see Holmes in disguise at least once, and Neville's grizzled vagabond is a good one. Neville later essayed the title role in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and also would play Holmes on the stage.
A successful Sherlockian outing demands a good Watson, and Donald Houston portrays a stalwart fellow who lends what support he can to the Great Detective. Blustery and blushing, there's a touch of density about him, but his big-hearted loyalty shines brightly.
Although the elder Holmes brother is featured in but two Conan Doyle chronicles, he remains an unforgettable presence. Robert Morley is superbly cast as Mycroft; he bears an uncanny resemblance to the corpulent character as drawn by Sidney Paget for "The Greek Interpreter" in 1893. (Morley was born 1908, but you'd swear that he posed for the portrait). Their exchanges are priceless. When Holmes saws at his violin, Mycroft laments the day that their mother gave it to him.
Ably supporting are future knights and dames of the British Empire Anthony Quayle as Dr. Murray, Judi Dench as his niece, and Frank Finlay as Lestrade. John Fraser is Lord Carfax, and Adrienne Corri the tragic Angela. Georgia Brown has some moments as the boisterous and bawdy pub singer. Some are actually billed as "Guest Stars," a rather unusual practice for the time.
The early business involving the peripatetic surgical kit is a superb bit of Holmesian induction (not "deduction" as is usually stated), as good as anything in the Conan Doyle canon. It's important to spell out Holmes' awesome observational and logical powers early on to make his later feats of detection matter-of-factly believable, and the script by Donald and Derek Ford succeeds.
Indeed, the dialogue draws from Sir Arthur's originals whenever possible. "It is a well-known maxim of mine that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution." This is virtually verbatim from The Sign of Four, though wasted: Holmes is simply locating his pipe at the Baker Street rooms!
The "I followed you" exchange comes from "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot." Watson's line about the scarred woman of great character hails from "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger." "The Adventure of The Blue Carbuncle" provides the hat analysis at the end. Of course, the title itself derives from Conan Doyle's very first tale of Holmes, A Study in Scarlet.
A Study in Terror is one of the finest Sherlock Holmes dramatizations, and it deserves wider circulation.
The "novelization" of A Study in Terror appeared roughly coincident with the movie as a paperback first edition, and therein lies a story in itself. As I understand it, the Donald and Derek Ford screenplay was adapted to Watsonian form by Paul W. Fairman, at which point Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay added a modern-day wrapper to the "old" adventure, plus a few interludes. In this framing story, ace detective Ellery Queen reads the Victorian-era manuscript and "corrects" Holmes' solution!
Now, as Lee and Dannay had always used the name of their protagonist for their joint nom de plume, the short novel A Study in Terror is thus credited to "Ellery Queen" himself, and this time the famed signature here encompasses five writers: Lee, Dannay, Fairman and the Fords. (Or do we count Dr. Watson and credit six? Actually, producer Cohen and yet another writer almost surely contributed to the film's script.)
After 1946, when Basil Rathbone hung up his greatcoat, Sherlock Holmes' appearances on the silver screen had been extremely limited. Study demonstrated in 1965 that the character had a place in contemporary cinema. In the years following, we'd get Billy Wilder's take on Holmes, Gene Wilder's, James Goldman's, Nicholas Meyer'sβand something called Murder By Decree. More about that in next month's issue.
(Don Mankowski has never solved a criminal case, but was a member of The Hansom Wheels, Columbia, S.C. scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars from 1977 through 1985. That group is still going strong after a quarter century. So is Don, more or less. He has a modest Web page.)
Thanks, Don! It is indeed interesting that one of the best screen portrayals of Sherlock Holmes is in a story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote. A Study In Terror is a must-see for classic horror film fans as well as for Holmesians, and, fortunately, it has finally been re-issued in VHS. Hopefully, DVD is not far behind.
Article copyright Β© Don Mankowski