Thursday, December 16, 2010

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)


I never really asked myself the question, what was Sherlock Holmes like as a youth. Well that might have been because I had only ever read one Sherlock Holmes story. But someone must have asked this question – because they made a whole movie about it!


John Watson (Alan Cox) arrives at his new school in London a bit nervous but ready to make new friends. The first bloke he meets is Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) a rather aloof chap who has keen powers of deduction. The two become good friends, and spent their spare time hanging out with Elizabeth (Sophie Ward) and her oddball uncle Professor Waxflatter (Nigel Stock). But Waxflatter is embroiled in a mystery as one by one former colleges die under mysterious circumstances. Holmes and Watson start to investigate, but soon find that the answer to the mystery is tangled in a web of revenge, cultists and a mind almost as keen as the one possessed by “Young Sherlock Holmes”.

Good Points:

  • The script and the acting for Holmes and Watson are well executed
  • The production for Victorian England is top notch
  • The musical score by Bruce Broughton is a forgotten gem of the 80’s

Bad Points:

  • Hard core Holmes fans are going to shudder in horror at the changes to the characters
  • Has a serious 80’s Spielberg touch to it
  • Not so much a mystery as it’s more of an adventure film


While the plot maybe outrageous and the coincidences laughable, this movie has a wonderful spirit of fun to it. The whole relationship between Holmes and Watson and how it may have been forged in their youth is handled really well. It carries the movie past the more ridiculous moments. As far as pure entertainment goes, this movie is a solid pick.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 5

Sound: 4

Music: 5

Acting: 4

Script: 4

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 5

Total: 4

In Depth Review

There’s an odd set of connections between “Young Sherlock Holmes” and “Harry Potter”. First off, both films feature a supporting antagonist named Dudley. Chris Columbus wrote the screenplay for the 1985 film and directed the first two Harry Potter films. Both films take place in and around a boarding school. Both films have a Victorian feel to them (especially obvious in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”). Both films feature insane cult leaders bent on revenge. Ok, maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but I always found it funny that whenever I hear the name Dudley the first thing I think of is the slimy jerk in “Young Sherlock Holmes”.

Let me get this out of the way. I grew up with this movie. My sister and I really enjoyed watching it as kids, and it was on regular rotation on our VCR back in the day. We liked the adventure, the bizarre hallucinations and the fact that there was a dog named Uncas in it. So it’s a bit tough for me to view the film completely objectively. So if this review sounds a bit too fond… well you know why.

The main issue I see raised against this film is Chris Columbus’ over the top script. It isn’t good enough for Holmes to solve murders, these have to be completely insane murders conducted by a Egyptian cult that practices their death religion in a giant wooden pyramid. The movie never takes the leap into fantasy. The strange imagery you do see is because the victims are hallucinating. But the film really stretches credibility when you see a huge bald killer chasing kids through a cemetery while wielding a sword. No one notices this or thinks it’s odd?

But check it out, Columbus wrote this screenplay right after he wrote “Gremlins” and “The Goonies”. Steven Spielberg was on the production credits for all three films, and I think its safe to say that he had some input into how the story was going to play out. It explains why this film could easily be called “Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom” a name a few critics gave it. Or maybe you prefer “Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Death” which is the films name in some international markets. That oh so 80’s Spielberg touch is all over the film, even if Barry Levinson was helming it.

Levinson does a good job with the film balancing the large set pieces and special effect heavy scenes with the intimate character scenes between Holmes, Watson and Elizabeth. The character interaction is essential for the film to work. Holmes and Watson must have that warmth and understanding of each other’s talents or else it will feel wrong. Rowe and Cox do a great job, each one nailing their characters as well as creating a valid friendship. Sure the Watson of this film is more Nigel Bruce than David Burke, but it still works well. On the other hand Ward is a little flat as Elizabeth. The part is underwritten, but Rowe’s reactions to her make the connection between them work.

