Home Video Hovel: Sherlock Holmes, by David Bax
Long assumed to be lost until being discovered in a vault only two years ago, the now 100 year old silent film Sherlock Holmes has been restored and is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Flicker Alley. With that backstory in mind, along with the film’s status as an early representation of one of popular culture’s most enduring characters, the disc’s chief purpose is that of an historical document. And for those so inclined, it’s one well worth owning.
In this particular story, Sherlock Holmes undertakes the task of procuring and safeguarding some incriminating letters from the sister of the prince’s lover. The woman in question, though, has been kidnapped by a trio of crooks who, once stymied by Holmes, enlist the assistance of Professor Moriarty. The film is an adaptation of a successful stage play and, like many films of the period, it feels like one, unfolding largely in a single room per scene, each time presented chiefly in one proscenium-style shot.
In recent years, it seems, more and more attention has been paid to the tints and tones that made silent films like Sherlock Holmes not quite as black and white as we tend to assume. This Blu-ray preserves that part of the experience with warmer hues for interiors with artificial light and colder ones for the exteriors, which tend to take place at night. It’s not a particularly elaborate color scheme but it adds dynamism and shows care and forethought. Meanwhile, other visually interested choices like double exposures or the rare instance of text imposed over actual images instead of just on black inter-titles keep things as lively as they can.
Unfortunately, those tricks only go so far. Sherlock Holmes was produced as a serial and would benefit from being viewed that way. Taken in at its full length of nearly two hours, the film begins to plod as time goes on. And, despite William Gillette’s assured performance in the lead role, this Holmes is not nearly as clever as we’ve come to expect. Or, more accurately, his adversaries (Moriarty included) are not so formidable as to truly test his intellect. Aside from a neat trick with a sort of floating cigar in the darkness, most of Holmes’ ploys wouldn’t work on any of us. Far more fascinating are the touches of then-commonplace society life that seem foreign to us now. When Holmes produces a calling card from his pocket and hands it to the butler so that he might be announced, it’s less an historical affectation than it would be in a movie of today. It’s recent enough to to familiar to the performers and their unpracticed nonchalance about such a practice comes across on screen. Sherlock Holmes may be middling as cinema or drama but, as mentioned before, its status as a piece of history is vital.
For a film that spent almost a century lost, the negative discovered in France was clearly well-preserved. With a restoration carried out by multiple teams (with a thanks to, among others, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, producers of one of the title character’s current iterations), the film looks astounding.
The plentiful special features include the French language version of the film, a featurette on the restoration, a film from 1900 called Sherlock Holmes Baffled that is the earliest known cinematic representation of the character, a 1912 film called A Canine Sherlock (exactly what it sounds like), an Italian Holmes film from 1913, footage of both Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle, and more.