Monday, August 15, 2016

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES: Blu-ray (UA 1959) Twilight Time

In the annals of superior sleuthing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's evergreen, Sherlock Holmes easily ranks among the all-time greats. Holmes' brilliant powers of deduction coupled with his loftier intellect and Doyle’s clever craftiness in concocting mind-boggling crimes for his alter ego to meticulously solve proved wildly popular bedtime reading around the gaslight at the turn of the 20th century. Few today are familiar with the ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes; this ingenious and complex Victorian figure, so described by the literary, Dr. John Watson as ‘a bohemian’, with a general disregard for humanity and rather indifferent for playing by the rules ascribed to others; also, something of a chronic drug user with a sincere and occasionally dangerous fetish for injectable cocaine and morphine to stimulate his mind, calm his high-strung nerves between cases, but mostly to settle his nagging melancholia. To satisfy Hollywood’s governing code of screen censorship, most – if not all – of these idiosyncratic traits were lost to the cinematic Holmes until Billy Wilder’s brilliant reinterpretation of Doyle’s denizen of deduction, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) hit theaters. Alas, that movie proved too much – or perhaps, too little too late – to satisfy fans, the picture sinking like a stone at the box office.
The most celebrated Holmes – at least, at the movies – remains Basil Rathbone who, together with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, are the pair to beat for any duo brave – or perhaps, idiotic enough – to challenge their legacy. Oh, what Rathbone and Bruce might have been if the series had remained at 2oth Century-Fox instead of migrating over to Universal after only two movies, we will never know; Universal’s cost-cutting and grotesque attempts to contemporize Holmes and Watson for the war-torn forties, leading to more than a few artistic hiccups along the way.  Ironic, our Mr. Holmes should have appeared in only 4 full-fledged novels during Conan Doyle’s lifetime, his most readable adventures relegated to short stories – 56 all told – and later reassembled and anthologized. Of the 4 novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles remains the most justly celebrated. Having forsworn his most popular creation – killing Holmes off two years earlier – Doyle was forced by his readership to resurrect the man for yet another thrilling adventure; what to do with an already eulogized corpse cleverly resolved by setting The Hound of the Baskervilles several years prior to Holmes’ murder. As a retroactive tale in the franchise, The Hound of the Baskervilles is among Doyle’s finest literary works and the one for which his legacy as an author remains duly remembered. Indeed, as late as 2003, The Hound of the Baskervilles still ranked among the most beloved stories ever written in the U.K. The third of Doyle’s crime novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an intriguing tale of a diabolical crime with elements of the supernatural gothic horror thrown in for good measure.
Yet, the novel has since presented certain barriers for any film company endeavoring to craft a successful adaptation; chiefly, because Holmes is absent from the action for nearly all its middle act. It will likely seem sacrilege to some, but I continue to prefer the 2oth Century-Fox Rathbone/Bruce adaptation of ‘The Hound to this, director, Terence Fisher’s 1959 frolic for Hammer Films; not the least because, in aspiring to remain true to the Hammer ilk of blood and guts horror schlock-ers from this particular vintage Peter Bryan’s screenplay makes an evil temptress out of the demure Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi) who, both in the novel and the 1939 Fox classic, knows absolutely nothing of her wicked father’s (Ewen Solon) desire to destroy the last surviving heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee) of Baskerville Hall; a lonely and isolated bastion nestled on the craggy moors.  To be fair, the ’39 version rechristens Stapleton as Cecile’s jealous brother. But the ’59 version interjects a faint whiff of incest into their ‘father/daughter’ relationship. The remake also suffers from hapless miscasting. Let us be fair in assessing Christopher Lee as much too old, affected and glowering to be the inexperienced romantic figure depicted in the novel. Even worse is Peter Cushing as a la-di-da Holmes, postulating with smug superiority that belies even a shred of compassion. For Cushing’s Holmes, all of life can be effectively distilled with exacting precision to quantifiable variables that behave incontrovertibly as reoccurring values in a mathematical equation. And indeed, according to Bryan’s screenplay, this Holmes has a point.
