Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sleuthathon - "A Study in Terror"

Most Sherlockian cinema is a reflection of the era in which a movie was made. Yet, of all the Sherlock Holmes major motion pictures released thus far one is more firmly rooted than any other. That film is 1965's A Study in Terror, the first movie to pit the world's greatest detective against Jack the Ripper.

Today's review I submit as part of the Sleuthathon blogathon sponsored by Movies Silently.com.

A Study in Terror finds London's East End slum of Whitechapel terrorised by a brutal killer who is claiming young unfortunate women as his victims. Aware of the horrors being perpetrated, Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) is enticed into the case when a surgeon's medical bag arrives at 221B Baker Street - conspicuously missing a surgeon's postmortem knife. When it transpires that the bag belongs to the son of aristocracy, Holmes and Watson (Donald Houston) begin on a dark journey from the upper-crust to Whitechapel and will soon come face to face with Jack the Ripper himself!

What one must remember when watching A Study in Terror is that it can be enjoyed so much more if the viewer is willing to be entertained. History buffs be aware as the film does not accurately portray the Ripper murders. In fact, if anything Jack the Ripper is used as a thematic plot device - as is Sherlock Holmes. That's not to say that their presentation is wrong - in fact the persona of the great detective is excellently depicted. But, if one comes out of this movie thinking that Annie Chapman, the Ripper's secret victim, was a young blonde-haired woman, than they have been severely duped.

Made in the mid-1960's, this film certainly betrays that fact. A Study in Terror can be described in one word: camp. Filmed at the height of Batman's popularity in the United States starring Adam "Shark Repellent Bat Spray" West and Burt "Holy [insert noun here] Batman" Ward, A Study in Terror is greatly influenced. In fact, movie posters dubbed the great detective as "Here Comes the Original Caped Crusader!" Holmes becomes a gung-ho adventurer, who in an excellent bit fends off a group of thugs using a sword cane, and come the firey climax, Holmes isn't afraid to throw a few punches. The movie reinforces its '60's roots in its horror scenes, particularly the depictions of the Ripper killings. Each one is brutal and rather intense, but quick and show very little blood, obviously in the style of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which predated this film by five years.

For a Sherlockian scholar, like myself, the main attraction in this film is John Neville's Sherlock Holmes. Neville had previously been approached for the role of the detective in the musical Baker Street, and he was later under consideration after Douglas Wilmer bowed out as the detective in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (the part eventually went to Peter Cushing). Whether he's conducting an excellent set of deductions or racing after the Ripper through the Whitechapel morgue, Neville accurately portrays all facets of the great detective. He is a pretty stiff, upper-crust detective, and there's a nice bit of comedy when he and Watson enter a seedy pub dressed in their best evening wear. To back up Neville's Holmes is Donald Houston's Watson, who provides a bit of comic relief in this rather dark film. The other reason for Sherlockians who may not have seen this movie is for Robert Morley's performance as Mycroft Holmes. Morley's Mycroft was the first time the detective's brother was portrayed on screen, and the resemblance between the actor and Sidney Paget's illustration is uncanny.

There are also a few other notable cast members: Frank Finlay plays a suitably rat-faced Inspector Lestrade and Anthony Quayle turns up as the reddest red herring as a soup kitchen owner/medico. Interestingly both actors would turn up in 1979's Murder by Decree, the second Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper film. Finlay played the same role in the latter film. A Study in Terror also marked one of the earliest film roles of legendary actress Judi Dench, who recommended for her role by star John Neville after the two had worked in theatre.

Following the film's release in 1965, the story was novelised by Ellery Queen, the nome-de-plume of mystery-writing cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Queen was also the name of their detective hero. Changing a great deal of the movie's plot, the novelisation found Queen retrieving a manuscript which depicted the events seen in the film. This retelling changed a number of plot points seen in A Study in Terror - most notably the identity of Jack the Ripper!

A Study in Terror is today a relatively obscure Sherlockian effort. If its viewer than get over the overt campiness of the whole thing, A Study in Terror will fit the bill for Sherlockian fare. I therefore give this enjoyable venture 4 out of 5 stars.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the fascinating contribution! It certainly sounds like it is a blast to watch. I am rather partial to Robert Morley. It looks like I am going to have to check this one out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you the comment. "A Study in Terror" is a fun movie, and if you like Sherlock Holmes I really do recommend it. I too like Robert Morley and he is such a fantastic Mycroft.

      Thanks again for hosting the blogathon. It was a lot of fun to contribute.

      Delete
  2. I enjoy the cinema of Holmes and have this title. Viewed it a few times over the years and enjoy it. Seems like the producers were shooting for a Hammer style film to me. I must admit to preferring the subsequent Murder By Decree and wish Plummer had tackled the role more than once. The Ripper seems to be a popular idea for novels as I have read more than one where he is pitted against Holmes and I still have another on my shelf I haven't got to. Nice post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment. I agree that Hammer Horror was major influence in the making in this film, there are a fair number of similarities. I also agree that "Murder by Decree" is the superior film, and in my Top 10 Sherlock Holmes films of all time.

      The number of Holmes vs. the Ripper books and movies is astronomical, and are all of varying quality. But there is something special about "A Study in Terror" because it did it first!

      Delete
  3. I've never avoided this film, but I've haven't seen it yet. Very much enjoyed your review and look forward to catching up with this soon. The casting sounds spot-on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The casting is great. John Neville, though unfamiliar to most movie-going audiences, is an excellent Sherlock Holmes. And of course Robert Morley is a fine Mycroft.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Delete
  4. I have to see this one after reading your thoughts. "Here comes the original caped crusader." That's cool. Thank you for sharing with all of us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love the way this film was advertised - I would never think of connecting Sherlock Holmes to Batman! I highly recommend it, very enjoyable though campy.

      Thank you for your nice comment. It was a pleasure to participate in the blogathon and share my thoughts.

      Delete
  5. I've not seen this film – or heard of it, even – but my ears sure picked up at the word "camp". I'm one of those who doesn't care about historical accuracy if the movie is entertaining.

    Thanks to your excellent review, I will be on the look-out for this! :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nice post! I don't remember A STUDY IN TERROR being that campy, but it has been a looong time since I've seen it. It's interesting to compare the differences and similarities between this and the later MURDER BY DECREE, including their sharing guest performers Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay. As much as I enjoy MURDER BY DECREE and Plummer's performance, he is probably too warm and human as Holmes; Neville gives a more textbook icy interpretation. Speaking of Neville, have you seen him as Dr. Thorndyke in series one of the Brit TV program RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES? He's excellent in that (a wonderful series overall).

    ReplyDelete
  7. How have I never heard about this movie before? I'm always willing to overlook a few historical 'enhancements' for the sake of entertainment - as a Londoner I can tell you that the recent R-DJ versions aren't geographically accurate. I can't wait to watch this - thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  8. What an interesting movie. I love Sherlock on screen, especially when the screenwriters are this inventive. I think you'll like The Seven Percent Solution as weel, in which Sherlock meets Freud.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!
    Le

    ReplyDelete