Friday, September 24, 2010

Wilmer's SPEC, ILLU, and DEVI

So these three episodes are the first side of a double-sided DVD. (The set is two discs, and 11 episodes total.) I'm still disappointed that the BBC didn't have a clearer source tape for SPEC, but at least all the rest of the episodes looked much better. I wish they had filmed it in color too, but they didn't make that change until the next year when Peter Cushing replaced Douglas Wilmer.

One pleasant surprise in this 1964 series is that we see a few actors who later went on to do Doctor Who. There's Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor, and Roger Delgado, the first Master. Additionally, Jennie Linden, who plays Violet de Merville, was the Doctor's companion Barbara in the film starring Peter Cushing. It's cool to see how much overlap there is of British TV actors.

I've already written about this SPEC adaptation on the Slasher's Annotated page, so I won't repeat too much here. I did enjoy the fact that they followed the story accurately by showing that Holmes did indeed suspect the gypsies at first. It's a red herring of course, but I don't like adaptations which attribute the idea only to Watson in order to make Holmes look smarter and infallible. We don't need to artificially inflate Holmes's ego.

I really enjoyed how much they fleshed out the scenes at Stoke Moran, though they oddly rearranged the bedrooms so that Dr. Roylott's is in the center instead of Julia's. One wonders then why he didn't install a ventilator to Helen's room at the same time as he installed the one to Julia's, so that he'd not have to move Helen later. Maybe he's just too cheap to go to that expense. Also the cheetah keeps roaming indoors rather than outside with the baboon. For a moment I thought that Annie the housekeeper was Roylott's accomplice, the way she laughed sinisterly at "see your sister," but then she didn't give any helpful information when Roylott questioned her later.

The Roylott actor is good at being threatening one moment, and insincerely nice to Percy Armitage the next. That's all part of Roylott's cunning devilishness. I liked the Helen Stoner actress as well, and how she conveyed her fear of Roylott coming home in the middle of the investigation. There's a couple of nice moments when Watson gets to be assertive, trying to convince Holmes to let Helen go to her aunt's house and protesting Holmes's assertion that doctors make excellent criminals.

They spoiled the overnight vigil slightly because Holmes never put out the lamp to leave the room in darkness. I know that the cameras needed some light to film, but they could at least have lowered the lights as much as when we saw Helen or Julia sleeping before. That would have set the mood properly and created more suspense when Holmes did light the match and start striking at the bell pull. I wonder what kind of snake they used in this episode. The writers didn't attempt to contradict the milk-drinking, safe-inhabiting snake of the story.

The final scene is in Baker Street. They receive a wedding invitation from Helen, but Holmes refuses to go. "You know my thoughts on matrimony." They then discuss the case, including Holmes's error about the gypsies. Watson didn't like that the truth was hushed up, but Holmes insists that it was kinder to Miss Stoner to avoid scandal. Holmes also admits fully that he's responsible for killing Roylott, but it doesn't weigh on his mind at all.

The BBC series used different directors in their various episodes, and it's especially noticeable in ILLU, which features many close ups on faces during dramatic moments. Other episodes have some close ups, but not so tightly cropped or so frequent. This episode feels rather more like a movie because of that, and it emphasizes the psychological elements.

Anyway, we start off in the Turkish bath, but even though the other men in the room are mostly topless, both Holmes and Watson are completely covered up by their towels. We only get slight glimpses of their chests as they get up and leave for Baker Street. Not that I was expecting more nudity than in the Sidney Paget drawing, but if there's other half naked men in the room, you'd think that Holmes and Watson would be sweltering in their wrappings!

Watson appears to be living with Holmes in Baker Street, since there's no mention of a wife or rooms in Queen Anne Street. Watson has a tendency to speak about his Afghanistan experiences, too, in this episode and others in the series. He's amusingly shocked about Holmes associating with criminals like Shinwell Johnson, though he goes along with it. We are treated to three different music hall songs because both Shinwell Johnson and Kitty Winter haunt the place. The singer is very good.

In the scenes between Baron Gruner and Violet de Merville, we see that Gruner is the original guy using the tactic of insulting and mistreating a beautiful woman until she becomes desperate and hungry for your approval. It seems quite effective; her neediness and insecurity contrasts sharply with her "iron will" in other circumstances. The Gruner actor displays confident charm alternating with cruelty and malice. He's a deliciously complex villain.

