Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

A Study in Terror 1965 ***

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It makes a certain kind of sense to mash up Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper; the greatest detective vs the greatest unsolved mystery of the same era. 1979’s Murder By Decree did so memorably, but 1965’s A Study in Terror plotted the same course, minus the various Masonic conspiracies featured in Bob Clark’s far more elaborate film.

Indeed James Hill’s original film for producer Tony Tenser is something of a novelty in that it’s got a slasher vibe; we open with the Ripper zeroing in on a hapless woman, and Carry On star Barbara Windsor has a notable bit of comic business before she meets a hasty demise. John Neville and Donald Houston make for an unusually serious Holmes and Watson, investigating a series of brutal murders in the Whitechapel area of London.

The mystery is pretty good, and things are kept fresh with a galaxy of suspects including Anthony Quayle as a surgeon with a penchant for helping the homeless via his soup kitchen, and Dame Judy Dench makes an impression as his daughter Sally. Robert Morley makes a bumptious Mycroft Holmes, while Frank Finlay a less-than-buffonish Lestrade. Indeed, this is a rather effective version of Holmes; even his penchant for disguises is rather effective when he pops up to confuse Watson in the guise of….you’ll have to see for yourself.

Uber-pornographer Derek Ford was a co-writer on the script, which makes it all the more surprising that this original story has a strong hint of Conan Doyle, with Holmes making some smart deductions from a set of medical instruments, and a sub-plot about a displaced aristocrat resolved in a satisfying way. A Study In Terror doesn’t sell out Holmes for cheap laughs or thrills; for fans of the great detective, it’s a genuine buried treasure. That poster is something else, though, better for a comic book pastiche than for the master of deduction.

Sherlock Holmes in New York 1976 ***

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Ian Fleming’s short story James Bond in New York is one of the few Bond properties not to have been used in some way; Roger Moore is the link here with Boris Sagal’s sprightly 1976 tv movie, which may not offer much in the way of visual panache, but has some old-school pleasures for those who seek it out.

Moore brings his urban charm to bear on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth, and the novelty of his performance isn’t all that’s going on here. Avengers star Patrick McNee is a Watson very much in the Nigel Bruce mould, while John Huston slices of a thick but rich slice of ham as Moriarty, introduced in the opening scene in a confrontation with a disguised Holmes. Moriarty takes various physical swipes at Holmes with a gadget-packed desk which triggers various trapdoors, projectiles and other deadly instruments which Holmes has, of course, already figured out for himself.

The two don’t meet again until the end, and the tone is never quite so flippant, but there’s still lots of fun in the way that Holmes ventures from London to NYC to see old flame Irene Adler (Charlotte Rampling) who is a grand Broadway dame and not quite the femme fatale expected from the stories. Gig Young is a promoter rejoicing in the name Mortimer McGrew and Santa himself David Huddlestone is Inspector Lestrade. London looks much like New York here in that everywhere looks like a studio lot, but there’s a nice twist involving the building of the NYC subway, and the central mystery, involving the theft of gold bullion, is a really great mystery in that the solution is elegant, guessable but ingenious.

Chuck in a jaunty score by Richard Rodney Bennett and Sherlock Holmes in New York is a more-than-decent oddity, with big-stars, a universally known IP, and a quaint if unspectacular treatment from tv specialist Sagal. It’s a little dry and dusty in places, but the star-power carries it through, and makes it something of a hidden gem.

Without A Clue 1988 ****

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‘How are things on the sub-continent?’ is a phrase that looms large in my notes for Without A Clue, a Sherlock Holmes spoof from 1988. It’s uttered by Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), an actor hired by Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley) to play the role of the Baker Street detective, a fictional character of his own invention. It’s a line that evokes the casual, avuncular racism of a bygone era, and one of a number of neat touches that make Without A Clue something of a secret delight.

Without A Clue was poorly reviewed and found few takers, and yet it’s a very clever take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Caine and Kingsley relish the challenge of flipping their characters; Holmes is dominant in public, but is cowed and bullied in private. Watson, by contrast, has to maintain a meek façade when solving crimes, but is quick to asset his intellect when the two are left alone together. And there’s a crime to be solved; stolen, or rather switched bank-plates means that the Bank of England have been accidentally issuing forgeries, while the criminals concerned have the ability to make real banknotes. Moriarty (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman) is, of course, at the heart of the scandal, with Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) less than hot on his trail.