The supporting cast is very good all around. Of special note is Freddie Jones as Chester Cragwitch. This poor man is saddled with a large chunk of exposition, but his great voice combined with his off beat performance makes it all work. Also key to the film is Anthony Higgins as Professor Rathe, Holmes fencing teacher and mentor. Rathe seems to really like Holmes even when events take a turn that pits them against each other. When things get serious, Higgins is able to turn the man into a much darker character, one consumed by hate and willing to do anything to achieve his ends. It’s a good villainous performance.

The large set pieces including the ones revolving around the ceremonies in the pyramid are staged well and filmed with skill. The sets and location shooting in general is top notch and really adds to the film. But Levinson makes sure the action sequences are clear and easy to follow. But one of my favorite sequences is when Holmes accepts Dudley’s challenge to find a lost statue. Levinson takes us all around the school editing together a montage of deduction that leads up to the resolution of the mystery. Combined with Bruce Broughton’s score, it’s a great scene.

Broughton isn’t known to most moviegoers and that’s a shame. He’s done some wonderful work, especially in the Western genre (his scores for “Silverado” and “Tombstone” are excellent). But this is one of the few times he delved into this type of adventure scoring and he does an amazing job. He takes some of the styling of John Williams and combines it with a very English tone and creates a superb musical adventure. There are two main themes that appear in the film, one that surrounds the mystery sequences and seems connected to Holmes. The other is linked more to the friendship sequences and seems connected to Watson. These two fuse together to create a wonderful musical cue that can be enjoyed during the end credits. I also have to mention the choral powerhouse of the Ceremonial chant that is heard twice in the film and is warped into the villain theme by the end of the film. Great stuff. I heartily recommend this score to fans of big adventure music in a John Williams style. This is an 80’s classic.

This was a visual effects movie in many respects and most of it’s notoriety today is based on the fact that the first completely computer generated character was created for this film. During one of the hallucination scenes, a stain glass window of a sword wielding knight leaps from the window to threaten a priest. Back in 1985 this effect was jaw dropping. On top of that all kinds of other effects were used, including stop motion creatures as well as traditional blue screen and miniatures. Using this vast array of effects keeps things from looking too over top and lets them blend into the film.

Here’s what it boils down to: the film is fun. It was made to entertain and it does just that. All the production elements work well together and while it wears its oh so 80’s heart on its sleeve, it never really was shooting for anything more than that. I recently revisited the film and had a blast watching it again. Yes nostalgia played a part in my enjoyment, but I also think that this is just a well-made adventure film. If you’ve never seen it, give it a shot. At the very least you’ll enjoy a great musical score and see some pioneering visual effects from the day. At the most you’ll have a great movie to watch on a wintery weekend.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Please Murder Me (1956)


It's time for another trip to the 100 Mystery films and time for Raymond Burr. When I popped in the disc I was surprised to see Angela Lansbury getting top billing. Parry Mason and Mrs.. Potts in a 50's noir? Sounds like this could get good.


Attorney Craig Carlson (Raymond Burr) breaks it to his best friend Joe Leeds (Dick Foran) that he has fallen in love with Joe's wife Myra (Angela Lansbury). Joe is calm about the whole thing and says he needs a few days to think over a divorce from Myra, so she can be with Craig. A few days later, Joe is found dead and Myra is the main suspect. Craig ends up defending Myra, not revealing that the two were having an affair. But the trial is just going to the first obstacle for Craig, because the more that comes out about Myra, the darker their future becomes. Eventually circumstances will drive Craig to say, "Please Murder Me".