The characters in this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles all behave within the realm of expectation; David Oxley, worthy of his salacious murder on the moors as the original Baskerville heir, Sir Hugo, driven by some regally pronounced madness coursing through his aristocratic blood, to assume he can take advantage of a virginal servant girl (Judi Moyens) just because she is a servant girl, but first, torturing her weary father (David Birks) to death over an open flame. Next, we have the greedily suspicious Doctor Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff), who bears some sustained – if never fully explained – malice toward Sir Henry. For comic relief, we get Miles Malleson (a Hammer main staple) herein playing the dotty/sherry-loving, Bishop Frankland. These are among the least amusing of the cardboard cutouts. Fair enough, Doyle’s figure of facts, Sherlock Holmes, always leaned towards the efficient adding machine void of any charitable bones in his body. Even so, Conan Doyle infrequently provides glimpses into Holmes' humanity – if not his humility – throughout the 56 short stories; a quality that, again by direct comparison to Basil Rathbone’s incarnation of Holmes, Peter Cushing’s pontificator of jurisprudence sorely lacks. This movie comes right in the middle of Hammer Films lucrative cycle in regurgitated Technicolor horror (choke!) ‘classics’, most co-starring Cushing and Lee. It must have seemed kismet to recast them here, and have been a refreshing change of pace for both actors to play against type as romantic lead and hero respectively; particularly, Lee, who otherwise remained blood-shot and fang-bearing, or bandaged from horn to hoof as Dracula and the mummy.
Still, I am not loving Cushing’s Holmes; a poser at best, perpetually condescending, beady-eyed and sampling the foibles of life as a teetotaler might, merely by sniffing the vintage in a snifter without actually taking a sip. More to the point, Cushing’s diminutive and oddly angular frame next to Lee’s towering six feet plus or even André Morell’s more beefy Doctor Watson, just looks as though he is taking out a ‘short man’s grudge’ on life itself, making a grand – if unconvincing – game of charade out of the character of Sherlock Holmes. It does not make for very engaging cinema, although Morell and Cushing do share some of the ole Rathbone/Bruce chemistry herein; with Morell far more the straight man; his Watson, thoughtful and infinitely more intelligent without rubbing his smarts in everybody’s face. I rather like Morell; the way he manages to silently convey astute observations about the case, concurring or on occasion, foreshadow Holmes’ powers of deduction; something Nigel Bruce’s Watson could never attempt as the foppish and bumbling straggler-on. We can believe Morell has a license to practice medicine; his own career aspirations put on hold in service to the more marvelous Holmes, who could always use an extra pair of hands to clean up the sloppier messes and perform an autopsy along the way. But back to Cushing, for just a moment, who I would suggest is hopelessly miscast. Cushing began with aspirations as a ‘serious actor’ and achieved considerable critical success upon the stage. But as a film actor he frequently suffers from the stage actors’ affliction, exorcising some highly pronounced mannerisms punctuated with a theatrical aplomb.  As Holmes, Cushing is artificial at best instead of engaging; curt rather than courtly or even keen. He does not relish his crime-solving but rather considers it a tiresome bore; possibly a means to an end, simply paying for more cocaine and tobacco to enjoy in his spare time. While Rathbone’s Holmes uses droll wit to outfox the enemy, Cushing’s Holmes is almost curmudgeonly in his belligerence, frowning upon everyone as a suspect with whom to be harshly dealt almost from the moment he has first laid eyes on them.
My other bone of contention with ‘thisHound of the Baskervilles is Hammer’s superficially opulent, though in retrospect, slavishly absurd slant toward Gothic horror, borrowing sets and costumes from other productions in a fairly empty attempt to will a horror movie out of this traditionally Holmesian ‘whodunit’. Even their poster art concentrates on the mythical ‘hound’ – a four-legged spectral mutt, ostensibly hunting for fresh kill along the moors, though barely glimpsed in the actual movie, except for its penultimate reveal as a Great Dane, half-starved and given a mask by Stapleton; moments later, shot to death and exposed as a hoax by Holmes after it has already mauled its keeper and narrowly missed tearing out Sir Henry’s throat. Let us be fair in assessing the hound as never the focus of Conan Doyle’s novel. It serves as a legend in both the book and the 1939 Fox film. Ironic for a Holmes’ novel, neither is our man Sherlock the center of attention; usurped for a time by an air of pervading doom; Watson, the custodian of Sir Henry’s safety until Holmes, who has been shadowing their every move from close by, can spring into action to expose the plotters in the midst of their crime. A good deal of artistic liberties have been taken with Conan Doyle’s prose to ensure all the pieces in this Hammer-ized jigsaw puzzle fit – if not perfectly – than principally, deflecting audience’s suspicions they are watching just another B-budgeted Hammer ‘horror’ movie sheathed in the respectability of a Sherlock Holmes mystery/adventure.