I liked the strength shown by Kitty Winter, and how when Holmes asks her to wait in his bedroom, she jokes that he's not worried about his reputation. Just like in the story, no explanation is given for why Holmes's doctor is Sir Leslie Oakshott instead of Watson. Perhaps they decided that Watson should not be his doctor anymore so that they could avoid medical arguments and just be friends. After Holmes is beaten up, Watson of course offers to thrash Gruner, but Holmes dissuades him. Then Watson does his best to study up on Chinese pottery, and bluffs his way through his act as Dr. Hill Barton. When Gruner catches Holmes stealing the book, Kitty Winter throws the vitriol and then just stands there enjoying it while Gruner screams and writhes on the ground. It's a while before she finally leaves, while Watson is attempting to treat him.

We end in Baker Street with Holmes giving the lust diary and the china to Sir James Damery. He leaves, and Watson rushes in to say that he saw the coat of arms. Holmes already knows, though, and Watson reports on Kitty Winter being sentenced to a month in prison. Holmes narrowly missed being charged with burglary, but the illustrious client presumably intervened.

Now we come to DEVI. Patrick Troughton plays Mortimer Tregennis, making him the villain, and he wears heavy side-whiskers. (Roger Delgado shall play a good guy in the last episode, LADY, as a hotel manager in Switzerland.) The first scene is the housekeeper discovering the Tregennis siblings on the morning after they had dinner and played cards with their other brother Mortimer. Brenda died and while two of her brothers went insane.

Then we see Holmes and Watson sitting outside their cottage on the Cornish coast; Holmes is talking about the dangerous cliffs, possibly reminiscing about Reichenbach Falls, and Watson admonishes him for his bleak mood. He's supposed to be here getting rest after a near-breakdown. Again we are given no explanation for why Holmes's doctor is now Dr. Moore Agar instead of Watson. Holmes just launches on his theory about ancient languages, and they go inside.

The vicar comes in to report the terrible occurrence, but you wonder why he thinks Holmes is perfect to investigate it? He clearly thinks the explanation is supernatural; but maybe he's just frazzled and not thinking at all. Then Mortimer Tregennis arrives to offer his own story. Holmes and Watson go investigate the body and the house while Mortimer claims that he saw a movement in the bushes outside last night. Holmes trips him to get a look at his footprint. When Holmes and Watson return to their cottage, Leon Sterndale is waiting for them. He questions them belligerently and even tells Watson to shut up. Holmes is quite offended and tells the guy to leave, so Sterndale has to apologize humbly. Holmes follows him when he goes, though the line relating to this is spoiled later. (When Sterndale says "I saw no one," Holmes is supposed to say, "That is what you can expect to see when I follow you." Instead we get something much weaker.) Holmes also has Watson investigate the telegram that the vicar sent to Sterndale, making him cancel his trip.

Of course, Mortimer dies the next morning, and Holmes collects the ashes from the lamp. So then Holmes talks Watson into the stupid experiment with the drug, though he makes sure to seat Watson far away from the lamp, and near the window. Holmes's face as he hallucinates is weird and creepy, and Watson gets them both outside to the lawn. Holmes doubles back and then tosses the lamp with the radix pedix diaboli off the cliff. Holmes apologizes for the experiment, and they share a moment. It's not anything overt; they don't use first names or anything, but Nigel Stock does a great portrayal of Watson's loyalty and willingness to serve Holmes, whatever the risk. They return inside the cottage to discuss their suspects.

They finally confront Sterndale, who explains how he loved Brenda but couldn't marry her. (ACD used a few of his later Holmes stories to rail against the divorce laws in England; this one, HOUN, ABBE, etc.) We see a flashback to when Sterndale showed Mortimer Tregennis the ordeal poison, both the root and the powder. Then another flashback to how Sterndale confronted Mortimer about the murder and killed him too. Holmes and Watson let him go of course, but I still wonder whether Sterndale couldn't have just told the police his story (before killing Mortimer) and given them a sample of the powder as proof. But that's the way ACD wrote it. Holmes of course gives his "I have never loved speech" later but it seems not to have as much weight as the earlier scene with Watson.

Well, that's all for this first group of episodes. They're pretty damn faithful to the stories, even if they insist on keeping Holmes in his deerstalker and Inverness coat most of the time.

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