Thu 7 Jan 2010
SHERLOCK HOLMES. Made for Cable-TV movie: HBO, 15 November 1981. Frank Langella (Holmes), Susan Clark (Madge Larrabee), Stephen Collins (Larabee), Richard Woods (Watson), George Morfogen (Moriarity), Laurie Kennedy (Alice Faulkner), Christian Slater (Billy the Page). Based on the play by William Gillette. Directed by Peter H. Hunt.
Supposedly when American actor William Gillette was writing the play which would become his most famous role (his image as iconic as the Sidney paget illustrations from The Strand) he wired Arthur Conan Doyle as to whether it was all right to marry Sherlock Holmes to the heroine at the end of the play. Doyle’s famously terse cable in return was succinct:
This filmed stage play, which aired on HBO originally, is the version that became a major hit on Broadway (Sherlock’s Last Case) when revised in 1987 with Frank Langella in the lead role (fresh from his hit in the revived John Balderston play of Dracula).
Played with snap, flare, and a wink and a nod towards the audience, the plot involves Professor Moriarity’s convoluted plot to destroy Sherlock Holmes by drawing him into a complex plot involving the innocent Alice Faulkner, being held virtual prisoner by Moriarity’s cohorts, the Larrabees (Stephen Collins and Susan Clark).
Langella and Morfogen have real fun as Holmes and Moriarity, and the highlight of the play is their game of one-upsmanship in a recreation of the famous meeting at Baker Street between the pair from “The Final Problem.” As the table turn from one gambit to the next the two actors show real passion for the performance.
It’s worth watching the whole production for that scene alone, but fortunately you don’t have to. The old war horse of a play may wheeze a bit here and there, but thanks to a sparkling cast it is tremendous fun as well. Collins and Clark are particularly good as the Larrabees and Woods a stalwart Watson.
But this is a star turn for the actor playing Holmes, and Langella knows it. He take possession of the stage at every turn, filled with kinetic energy and yet sprawling across the stage in lethargy like a great cat after a big meal at other times. Both Leonard Nimoy and Charlton Heston had some success with the play in other revivals after Langella, but it is hard to imagine anyone having the energy he displays here.
Director Peter H. Hunt directed a good deal of television and also the film 1776. Clearly he knows how to shoot a film of a stage play with style and creativity.
The Gillette play was previously filmed as a silent with John Barrymore in the role of Holmes, Roland Young as Watson, and Gustav Von Seyfertitz as Moriarity. That version is now available on DVD from Kino International.
The play is very loosely the basis of the Rathbone and Bruce film The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from 2Oth Century Fox with George Zucco as Moriarity. It was also loosely the basis for the Broadway musical Baker Street with Fritz Weaver and Martin Gabel as Holmes and Moriarity.
Christian Slater, who plays the page Billy here, was in good company. In the original Gillette production in the West End of London the role was played by young Master Charles Chaplin, age thirteen.
With Robert Downey Jr. playing a 21st Century take on the great sleuth currently on the big screen, it’s nice to return to this and see this version of the Gillette play showing such vitality.
Editorial Comment: For a delightful two-minute clip from the play on YouTube, go here. While there does not appear to be a commercial DVD of the HBO film, it is usually easily available on the Internet on a collector-to-collector basis.