To explain Christopher Lee’s transparently British accent, Sir Henry no longer hails from Canada, as in the novel, but Johannesburg. Inexplicably, Bryan’s screenplay gives Sir Henry a heart condition from which he later suffers and is bedridden after a bout of overexertion on the moors. The first attempt on Sir Henry’s life in London is changed from a missed opportunity on the streets near 22B Baker Street, narrowly foiled by Holmes and Watson while shadowing the intended victim, to a pointless encounter with a tarantula in Sir Henry’s hotel room. Aside: Christopher Lee was utterly terrified of the spider, and, while refusing to have it crawl up his neck, he did agree to a wrangler planting it on his shoulder sleeve, resulting in Lee turning quite green and clammy on the set, nearly fainting from fright. Also added, presumably for ominous effect, is Holmes’ speculation about a ritual sacrifice performed on the body of Selden (Michael Mulcaster), a recent escapee from Dartmoor Prison whose corpse is found mutilated near an abandoned mine. Incidentally, neither the mine nor the sacrifice appears as part of Conan Doyle’s tale. In this remake, however, the mine and its collapse with Holmes presumably still inside it, are pivotal misadventures, diverting, while having absolutely nothing to do with the central plot.  In retrospect, too many red herrings take up as much time; the morphing, or mere excision of original plot developments neither augmenting Conan Doyle’s practically perfect literary construction, nor successfully taking its place, with too many missing pieces lost in translation, and never to function as an alternative on its own cinematic terms.
The 1939 Fox film retains Cecile’s gullibility as per Stapleton’s motivations. Winningly, the ’39 version makes Cecile, Stapleton’s stepsister, thus allowing for a romance to blossom between Cecile and Sir Henry (affably played by Richard Greene, later to find more lasting fame as TV’s Robin Hood).  In the novel, Cecile is Stapleton’s wife, woefully mistreated by her jealous husband and later discovered by Holmes, Watson and Inspector Lestrade, badly beaten, bound and gagged. In both the ’39 movie and the novel, Cecile neither despises Sir Henry nor means him any harm. The Hammer Film badly bungles this character, rechristened a venomous femme fatale, morbidly in cahoots with Stapleton and deriving an almost psychotic pleasure to see Sir Henry’s innards splayed across the moors. Fitting for an evil woman, though hardly in keeping with Doyle’s designs, the vengeful Cecile is consumed in the murky slosh of Grimpen Mire. To top it all off, there are two other contrivances; Rev. Frankland’s affinity for spiders as a hobbyist entomologist (again, meant to throw audiences off the track Stapleton is the real villain), and, two missing portraits, thus concealing an ancestral genetic mutation – webbed hands - shared by all the Baskerville men (though curiously, not Sir Henry). This affliction also plagues Stapleton, thus, marking him the ‘illegitimate’ heir to Baskerville Hall and its fortunes, also, the plotter of the crimes afoot.
Our story begins several centuries earlier, with Sir Hugo Baskerville’s infamous cruelty toward an enfeebled servant and that servant’s buxom daughter, whom Sir Hugo intends to rape. Bludgeoning the girl’s father with a poker from the fireplace after he has already held the man over its hot open flames, the girl escapes her locked room and sprints into the night toward the remains of a dilapidated church. Sir Hugo pursues the girl on horseback, with a pack of hunting beagles that inexplicably vanish after being released from their kennels. No attempt has been made in these early scenes to match the footage shot on sets at Pinewood with the location work, shot day for night; Hugo cornering the girl in the abbey courtyard, before ruthlessly plunging a dagger into her heaving bosom.  However, Hugo’s singular moment of elation gets thwarted by the sudden appearance of a beast the audience never sees; nor is it ever made entirely clear what becomes of Hugo after a few hellish screams and some blood-thirsty animal grunts fade to black. Yet, from this moment on, the legend of the ‘Hound from Hell’, rechristened the Hound of the Baskervilles, takes hold as the accursed legacy dooming the family bloodline. No Baskerville since has been immune to it.
We advance several centuries to the ‘murder’ of Sir Charles Baskerville; an account given by his best friend, Dr. Richard Mortimer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes is distinctly adversarial towards Mortimer, whom he disregards with considerable disdain as over-exaggerating the facts while repeatedly doing more than to hint a supernatural curse about to take the life of the latest Baskerville heir, Sir Henry, newly arrived from South Africa. Holmes resists the case until he has all but exhausted Mortimer’s patience with verbose glee. But Holmes will attend Sir Henry in his hotel room. Alas, their ‘cute meet’ does not go as planned. Sir Henry mistakes Holmes and Watson as manager and house detective, assigned to uncover what has become of a single leather boot missing from his unpacked luggage. Learning of his mistake, Sir Henry is moderately embarrassed but remains rather aloof and unwilling to accept Holmes and Watson’s aid; disbelieving his life is in danger until, only moments later, a tarantula crawls out from the other boot he is holding firmly in his hand. Holmes narrowly manages to kill the creature with his cane. Given the severity of the incident, Holmes feigns being unable to tear himself away from another case at present, but sends Watson on ahead to accompany Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall.
