Young Sherlock Holmes

Inspired by a post from one of my on-line friends, I revisited this film today and decided to include it in the summer look back project, “films lost in time”. This really should not be a lost film but given it’s lack of box office success and the the fact that it is not yet available on blu ray, I suspect that most of today’s audience is only vaguely familiar with it.

This should have been a smashing success given it’s pedigree and release. Steve Spielberg is one of the Executive Producers and his team made up the rest of those responsible for bringing this to the screen. The Director was Barry Levinson, who had directed “The Natural” the year before and would go on to direct and win the Academy Award for “Rain Man” three years later. The script comes from Chris Columbus who had written “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” before this and who would go on to make a few films that will feel very familiar after seeing this (more on that later). This was released in the U.S. during the holiday season of 1985 and it basically tanked. The box office was mild to low and barely matched the production cost. So what went wrong, again, I’ll delay that for a few paragraphs. Let’s talk about the movie first.

The idea of retconning Sherlock Holmes into a youthful action character is not a bad one. In the original books, we learn of Holmes and Watson meeting as they take up rooms together on Baker Street, but this scenario makes them schoolmates at a posh academic institution in Victorian England. Holmes has already mastered the art of deduction as he calls it [frankly it is mostly inductive sign reasoning and a little hard to believe at times].

As the two young future archetypes are meeting, a series of deaths are taking place in London. We witness a mysterious figure using a small blow gun to shoot darts at several older gentlemen. Those men begin to have fantastic hallucinations which result in deaths that appear to be suicides. From the start of the film, it is clear that the film makers want to dazzle us with special effects as part of the excitement of the movie. Articulated puppets and stop motion animation are used early on to bring horrific images to life.

 

The most likely reason this film would be historically significant is that it contains one of the earliest CGI effects on screen to achieve the images the film makers wanted. A priest is attacked by a figure that climbs out of a stained glass window. This sequence explains why the films lone Academy Award Nomination was for Visual Effects. The Knight becomes a three dimensional image which strikes terror into the elderly man who runs into the street and is mowed down by a carriage.

Although primitive by today’s standards, it was jaw dropping at the time and I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and one of them picking it as their choice in their annual Oscar handicapping show.

The story centers around the two well known characters and a third one invented for this enterprise.  A confirmed bachelor like Holmes is during most of his film history, must have a woman in his past to explain his predilection. So Columbus creates Elizabeth, the niece of a character in the story and Holmes love interest. This will require that Watson and Holmes have to rescue Elizabeth on more than one occasion. That’s right, she is a damsel in distress for most of the last third of the film. The development of Holmes as a character is pretty good in the story. He is interested in unique subjects, he has an eccentric mentor, and he is admired by many and despised by a few elitists. His friendship with the new boy does not help him win the affection of either his belligerent teacher or the light blond future MP that he makes an enemy. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should because it is likely that Harry Potter and friends grew out of this kind of stew. The fact that Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films also wrote the screenplay here, seems like a lot more than just coincidence.

Let’s add another interesting parallel, young future Dr. Watson looks like a chubbier version of you know who.

With so many things going for it, what caused this film to fail with a broad audience? Speaking simply as a movie fan I think I can point to two things. The most criticized parts of the previous year’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” are resurrected to provide the villain and motives here. There is virtually no surprise when the antagonist is revealed, so the suspense is missing for the most part. When to secret society perpetrating the crimes is revealed, it is a moment right out of the very dark Indiana Jones movie.

 Acolytes surround a hapless victim overseen by an evil priest of an alien religious cult and a towering figure of the spirit that they worship. In a true “what the hell” moment, we discover that there are other murders connected to this story and suddenly the plot shifts to a completely different issue. Foreshadowing his future emotionally stunted growth, Holmes cries out and alerts everyone there to his presence. And none of this seems to be well connected to the logical procedural method Holmes supposedly follows. Instead, a series of chance insights leads to the discovery of an underground temple.

Holmes and Watson have to become Butch and Sundance and it is just not as credible at this point as it needs to be. The action points start driving the plot instead of the character points.

Holmes and Watson have to become the Wright Bothers at one point, and although the scene is fun, it feels tacked on rather than organic to the Holmes tradition of investigation.

One other thing that I think sabotages the film, and this is a spoiler so if you haven’y yet viewed the movie and don’t want to be ticked off before doing so, stop now and come back later.

