Arthur Conan DoyleSherlock HolmesJohn Longden
Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Disappeared
Medium: TV
Year: 1951
Director: Richard M. Grey
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: UK
Series: The Man with the Twisted Lip >>
Actor: John Longden, Campbell Singer, Hector Ross, Ninka Dolega, Beryl Baxter, Walter Gotell
Format: 26 minutes
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 29 July 2010
It's a pilot for a TV series that never happened. It's also a loose adaptation of The Man with the Twisted Lip, albeit a misguided one. Overall it's a fun little curiosity that's worth 26 minutes of your time, but I can't see anyone being disappointed that they never made any more episodes.
The story's a mess. What's weird is that they've taken one of the most distinctive of Conan Doyle's stories, then underplayed or deleted everything that's memorable about it. The original has a great central idea, not to mention an unconventional plot structure in which Watson's called out by a friend of his wife's and only gets involved in Holmes's completely unrelated investigation when he bumps into him in disguise at an opium den. After that we have to be brought up to speed with a big flashback, told to us by Holmes. Anyway, that's the short story. This TV version is structured more traditionally. After a brief scene in which a mysterious woman has a hold over Neville St Clair and calls him away from a party, we go straight to St Clair's wife telling all to Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. The story then proceeds in a linear fashion.
So they've straightened out all the twists. That's even true of the big revelation of where Neville St Clair had been all this time, which is the whole point of the short story and yet an incidental detail in this TV adaptation. Instead there's some confusing stuff about St Clair having been blackmailed by Doreen and Luzatto for the murder of Doreen's husband, but in the end Luzatto is arrested for it instead. "Who are these people?" I hear you ask. Buggered if I know. We're told nothing about the dead man, the circumstances of his death or what evidence there is to point at anyone at all being guilty of it. I hadn't a clue what was going on when Doreen's husband suddenly popped up in dialogue. I was wondering if we were being told that St Clair was a bigamist, or else if she was married to Luzatto. Oh, and St Clair was being blackmailed into selling drugs instead of doing all this as his chosen line of business, despite the fact that all these drugs (opium, cocaine, etc.) were legal in Victorian times. I'd forgive this if they'd set their story in 1951 instead of doing the usual 1880s period piece, but of course it's all horse-drawn carriages.
In other words, the script's messy and unclear. They've got rid of everything that's cool about the original story, yet the plot they've chosen has more business and incident than a 50-minute Jeremy Brett episode. To be fair though, it's quite fun. They've upped the action quotient. Holmes is in on all the good stuff, so for instance he's the person who sees St Clair at the window and getting up to the room to try to catch him involves speaking Chinese and having two fights. There's also some fun villainy from Luzatto, although one of the cool things about the original story was that all of its villainous characters were innocent.
The acting isn't great. John Longden is okay as Holmes, but he'd have been a better Moriarty. He looks a bit old and he never strikes you as having a lightning mind, although he's obviously not stupid. No one else is worth noticing, with a couple of performers even being wooden. I also couldn't understand what on Earth Hector Ross's beggar was saying, although maybe I wasn't meant to.
It looks terrific for 1951 TV, mind you. It was shot on film, with location shooting that includes a cemetery chase and a scene near what I think is Tower Bridge. I'm probably wrong and that's a completely different bridge over the Thames, but I know I recognised it from somewhere.
In summary, this is a busy adaptation in terms of action-adventure quotient and how much they're giving Holmes to do, but it's not really trying to appeal to the intellect. I don't believe that this Holmes and Watson would be good in a fight, mind you. Come on, grandad. Sit down over here and leave it to the youngsters, okay? There's also some odd business with the wife, e.g. the psychic scene and the ending in which Holmes and St Clair agree to tell her nothing. Mind you, I wasn't wild about the 1986 Jeremy Brett version of this story either. Maybe I should check out the 1921 silent film adaptation with Eille Norwood?