Good Points:

  • Solid acting by the three leads
  • The second half of the film provides an interesting premise
  • Some of the noir camera work is effective

Bad Points:

  • The resolution to the trial stretches all kinds of credibility
  • The story mis-uses flashbacks
  • The print I saw was in poor shape with major sound issues


This is a solid mystery flick. The acting really helps keep the story moving especially when the story goes that extra step too far. The trial revelation actually had me chuckling. But the decidedly dark path the film takes in the second half was surprising and refreshing. It's a shame that the print was so bad, it ended up affecting some key dialogue scenes, and hurt my enjoyment of what otherwise is a good film.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 2

Sound: 2

Music: 2

Script: 3

Acting: 3

Direction: 3

Entertainment: 3

Total: 3

In Depth Review:

To be honest the appeal of this film are the performances by Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury. Fans of either of the two should check this out to see some interesting work by them. Burr seems to be warming up for Perry Mason which he ended up working on a year later. Lansbury was still a few years from "The Manchurian Candidate" where she played a sinister role as well, but she's just as effective in this film. The bulk of the film rests on Burr's shoulders and he carries it off well, convincing as the lawyer as well as the lover. When he realizes the depths that Myra has sunk to, the affect is startling. He plays the part of the broken man very well and we see the cold desperation in his eyes for the remainder of the film. Lansbury isn't in the film as often, but makes the most of her scenes, playing a role that requires her to be a woman pretending to be something quite different than what she is. What is interesting is that Myra's desperation mirrors Craig’s but for different reasons. When she finally cracks at the end she does it well.

Two other actors deserve mention. Foran's role as Joe is small but vital to the film. His interaction with his business partner Lou (Robert Griffin) and Craig gives the audience enough to determine how they feel about the circumstances of his murder. These scenes are necessary for the first half of the film to work well and Foran does a very good job building an interesting character. The other role is of the artist Carl Holt (Lamont Johnson). When Craig first meets him we are unsure what kind of man he is, but Lamont plays him as a genuine nice guy, one who has no clue what Myra is really like. He bonds with Craig and it causes events in the second half to shift in a new direction. Again, without a solid performance in this role, the finale of the movie wouldn't work.

As I mentioned the script needs all the help it can get. The basic ideas are fine, and they make for an entertaining and dark little movie. It's the particulars that sink the script. I've mentioned the trial a couple times and for the most part it’s handled well. But the resolution is pretty bad. Craig's revelation that he is sleeping with his client would get the case tossed from court, instead it frees Myra? Um, I don't buy that for a minute. Beyond that there are other story items that just fall apart if you look at them too closely. The script needed another couple passes to smooth out the rough edges. But the characters are intriguing enough to keep me involved.

The technical elements all suffer a bit. The noir looks is effective, but at the same time doesn't really do too much to the mood of the film. A few moments work better than others, especially in the second half. But for the most part you've got decent enough visuals and sound. But the print just hurts the whole thing. Some scenes are way too dark or murky, and the dialogue in many scenes in the middle portion of the film is really difficult to hear. And some of the key lines required me to do some creative lip reading to make it work. The music is a mixed bag, ranging from effective to annoying. This is typical from composer Albert Glasser who worked on a lot of films for Bert I. Gordon. In this film he uses what sounds like a Theremin and it stands out pretty badly, not adding to the film much at all (as opposed to Bernarrd Herrman's work in "The Day the Earth Stood Still").

The direction is a mixed bag. Some of the shots are composed well with some good lighting and tension work building well. It's difficult to judge some of the editing because the print is so damaged in places that actual frames are missing, but for the most part you can see that it was put together fairly well. Director Peter Godfrey knew enough to step back and let his actors work, maybe providing some guidance here and there. It's very good, but one thing keeps things from really clicking and that is the use of the flashbacks. It just makes the story feel convoluted instead of clean and simple. I've seen others say that this structure was influenced by "Double Indemnity" the classic noir. This may be the case, but the film doesn't need it, and it actually ends up being annoying when we cut back to Craig narrating his story. If this element had been cut the movie would have been better for it.

This is a movie that works in spite of some major handicaps. But the actors pull you in and keep you interested in the characters. It's makes for an entertaining evening of noir, but if you aren't willing to deal with the poor sound and visual quality - I say skip it. For anyone else who wants to see Burr and Lansbury, I recommend it.

Check out what James Lileks thought of the movie here.