Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Study In Terror (1965)

It's 1888 in London, and Jack the Ripper has begun his serial killings of Whitechapel Prostitutes. Fortunately, a mysterious persons sends a set of surgical instruments only missing a post mortem scalpel, and carrying the crest of the noble family of the Carfaxes, from Whitechapel to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (John Neville) and his associate Doctor Watson (Donald Houston), enticing the pair to take an interest in the murders. Why Holmes needs an invitation to investigate this type of public serial killings is anybody's guess.

Soon enough, Holmes pokes into the complicated net of relationships between the disgraced heir of the Carfaxes, his prostitute wife, shady bar owners, and a charitable doctor trying to change Whitechapel one religious hymn and moralizing speech after the other.

It will take all the detective's powers of deduction to catch Jack the Ripper.

If you go by Sherlock Holmes movies and novels, Moriarty wasn't the detective's only arch enemy, at least if you take the number of stories, novels, and - to a lesser degree - films, concerning Holmes's investigation of the Ripper murders into account. As far as I know, the first of the literary Ripper hunts took place in a German Holmes pulp novel in 1907, with A Study in Terror being the first (of only two) movies taking care of the case.

The film at hand (competently if not remarkably well directed by James Hill) does not keep too closely to the facts of the actual Ripper murders, and instead opts for somewhat cleaner killings of somewhat more attractive looking prostitutes taking place in front of the background of a Victorian age that seems half interested in veracity and half in looking good on screen. That's not a criticism of the film, mind you, for a more realistic treatment of the times would really leave no believable place for Holmes and Watson in it. One could, of course, have moral qualms about taking a real, horrible series of murders and making a piece of merry entertainment out of it, but there's also an undeniable attraction of mixing a historic truth (and mystery) of the Victorian age like these murders with one of the age's great fictions that overrides all moral concerns for hard-hearted me.

For a film about a truly gruesome series of murders that is at least superficially (that is to say, as long as everything stays photogenic and just a little quaint) interested in showing the horrors of poverty of the Victorian age, A Study is a pretty cheerful little film. There are some relatively graphic (for the time and place) murder scenes with very pretty Technicolor blood, but the film's tone is that of a merry little adventure where none of the deaths and none of the emotions are meant to have much of an emotional impact on the audience.

The feeling of watching a friendly lark is only further emphasised by the way Neville and Houston interpret their iconic characters. Neville's Holmes is clearly in the detective business to have some fun, visibly delighting in impressing his friend Watson (and here, these two characters are played as friends, quite unlike the Rathbone/Bruce pairing where Holmes is the kind of man who drags a mentally disabled guy around to look cleverer in comparison) with his deductions - a bit like a stage magician - and having the time of his life annoying officials, gentlemen and the lower classes alike; it's actually a very human approach to the character. Houston's Watson can best be described as "cuddly". He surely isn't brilliant, or even more than averagely intelligent, but seems the kind of guy who has his heart in the right place, typically giving emotional grounding to Holmes's intellect as will be the role of Watsons (poor bastards) forevermore.

As a whole, A Study in Terror is a fun little mystery that doesn't set out to explore any depths of idea or emotion, but that takes itself not seriously in such a pleasant manner it would take a much grumpier man than me not to be entertained watching it.


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