Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Speckled Band (1931)

Enjoyable Early Holmes

- Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were ripe for the B-movie picking in the early days of cinema. Not only are they well-conceived and captivating mysteries but most are short and easy to follow (making for good second-features, as many cinemas of the day played double features). The Speckled Band (1931) was one of the first Sherlock Holmes talkies and one of two Sherlock Holmes films released in 1931 - and is, I might add, quite easily accessible.

The Speckled Band does feature a couple of odd diverges away from Holmes cannon - most notably giving Holmes a bustling staff of leggy secretaries - but it is a pretty close adaptation of Conan Doyle's short story of the same name in general....

Helen Stoner is engaged to be married - and she is scared to death. Oh, her fiancé is a fine bloke - Helen's step father, Dr. Rylott (Lyn Harding), is who has Helen terrified. Helen's sister Julia died years ago under mysterious circumstances: the night that Julia became engaged to be married, she screamed out and died in Helen's arms - Julia's only words, "band.... speckled," giving no comfort, clue or closure to the specifics of her death. Now as Helen has been pledged to be married, she seeks the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson to help her in what she believes to be an attempt on her life.

This Sherlock Holmes adaptation was released the same year that prolific Holmes actor Arthur Wontner began his five-film run as Sherlock Holmes with 1931's The Sleeping CardinalCast as Holmes in this adaptation was Raymond Massey (best known for portraying Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Leonard Gillespie from TV's "Dr. Kildare"), marking not only the one-and-only time he would play Sherlock Holmes but his first feature film role of his very long career (even in the title role, Massey gets second billing). Massey is a pretty good Sherlock Holmes: a confident,  capable, convincingly brilliant, eccentric and - above all - a loner. However, Massey brings a sort of odd crooner disposition to the role.... Which does not really fit Sherlock Holmes. Also, one of the most noticeable flaws in Massey's interpretation is the fact that he is not British - he is Canadian. Now, I have no problem with non-Brits playing Holmes (in fact, my favorite Sherlock Holmes is Robert Downey Jr.) - the problem is that Massey does not even attempt a British accent! The lack of a British accent really makes Massey feel very un-Holmes like - but he is still not a terrible Holmes due to the other qualities he brings to the screen.

The rest of the cast makes Massey look great by comparison: Athole Stewart is a non-entity as Dr. Watson, Angela Baddeley (also in her feature film debut) gives an over-theatrical performance as Helen and Lyn Harding (who would go on to play Professor Moriarty in later Arthur Wontner Holmes films) makes a comically generic villain as Dr. Rylott.

While the acting is not particularly excellent, one of the things that I really enjoyed about The Speckled Band is the look of the film. One of the best cinematographers in film history, Freddie Young (Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), Ryan's Daughter (1970)) shoots the film to great effect very early in his long, illustrious career in film. Although the print is damaged in some areas (with a few, short incomplete sequences), Young's cinematography is the highlight of the film. Certainly in conjunction with director Jack Raymond, Young paints a gloomy but striking picture for this Holmes adventure. Taking a page out of some of the horror films of the time (comparable to Karl Freund's work on Dracula (1931)), The Speckled Band  is heavy on high-contrast shadowing and German expressionism that sets a pretty cool mood.

Taking the memorable aspects with the less-than-admirable ones, The Speckled Band ends up a flawed but generally enjoyable classic Sherlock Holmes piece. You are probably only going to love it if you are a Conan Doyle fanatic - but I found this early Holmes film pretty entertaining.

CBC Rating: 6/10

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