Holmes fails.

All the build up and eventual destruction and the outcome is depressing and undermines the spirit of the film. Someone must have thought it was creatively challenging to finish on this note. Here is the way it came across to me. “Ho,ho, ho, your [character not to be identified by me] dies, Merry Christmas. Hope you and the family enjoyed this.” If you did the same thing to any of the other successful Spielbergian type movies at the time, you would get the same dismal box office result. “Goonies” would not be a beloved 80s touchstone, “Cocoon” would have stalled Ron Howard’s career, and “Raiders” would be an experiment that failed.

Despite the dramatic faults of the movie, it had a lot of other things to recommend it. The setting and sets were very nicely utilized and they look great. The costumes and the actors fit into the world that was created very effectively.

Bruce Broughton was nominated for the Academy Award for his music in “Silverado” from earlier in the year, and his work here is alo excellent. The theme tune will be a pretty simple earworm that will remind you every time you hear it of this film.

For those of you who think the Marvel Films invented the post title credit scene, stick around for the end of this movie. Clearly there were hopes of a sequel, but when a movie under-performs like this, you are not going to get Part II. Although Nicolas Rowe does reprise the character in a brief cameo in the far superior “Mr. Holmes” which I guess we can call “Old Sherlock Holmes”.

Charley Varrick, The Last of the Independents

I’m not sure whether to classify this as one of my “Movies I Want Everyone to See” or as a “Film Lost in Time”. It certainty fits the former category but for some film fans it may fit the later as well. It stars Walter Matthau, a guy who many modern film fans will not know well, but anyone over 40 is likely to have a dozen Matthau films on at least one of their best of lists. He appeared in in “Charade”, “Fail-Safe” ,”The Fortune Cookie” and most famously “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s. I knew him best however from his 1970s output which includes three gritty thrillers from 1973 and 74, this film plus “The Laughing Policeman” and the great “Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”.

With his hangdog face, laconic voice and middle age physique, Matthau hardly seems to be the template for a movie star. He used all of those characteristics however to play a series of recognizable human beings in circumstances that are a little bit extraordinary. As the title character in this film, he is a small time bank robber who along with his wife, eeks out an existence on the margins of society. The meticulous small town bank robbery he has planned goes off the rails within just a few moments.

Let’s start by looking at the credits and seeing the style of director Don Siegel. On on the heels of his smash Clint Eastwood film, “Dirty Harry”, the director followed his cop picture with a robbers picture. The movie opens slowly without any sense of direction, by showing us idyllic scenes of small town life in what is presumably New Mexico. People are sweeping their yards and sidewalks, kids are riding their bikes, ranchers are traversing their property checking on livestock. Nothing ominous in any of that.  Suddenly we see the plaque on the bank and our mood will change immediately. Like the long set up shot in “Dirty Harry” it’s not until one element is revealed that we get any sense of where the story might be going.

Almost immediately, Matthau is on screen, but he is wearing a mustache and a grey wig. The woman driving the car tells a police officer who has come to warn them about parking in a red zone, that her husband is infirm because of an injury. Matthau is then shown to be wearing an anle cast and the disguise seems more effective. He is playing the grumpy old man, twenty years before that became his signature role in the 1990s. As luck would have it, the cop as he is pulling away has a memory of the licence plates of the Lincoln, being on the hot sheet of auto thefts that he came across and so he starts back around to investigate. This is just one of the things that goes bad for the criminals and all hell breaks loose rapidly. Here again, you can see Siegels’s style as the robbery gone wrong will remind you of the robbery gone wrong in the Eastwood picture. Violence breaks out quickly and some die quickly while others linger. The seventies were full of car chases that were improbable, but the quick getaway here is messy and believable for the most part.

If there is one fault in the script, it is the limited reaction of Charley Varrick to what transpires with his wife. Sure he is a professional, and cold calculating behavior might be expected, but the screenplay tries to establish their relationship as being long term and deep, and It is hard to pass something like that off as casually as Varrick seems to.  There is a character fault that also we should get out of the way early. Andy Robinson’s character of Harmon, their accomplice in the robbery, is pigheadedly stupid. He barely listens to the wisdom that Charley wants him to follow and he seems to be subtly threatening Charley, a man who has just masterminded a robbery that resulted in the death of three people. It’s as if he is inviting a chance to be double crossed. There is also a little emotional whipsaw going on as Harmon goes from sympathetic exposition devise to belligerent plot development. Robinson famously portrayed the killer in “Dirty Harry” and he mines some of the same facial expressions and desperation in this movie that he used there. In the scene where he is being interrogated by the mafia enforcer, he whines in the same pitiful voice as his Scorpio character in the previous film.

