We began the week with THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, Rathbone’s second outing as Holmes, and considered by many (moi included) to be his best, and maybe even one of the best Holmes movies ever made. We are going to end it tomorrow with DRESSED TO KILL, his last Holmes outing.
Only seven years separate them, but the artistic and personal gulf for the Baz is massive.
If you doubt that just look. I mean just run these two films one after the other. You’ll see what I mean?
It’s not fair or accurate to say it’s just the quality of the script and production that have declined (DRESSED TO KILL is actually not that badly written at all). No, Rathbone himself has changed, and not for the better. THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, (like HOUND, possibly even more so) has a Holmes you could easily believe needs cocaine to relieve the boredom of daily life. He’s restless and fizzy and always seems to be reining in his speed of thought to let others keep up. His energy and enthusiasm are palpable. He sends an almost joyous vibe off the screen, and it’s contagious; when you watch those first two movies you can’t help feeling a little bit joyous too. It’s the feeling you get watching someone who’s exactly where they should be, doing exactly what they were meant to do, and doing it sublimely well.
Now look at DRESSED TO KILL….
This Holmes looks pretty much the same in many ways. A little older and thinner maybe. But when you watch him in action, he’s a Holmes on prescription sedatives. The fire has gone from his eyes. The spring has left his step. He’s so achingly bored sometimes it almost comes over as antagonism to everyone he’s acting with. You get the feeling he’s always just on the verge of saying “sorry, I just don’t give a fuck“, and walking off the sound stage.
It’s a shame, because while the Universal movies weren’t great and could be ass-grindingly terrible sometimes, they were usually...ok, and just occasionally they were a lot better than ok. If the Baz had managed to keep his enthusiasm intact the series could only have been better, and by opting out as he did more and more in the later ones, he was only making things worse for himself.
Lucky for us, even at his most totally bored and/or resentful, he could never turn in a dull or mediocre performance, and he only had to stand there in profile to be the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes. It’s also true that even in the last movies he could have occasional moments where a bit of the old Holmes-Fire ignited for a moment or two.
There’s even one in his Holmes-movie swansong…
The scene in DRESSED TO KILL where he’s been up all night trying to crack the code of the musical boxes. Watson comes in to find the room thick with pipe smoke and Holmes hunched over his desk surrounded by books and papers, peering at the x-ray of the box-innards that has yielded no answers thus far. Watson, in his usual fashion. stumbles into helping solve everything by talking about how his parents used to number the piano keys to help him learn to play.
“Numbering the keys!” exclaims Holmes, “the 19th key of the keyboard is the 19th letter of the alphabet…!”
And suddenly the torpor is gone, and for the next few moments, as he proceeds to work out the code while Watson makes notes, there is the real Holmes again; the “perfect Holmes”; energized and vibrant, and brilliant.
And you can’t help indulging in a little bit of “what if…”.
What if Fox hadn’t gone insane and canceled the series, and instead of twelve modern-dress Universal Rathbone/Holmes movies, we had – say – two or three more Fox period films?
What if we had a Rathbone Study in Scarlet and Sign of Four? Or anything that allowed him to wear the topper and the frock coat and the deer stalker and be lit by gaslight a few more times?