Monday, May 3, 2010

Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

I love the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. But here's the thing - what I love about them is their refusal to treat Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with respect. They take someone who is a respected literary figure (but shouldn't be) and screw around with him - I mean, it's Holmes fighting the Nazis, goddamnit. The reason I like the gleeful disrespect shown to Doyle's detective, isn't becuase I dislike Doyle, or because I dislike Holmes, but because I dislike what they have come to represent. The stories and novels themselves are enjoyable pieces of good pulp, but for some reason they have morphed into High Art in the minds of many modern readers. Just because it was written in the Victorian era doesn't mean it's not enjoyable junk. I guess the problem is that if you believe that Dickens is the pinnacle of literature, you'll think anything old is Worthy.

This is a roundabout way of saying that, though I love the Rathbone-Bruce films in which Holmes and Watson team up to fight the Nazis, I didn't really enjoy this film all that much. It wasn't a bad film, but it just had that stench of, I don't know, BBC literary adaptation, about it. You know, it has all the fun parts in, but it pretends what you're enjoying is the people sitting around talking in period clothing. What's enjoyable about the book Wuthering Heights is the insane kidnapping plot, and the people screaming and crying about the evil of the world - not how restrained everybody is. Similarly, what's enjoyable about the Sherlock Holmes novels is the bizarre crap Doyle can get away with, because he has Holmes standing around, pretending it all makes sense. Like the crazy pygmy that shoots poisoned darts at Holmes during a kickass boat chase in The Sign of Four, or the people shouting about a giant, made-up dog in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is what people who hated Guy Ritchie's recent Sherlock Holmes movie don't seem to understand - yes, in the short stories, a lot of the time it's just people standing in a room, talking to each other, but in the novels you get the craziest shit, like kickass boat chases, or a fight between Holmes and an escaped convict on the moors. And Holmes is an accomplished boxer in the novels, by the way - it is mentioned in The Sign of Four (and probably elsewhere, I can't really remember) that he won an amateur boxing championship (and it was against... gasp! a commoner! Not Queensbury rules!) So people complaining about that scene are just... incorrect. That was one of the most accurate character portratals of Holmes put to film. And Watson has never been even close to that accurate. HE GETS MARRIED IN THE BOOKS, MORONS. He is a goddamn ladies man.

But I digress. the problem with this adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is it replaces all the crazy stuff that makes the novel such fun with, well, not much. I mean, yes, the atmosphere on the moors is great, but there is no sense of heightened emotion anywhere else. Take the seance scene, for example. In the book, everyone just looses their shit, and what is this replaced with in the film? Miss Stapleton talking about how she's maybe gonna faint, and, "oh isn't this all too much?" No, it isn't all too much, Miss Stapleton. It isn't nearly goddamn enough.

Oh, yeah, Miss Stapleton. That reminds me. Why the hell did this film decide to ruin her? She was a total badass in the books, and here she is just a whimpering moron, who knows absolutely nothing about her brother's plot. What is she, stupid?

And Doctor Mortimer. Here Lionel Atwill decided it would be a good idea to do his best impersonation of a terrible stage actor. Every time he openned his stupid mouth I just wanted to yell at him, "stop giving such horrible forced deliveries! What the hell is wrong with you?" until by the end of the film, when I actually decided, "screw it," and just started yelling.

All my petty complaining aside, though, it wasn't a bad movie. There was just something of the Prestige Picture about it, and Sherlock Holmes works best when he isn't treated with kid gloves. Doyle was never a namby-pamby about this sort of thing, so why do filmmakers so often feel the need to be? And why do they feel the need to change things so that they are actually less interesting? Bring on the Nazis, I say. Holmes'll take 'em.

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