Basil Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes to a generation who saw his 14-film series, originally released between 1939 and 1946. To a later generation who watched the 1984-1994 Granada television series of canonical adaptations, Jeremy Brett remains Sherlock Holmes.
I was not among either generation, so I come to The Master Blackmailer, one of five movie-length installments of the Granada series, with no particular predispositions. Still, it’s difficult not to focus on the levels and swerves in Brett’s interpretation of the great detective — even in this complicated, wonderfully shot adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
For those who think of Holmes as the “calculating-machine” Watson describes in The Sign of Four, Brett’s unexpected, flamboyant hand gestures and even trilled r’s can seem overdone and stagey. If such a thing can be, the actor was cursed with a magnificently deep voice, one ideal for the stage but a bit distracting on the screen. And what’s the deal with Holmes treating Mrs. Hudson with such eruptions of disdain?
But when these flourishes are absent, which is most of the time, Brett brings a depth and humanity to the great detective that few actors manage. One reaction shot in particular exemplifies this (and I’m not the only critic to have interpreted it as I do here). It’s when Watson is hypothesizing how the villain could have become the, ahem, high-functioning sociopath that he seems to be. Brett’s facial response to the doctor’s description of a dysfunctional childhood implies that Holmes is uncomfortably recognizing himself. Such moments reveal why some consider Brett’s performances as the great detective to be definitive, though I’m personally reluctant to be so final about such things.
Edward Hardwicke assumes the role of Watson, and the relaxed, almost ambivalent attitude he brings to it nicely counterbalances Brett’s slightly erratic, certainly edgy Holmes. It’s a fine actor who knows how to underplay in order to keep focus on the star, in this case, the tall chap with the cool chemistry set.
While we don’t get much information about the two men’s friendship here, Watson is presented as a capable, smart fellow. This Watson neither bumbles about nor remains in the shadows, the most we can hope for regarding the dear doctor at times.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
To stretch a short story to the length of a movie, screenwriter Jeremy Paul gives us more examples of the title character’s criminal manipulating than Doyle does. The various blackmailing schemes are cleverly interwoven, but perhaps too tightly so. The relations of one character to the next is hard to keep straight, and I wonder if showcasing victims who were unrelated to one another might have made the point more clearly.
Nonetheless, if any of the canon’s short stories deserve the full-movie treatment, “Charles Augustus Milverton” is a top candidate. On the page, Milverton is described by Holmes as “the worst man in London,” serpent-like, repulsive — and Watson tells us that it was rare to hear Holmes “speak with such intensity of feeling.” That Milverton compares to Moriarty is nicely suggested in the film by having an etching of what could well be Reichenbach Falls prominently placed in 221B. Robert Hardy, who looks quite a bit like Sidney Paget’s illustrations of Milverton, has a delightfully twisted time with the role.
More importantly, this is a case that forces Holmes away from his usual heady methodology and moral certainty. He has to step outside the law to resolve the case, and that’s well worth exploring in something meatier than a short story.
And then there’s the matter of Holmes becoming engaged to be married — all for inside information and a way into Milverton’s estate. Doyle breezes by this fairly quickly, but the movie allows for more commentary on the ramifications of the ruse, both for the unfortunate bride-not-to-be as well as for the intimacy-challenged Holmes.
In the end, The Master Blackmailer is lovely to look at, especially its sets, but it can be tough to follow. The film does well at elaborating upon a canonical Holmes case that is especially interesting and unusual. (Of course, it would’ve been more unusual if Doyle hadn’t blatantly repeated himself later with “The Illustrious Client”). While I confess that I’m not yet one of the many devotees who sees Jeremy Brett as the consummate Holmes, I’m beginning to understand the appeal.