Like most 70s films, this story is not in a hurry. Character gets developed by scenes that have irrelevant details in them. Background characters add a little bit of spice or humor without being essential. There are side trips that seem to lead nowhere but tell us a lot about the characters we are watching. For instance, Joe Don Baker as the hitman/enforcer Molly, stops at a location owned by the mob as he is starting his investigation. It is a brothel, and basically nothing happens there except we see what kind of man he is. He is brusque with the help and specific in his wants.  A similar scene takes place when high ranking mob guy John Vernon attempts to meet with the Bank President who is a confederate of the criminal organization. He is delayed by the police and steps over to a nearby park to push a little girl on a swing. Nothing transpires but we get the sense that this criminal is a little different from others.

Since I just mentioned both of them, let’s take a little sidetrack of our own and talk about these great character actors. The late John Vernon was the duplicitous partner to Lee Marvin in “Point Blank”.He went over the edge of the balcony naked and crashed to the ground in that movie, in other words, in his debut film he was a smash. He appeared in a couple of Clint Eastwood films and the Don Siegel film that followed this one, “Black Windmill”. He typically played a sinister antagonist, often an official like a Mayor or his most famous role as Dean Wormer in “Animal House”. His voice was distinctive and his demeanor authoritative but rarely powerful. He sometime came across as the feckless power standing by while wiser or more bold characters acted.

 

Joe Don Baker is an actor I first encountered in the film “Junior Bonner”. I next remember him for an obscure “B” movie I saw while at school called “Golden Needles”. His big breakout however was in the movie “Walking Tall” an exploitation film that achieved huge financial success and spawned several sequels that he did not appear in. His Texas drawl and pseudo avuncular personality made him a disturbing threat in this film. He comes across as a professional but it is clear that he enjoys the sadism of his vocation. As an actor he has also appeared in three James Bond movies so that automatically puts him on a list of some of my favorites.

There are a bunch of other well known character actors in the film as well. Normal Fell and Sheree North are two performers you would bump into if you turned on the TV just about any time in the 1970s. She played wild card women and he was usually the dull cop not to far from the star of the show. Albert Popwell who is in the first four “Dirty Harry” films in some capacity, is in another side road scene in this film as the guy who’s car gets repossessed by Molly. Willian Schallert is another face that was everywhere on TV over the last fifty years. In this film he is the determined sheriff seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the death of two of his deputies.

Back to our story. The thing that makes this such an effective film is that it does not draw attention to itself or try to explain too much. Except for some exposition spoken by Andy Robinson, we have to figure out what is going on by paying attention to the film. Charley seems to be plotting an escape, but it turns out that there is a hidden agenda in his machinations that only becomes clear as the story unfolds slowly in front of us. The tag like on the poster is that “When he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back on!”  We just don’t see that genius until the plot threads start coming together and what seemed a bone-head move earlier suddenly is revealed as part of a large plan that we were not privy to.

After the bank robbery, the closest the film comes to an action scene is the climax where Varrick’s deceptive plan is revealed and we get a car chase, plane crash and some explosions. More than the fireworks however, the best thing to watch is the way little pieces of the plot play out. Varrick knows better than to trust any of the mobsters, and he has to find a way to get away clean. It’s great that he gets to use some old skills in the process. The way most of the tidbits we have been wondering about play out is very satisfying.

This is a film that I saw in theaters as a kid and probably did not appreciate as much as I do now. It was however a film I liked well enough to obtain on my favorite forgotten format.

I clearly stole this image of the two film laser disc collection. Universal had a number of secondary materials they released as double features to justify the cost of your investment. As DVDs came to the market place and the Laserdisc stopped production, I transferred a number of my discs to the DVD format and created my own packaging for the cover and the disc. This is the format I used to view the film for this post.