A short but delightful scene with Norman Greenhough (Peter Cook), the real-life publisher of The Strand Magazine, establishes that Without A Clue knows it’s stuff, and it’s also nice to see such Conan Doyle ephemera like the Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance. Without a Clue didn’t offer the sex or anti-authority comedy that was fashionable in the 1980’s, but it’s a minor delight, well performed and with a fresh, charming take on beloved characters.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/without-a-clue/id872645010

Dressed to Kill 1946 ****

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Sherlock Holmes is a character who has lost something in his translation to the modern world; older films do not focus on his prowess as a bare-knuckle boxer, or lead to a climax with sword-fights on top of a mid-construction Tower Bridge. There’s no computer-generated mind-palaces, and his calculations are not visually realised by a slew of animated diagrams. Back in 1946, the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of Holmes movies was coming to an end, but Dressed to Kill doesn’t show many signs of tiredness. In fact, the action is fast and spruce, packing plenty of action and investigation into a commendably tight 70 minutes. A trio of music boxes are being sold at auction; the owners are separately murdered, but not before Stinky Emery (Edmund Breon) has enlisted the services of Baker Street’s finest to investigate a break-in at his home. Although not listed from a specific Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, there’s an authentic flavour about the action in Dressed to Kill aka Prelude to Murder aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code. And it’s refreshing to see a strong female villain in Mrs Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), very much in the Irene Adler mode. Directors like Roy William Neill brought timeless characters to life with great acting, no-nonsense direction and crisp scripting; the lack of visual jazz makes each of the Rathbone Holmes films a pleasure to watch.

The Adventures of Gerard 1970 ***

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Jerry Skolimowski’s 1970 film has been quite elusive; rarely shown on tv anywhere, an unknown quantity on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. That’s a pity, because this action-adventure provides the missing link between two huge cultural touchstones. The technical consultants here are Adrian Conan Doyle, here helping four of his father’s stories onto the screen in one sitting. The other technical consultant is the late John Mollo, who would go on to create the iconic costume designs for Star Wars. Peter McHenry stars as Gerard, a brigadier in the Napoleonic army used as a useful idiot by Napoleon (Eli Wallach). Jack Hawkins and John Neville make the most of their brief bits, along the way, and Claudia Cardinale gives it both barrels in her big dancing scene. With lots of fourth-wall breaking chats to the camera, plus speeded-up film and a very 1970 jaunty score, The Adventures of Gerard is a sincere attempt to revive the comic-historical epic, and one that’s well worth seeking out for collectors of such whimsy.

Mr.Holmes 2015 ***

holmesSir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate did not take kindly to Mitch Cullin’s book about the late life of Sherlock Holmes; they sued as Bill Condon’s film came out. That’s a shame, as Mr. Holmes is more Sherlockian that most recent incarnations, which have tended to jazz up the great detective as an action hero/secret agent. Mr Holmes has a slightness that resembles the original stories; like Condon’s previous collaboration with McKellern, Gods and Monsters, this story takes liberties with real events, but with purpose. His memory failing, Holmes attempts to solve one final case, taking trips to post WWII Japan and visiting the cinema to see a Sherlock Holmes film along the way. Laura Linney immerses herself in the part of his housekeeper, and the solution to the mystery is satisfying; Mr. Holmes is a quiet pleasure for true fans of the detective genre.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution 1976 ***

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Nicholas Meyer made a number of films skilfully rebooting well-known historical and literary characters; before his Time After Time pitting HG Wells against Jack The Ripper, his 1976 script for Herbert Ross pitched Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson against Dr Sigmund Freud, with the great detective hoping to be cured on his cocaine addiction. Nicol Williamson is an unusually earnest Holmes, with Robert Duvall making a good fist of unusual casting as the deeply British Watson. Alan Arkin gives a likably wild performance behind a considerable beard as Freud, and while Ross’s film takes leave of its senses to become a comic romp, with a notable train-bound action set-piece, Ken Adam’s strong design and spirited performances all round make this an off-beat and original addition to the Holmes canon.

https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Cent-Solution-Nicol-Williamson/dp/B07BNX2DGH/ref=sr_1_5?keywords=seven+percent&qid=1563466995&s=gateway&sr=8-5

Murder By Decree 1979 ***

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The concept of Sherlock Holmes solving the Jack the Ripper murders is an enticing one, fully developed in Bob Clark’s unfairly forgotten 1979 film. Perhaps the shooting of Alien on the stage next door heralded the different kind of thrills audiences were looking for; Murder By Decree’s pleasures may seem stuffy in comparison, but they’re genuine. Christopher Plummer plays Holmes straight as a die, with James Mason an argumentative Watson. Approached by a group of local businessmen whose trade has been decimated by the prostitute murders, Holmes and Watson uncover a conspiracy with the help of Donald Sutherland as a psychic, Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade, and a few other well-placed stars. While the model-work is poor, the acting is first class, and the conspiracy notion later featured in From Hell; whatever liberties Clark’s film takes with history are secondary to a ripping yarn, told with deadly seriousness.