Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Case of the Disregarded Detectives Part II

Ian Richardson and David Healy
When you think of actors who have played the world's most famous detective chances are three names come to mind at once - Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing. However, once you look beyond those three are many actors whose turn as the great detective have impacted media greatly. John Neville, Christopher Plummer and others spring to mind - however I want to focus on the actors who are overlooked in the long list of actors to put on the deerstalker hat - the most disregarded detectives.

Ian Richardson - "The Sign of Four" & "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1983)

Wrapped in fog and dressed impeccably in a deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, Dr. Watson asks Sherlock Holmes what is happening around them in "The Hound of the Baskervilles." "It's murder Watson," Holmes replies, "Cold-blooded, refined, deliberate murder." This remarkable tableau is staged in the 1983 television production of "Hound" featuring the fantastic Ian Richardson as the world's greatest detective.

In the mid-1980's, the rights to the Sherlock Holmes stories were bought from the Doyle Estate. Ian Richardson was chosen to play the part of Holmes in what was going to be the first of about 30 made-for-television movie adaptations. These plans came crumbling down when Granada announced their intention of filming the canon with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. The decision to end the series came much to the chagrin of the producers, but was something of a relief to the star who feared typecasting in the role of Holmes. However, for those who can get Richardson's work on DVD, they will probably be very surprised.

Ian Richardson (right) as the sleuth and David Healy (left)
as his "Boswell." in "The Sign of Four" (1983)
The first of the two stories to be filmed was "The Sign of Four." Aside from Richardson, David Healy signed on as Watson as well as Thorley Walters, Terence Rigby, Joe Melia and Clive Merrison. This version of "The Sign of Four" capitalizes on the blood-and-thunder aspects of the story. The wooden-legged Jonathon Small becomes something of a vengeful pirate with Tonga sporting a black bowler hat ( a la Nick Nack in the James Bond film, "The Man with the Golden Gun") and a rather creepy set of fangs.

There are numerous changes made to the story, however they add an air of adventure which is quite prevalent in Doyle's original novel. Small and Tonga mount an assault on the house of Thaddeus Shalto, killing him in the process, and the deranged pygmy is about to shoot one of his poisoned darts into Miss Mary Morstan when Holmes intervenes. Included is a chase through an amusement park fun house and a fight on a merry-go-round, before our intrepid heroes give chase on steam-launch down the Thames, after which Small is arrested and the famed Treasure of the Agra is discovered concealed inside his wooden leg. All in all, "The Sign of Four" makes for a first-rate piece of entertainment, and soon Richardson would return to the role of the detective to tackle the canon's most famous story.

1983's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" has a number of surprises in store - both welcome and unwelcome. Again, Richardson delivers a first-rate performance even though this time 'round he is encumbered with a dullard of a Watson played by Donald Churchill. This version of "Hound" is quite well-done on a whole, keeping up the level of suspense and moodiness throughout the film. However, the movie changes a number of the details from the novel. Even though these changes do not lessen the level of enjoyment of the movie in anyway, it is rather jarring to see a beloved story to have its plot changed so dramatically. In this adaptation, Holmes' return coincides to the murder of Miss Laura Lyons at which her husband (played by Brian Blessed) is accused of the murder. Holmes is able to lure the culprit, Jack Stapleton, into the open and after a shootout with the villain, Stapleton sinks into the Grimpen Mire per the novel.

While, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is by no means not any good, it is a shame to see how much the plot of Doyle's much respected plot is changed in favour of action and drama. And yet, Ian Richardson still works through it all acting the part of the detective to the fullest. Later in life, Richardson would get one last stab at the role of Holmes (well sort of) in "Murder Rooms" where he starred as Dr. Joseph Bell, the inspiration for the character of the detective who solves mysteries alongside Arthur Conan Doyle. To this day, Ian Richardson's performances as the great detective stand out as some of the best - and sadly the most forgotten.

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