The coachman, Perkins (Sam Kydd) implies danger is afoot on the moors. Selden, a convict from Dartmoor Prison has just escaped and sure to attack any man he meets on this lonely stretch of road. Unnerved, Dr. Mortimer elects to walk the rest of the way into town while Perkins drives Sir Henry and Watson to the Baskerville estate. They are met by the pixelated cleric, Frankland, and the estate’s butler, Barrymore (John Le Mesurier) who has recently taken a wife (Helen Goss). In providing the new heir with a tour of his lodgings, Barrymore explains how a pair of paintings of Sir Hugo has since gone missing. Further questioned by Watson, Barrymore regales the men with finding Sir Charles’ badly mutilated body, discovered on a routine trip into town wedged between some craggy rocks and underbrush. The next afternoon, while returning on foot from his own trip to the post office, Watson encounters Stapleton, who narrowly prevents him from stepping into a bear trap. Watson also meets Cecile. At first, she pretends to be something of a mute, running away and causing Watson to pursue her through the Grimpen Mire where he almost loses his life after sinking into its murky goo. Narrowly saved by Stapleton, who orders Cecile to partake in the rescue effort, Watson is taken back to Baskerville Hall to recuperate. That evening he hears the sound of a woman crying and follows it to an attic bedroom, along with Sir Henry, the two men discovering a lit candle glowing in the window.
Watson is almost certain someone inside the hall is signaling to someone else out there on the moor.  Sir Henry and Watson take off into the night, finding a lit beacon on the hillside. They also discover a man waiting there. He is scared off by their pistols. But before Watson can pursue the stranger, Sir Henry suffers a minor heart attack and has to be taken back to Baskerville Hall. Ordering Dr. Mortimer to remain at Sir Henry’s side while he is away, Watson goes in search of a silhouetted figure he spies on the horizon, discovering much to his amazement, it is Holmes, who now reveals he has been in Grimpen Mire the whole time and quietly observed as someone from the house signals to the stranger on the moors. To reveal the source, Holmes asks Barrymore and his wife to join them in Sir Henry’s parlor; Holmes addressing Barrymore’s wife by her assumed maiden name as Miss Selden, thereby revealing to all she is, in fact, the sister of the Dartmoor escapee. Mrs. Barrymore has been bringing her brother Sir Henry’s castoff clothes and food to sustain him while he hides from the police.  The next afternoon, Holmes discovers one of Bishop Frankland’s tarantulas has gone missing.  Meanwhile, Sir Henry pays a social call on the Stapletons, who have invited him to dinner. Cecile confides in Sir Henry: her father brought her mother to England from Spain, a move that prematurely deprived the woman of her zest for living and thus, prematurely led to her death from a broken heart. Cecile further confides she despises both her father and England and longs for the hour when she can escape his tyrannical mismanagement of their lives to runaway to Spain. Sir Henry is inexplicably smitten with this viperous young girl and a romance blossoms – or so Henry believes – though it is thwarted by Stapleton’s sudden appearance in the doorway.
Gathering Watson, Dr. Mortimer and the Stapletons to explore an old mine nearby, Holmes is quite certain they will find Selden hiding. But the search is cut short by a cave-in.  Seemingly, Holmes does not survive. To everyone’s astonishment, and Watson’s great relief, Holmes has managed to find an alternative exit. By now, Holmes has also solved the case. The Stapletons are illegitimate descendants of Sir Hugo, next in line to inherit the family fortune, but only if no legitimate heirs are left. Alas, Holmes is too late to stop Cecile from luring Sir Henry to the abandoned abbey, presumably with the promise of a great winter passion brewing for him. Only after he has made his lustful intensions plain does Cecile reveal she has brought Sir Henry there to die; Stapleton appearing from the shadows with the disguised Great Dane ready to lunge and tear out his throat. The half-starved beast attacks. But Watson draws his gun and wounds the animal. It turns on Stapleton, mauling him to death. In the chaos, Cecile attempts an escape. She is thwarted from getting very far, slipping into the thick and deadening slush of Grimpen Mire; dragged down to her death as Holmes, Watson and Sir Henry look on. Acknowledging the ordeal at an end, Holmes and Watson escort Sir Henry back to Baskerville Hall. They have all seen the last of the hound from hell.