“Charley Varrick” is a great 70s thriller, high on style and character but low on action. If you like these kinds of movies, and why would you be reading this if you did not?, let me recommend that you either discover or re-discover the genius of Charley Varrick.

MV5BNDk2MTY5OTYtZDczZS00ODkzLTlhNTMtMDQ0ZGI5OTBkNzVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjI4MjA5MzA@._V1_

Islands in the Stream

I’m starting a new series that I hope to come back to on a regular basis. When I have a few of these entries I will put up a page with links to each one so they will be easy to catalog. There are several blog sites that do a very similar theme, forgotten films. I have participated on a few podcasts with one of my on-line friends talking about movies that fall into this category, and perhaps inspired by that, or simply my love for seventies nostalgia, I thought I would start off with this movie.

Islands in the Stream

This has nothing to do with the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton hit written by the Bee Gees, although some of the romantic themes in the song could apply to the events in the story if you look had enough. It is based on a posthumously published work by Ernest Hemingway and features a character clearly based on Hemingway himself. Supposedly it was turned down by Steve McQueen but I can’t imagine a more perfect choice for the part than George C. Scott.

The film is set in the Bahamas at the start of WWII. Most of the Caribbean Islands were still British possessions and as such were targets of German U-boat harassment. For the most part, the was is a distant irritation, on the Island here, the main war is an emotional one being fought by an iconoclastic artist and the various people in his life.  Thomas Hudson is a renown artist who has given up painting for industrial sculpture. He has retreated from the social scene he occupied at one point to live and work in relative isolation.

Scott as Hudson appears to be something of a misanthrope, in fact as he awaits the arrival of his sons for a summer visit, he actually won’t even go to the plane to fetch them, even though it has been four years since he has seen them. The oldest boy is named after him, Tommy and he is played by future Die Hard White Night Hart Bochner.

Tommy and the youngest boy, Andrew are happy to see their father although they remember him as a stern and cranky man. The middle boy David is the one who has reservations and antagonism toward his father. He and Andrew are the children of Hudson’s second wife, the vest friend of his first wife that he still carries a torch for. David begins his visit with his father in a surly mood and at one point flails out during what was internally a fraternal pillow fight but turns into a moment of physical catharsis.  Instead of the stern patriarch, Hudson appears to be a patient man who recognizes that his own failings as a father are haunting his middle boy.

Reconciliation occurs through a test of physical stamina and mental will when  David hooks a large game fish on one of their boating expeditions. In what seems like a very macho Hemingway moment, the fish and the boy tussle for the father’s respect. Scott conveys real emotional sympathy for the boy but understands his need to prove himself. The surprising resolution to the moment is the emotional hear of the movie.

There is an earlier scene where the chaos of the wold intrudes on the idyllic summer of the family. A British freighter is sunk off the shores of the island and debris as well as one human victim wash ashore on the beach near the artist’s house. Hudson manages to keep the boys back away from the dead man but there is some powerful foreshadowing taking place here as he contemplates the fate of his children in a world at war.

There are some locals that make up the crew that surrounds Thomas Hudson in his self imposed exile. David Hemmings plays Eddy, Tom’s close friend and rum soaked partner in the fishing boat charter they apparently own. Eddy becomes a friend to the boys and the voice of gin stoked wisdom at times. His performance is a standout in the film as he conveys a pathetic but confoundingly tragic figure at the same time. Also on hand is Julius Harris as Joseph the Captain of the boat. Harris was an actor I discussed recently on a James Bond Podcast I hosted. His familiar face was a welcome addition and he plays a friendly supporting part rather than the bad guy in this one.

After the interlude with the boys, there is a third act in the film featuring a reunification, at least briefly of Hudson with his first wife. This sets up the final segment where Hudson makes a commitment that he might have resisted before the summer with the kids and the moments with his true love. This is where the adventure element of the movie kicks in. The film does feel like a series of chapters in a book and it is organized that way for us as well. This may explain the reason that the film feels so satisfying to me, because like a lot of seventies movies, it is a thing unto itself. If you read the copy on the poster at the start of this post, you may laugh at the blatant attempt to market the film as something special. It feels old fashioned, even in 1977 when the film was released. However, it worked on me. This slow film about a man coping with a world he made and one that he has avoided, hooked me with it’s cinematography, sentimentality and a score by Jerry Goldsmith that is absolutely beautiful.