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is rather clumsily strung together and unprepossessing to a fault – the action methodically paced, the exaggerated ‘scares’ neither shocking nor even mildly amusing, thus satisfying neither taste for a clever whodunit or a traditionally gory Hammer horror movie. Again, it is the overactive muddling of the source material that is primarily to blame. Even setting aside Peter Cushing’s stern sleuth, the story might have endured if not for the aforementioned liberties very liberally applied to imply something else, different, or better afoot. While this is the first ‘color’ adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, it is hardly the most comprehensive or flattering. Rather than building arcs of suspense – or even cheaper thrills for which most Hammer films are duly noted, and occasionally noteworthy – Peter Bryan’s screenplay merely lunges head, then lumbers along with some momentarily clever bits of business and fine pauses for Cushing’s Holmes to soliloquize as he pieces the tattered remnants of this fractured adaptation together for Watson, Sir Henry and the audience. But Bryan’s screenplay sinks under its clichéd villainy; Ewen Solon and Marla Landi, a pair of predictable usurpers. Landi practically foams at the mouth as she explains with gritted teeth, for the wooden-headed Sir Henry, the plot to see him dead. Particularly for the time in which the picture is set, Landi’s viper is all too proto-feministic in her blood-thirsty desire to see all the Baskerville men murdered, and this, not even to avenge Sir Hugo’s age-old wickedness.  There is not much else to add, except that Conan Doyle’s story has yet to be entirely served up as celluloid perfection. As good as the 1939 Fox/Rathbone classic is, it nevertheless is short on thrills too, especially in the shadow of Conan Doyle’s novel, a real page-turner!  In 1988’s Jeremy Brett /Granada TV incarnation of the elegant Mr. Holmes for the small screen, the suspense of ‘The Hound equally proved elusive. Will The Hound of the Baskervilles ever find its way to a fittingly suspenseful big screen blockbuster? One may hope. For certain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth is unlikely to fade into obscurity. In fact, in more recent times, the legacy of Sherlock Holmes has been hotter than ever.    
Were that one could say the same about Twilight Time’s Blu-ray incarnation. Cribbing from the same tired old elements archived by MGM under the UA banner, The Hound of the Baskervilles fairs better than some of the other product we have seen come down the pipeline from this alliance with TT. But the results are not so much superb as they marginally improve on what was already available; MGM not lifting a finger to do either a new image harvest in 4K or the necessary digital clean-up to give us a re-purposed Hound of the Baskervilles in pristine 1080p. While colors are generally bright and nicely saturated, there is really no consistency or continuity to color balancing from shot to shot, making the contrast between the sets and real outdoor locations even more obvious. Film grain gets exaggerated in spots; then, all but disappears from other scenes; its texture ranging from fairly indigenous to its source to looking slightly digitized. Flesh tones can appear natural at times, but frequently lean toward either copper/jaundice or ruddy orange complexions.  It really is difficult to get excited about any Blu-ray release today in which the utmost care has not been taken before slapping tired old elements to disc for our consideration. Time and again, I hear rumblings about MGM lacking sufficient funds to provide us with ‘restored’ and ‘remastered’ elements. Okay, I’ll bite. What is stopping MGM from engaging outside intervention/participation from, say, the AFI, The Film Foundation, or other charitable organizations dedicated to film preservation? 
The 1.0 DTS audio remains strident, with James Bernard’s music cues and dialogue equally as thin and unprepossessing. TT gives us their usual ‘isolated score’ herein plagued by the inclusion of sound effects. The goodies are two competing audio commentaries; the first, from historians, David Del Valle and Steven Peros, and the infinitely more astute observations made by historians, Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer and Hank Reineke. We also get Christopher Lee reading excerpts of the novel and a brief featurette with ‘mask creator’ Margaret Robinson reflecting on the production, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is not really up to snuff – either as a movie or Blu-ray transfer. The narrative holes are more glaring upon repeat viewing, but even at the outset it is a real ‘tough sell’ to imagine Christopher Lee as the objectified ‘male beauty’ of this piece, or align our appetites with Lee’s Sir Henry, ogling the obviously scheming, and frankly, not very seductive, Marla Landi. We get it. There are not a lot of eligible maidens on the moors. But Landi’s Cecile so obviously needs to be avoided like the plague – especially by Lee’s uber-intellectual. The MGM elements used for this disc are in less than rough, but far from perfect, shape. That is a pity. There is much Fox/MGM could have done to spruce up this release. It’s not a washout. But realistically, it’s also 2016. We are living in the era of UHD. Moreover, I see a good deal of ‘solid to great’ work consistently coming from the Warner Archive on deep catalog classics. So if it can be done (and clearly – it can) then, my argument remains it should be done by other studios as well. Time to expect more – a lot more – from our home viewing experience, folks.  Time enough, indeed!     
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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