Thorley WaltersGene WilderDouglas WilmerRoy Kinnear
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother
Medium: film
Year: 1975
Director: Gene Wilder
Writer: Gene Wilder
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, comedy, detective
Country: USA, UK
Actor: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise, Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear, John Le Mesurier, Douglas Wilmer, Thorley Walters, George Silver, Nicholas Smith, John Hollis, Aubrey Morris, Tommy Godfrey, Susan Field, Joseph Behrmannis, Wolfe Morris, Julian Orchard, Kenneth Benda, Michael Crane, Tony Sympson
Format: 91 minutes
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 27 July 2009
What a strange film! I presume Gene Wilder is a fan of Monty Python, but that's not enough to explain this film's sense of humour. This film made me laugh quite a lot, but it also had long stretches where I was staring slack-jawed at the screen in bewilderment. Apparently this film was unavailable for many years until its 2006 DVD release and I can't say I'm surprised. It has its charms, but it's far less successful than Wilder's films with Mel Brooks.
Despite his co-writing credit on Young Frankenstein, I think we can say that Gene Wilder isn't primarily a writer. This thing lurches around in all kinds of odd ways, often being merely silly for whole minutes at a time. That's an eternity in a movie. Wilder, Feldman and Kahn spontaneously break into a song-and-dance number in Wilder's apartment. It's quite a good song ("The Kangaroo Hop") but it had me pushing my eyeballs back in their sockets. I did eventually laugh at the scene in which Leo McKern and Dom DeLuise start biting each other, but I felt as if I was doing so because I'd been battered into submission by their idiocy. This is the kind of film that leaves 95% of its viewing audience nonplussed, but anyone lucky enough to see it as a child will adore it for life as the Best Movie Ever. I suspect it improves on repeat viewings, since you'll be prepared for the shock and better equipped to appreciate what Wilder's about to throw at you.
It's frustrating though, because Wilder's assembled a dream cast, but one goes away thinking they were underused, even the ones who got quite a lot of screen time. Wilder and Madeline Kahn are the exceptions to that and come across well, even if Kahn's playing this extraordinary creature that leaves the audience rather off-balance. Is she a pathological liar? Is she playing some kind of mind game with Wilder? Is she a nymphomaniac? Wilder eventually sorts it all out by psychoanalysing her to her face, but I'm not sure if I'd have worked it out if he hadn't helped me.
However apart from them, the cast also contains Leo McKern, Roy Kinnear, John Le Mesurier, Marty Feldman (in a race with Peter Lorre for the title of Biggest Eyeballs in Cinema), Dom DeLuise (who's also in Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs) and more. McKern and Feldman deserved better, especially since they get so much screen time and yet not much good material. I adore both of them, but they're a little underwhelming here. Roy Kinnear is always fun, but as Moriarty's sidekick he doesn't get much to play with either. However Le Mesurier escapes intact by playing himself again. As an aside, both Kinnear and Le Mesurier also appeared in adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles, although Kinnear's one is the 1978 comedy by Peter Cook & Dudley Moore.
Sherlock and Watson are the most interesting, though, because they're being played straight. Both actors had played those roles before, too. Douglas Wilmer had been the BBC's Sherlock in 1964-65 before ceding to Peter Cushing. Hammer stalwart Thorley Walters played Watson opposite Christopher Lee's Holmes in a supposedly forgettable 1962 German adaptation of The Valley of Fear, in which the producers redubbed everyone with different actors. I was rather impressed with what I saw here of Wilmer, while Walters is an adorable choice for his sidekick, even if he's firmly in the Nigel Bruce tradition.
This brings me to one of my chief complaints with the film. I hate its title. No, really. I avoided watching this for ages simply because I had almost no interest in a comedy called The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. Were they going to make Sherlock look stupid, then? Nevertheless despite these expectations, the film treats Sherlock himself with reverence while in contrast making McKern's Moriarty and Wilder's Sigerson look dim. It's surely deliberate that they both get scenes in which they're less intelligent than their sidekicks, while what's going on during Madeline Kahn's musical hall number makes it clear that despite expectations, Sherlock really is smarter than Sigerson after all. The film begins like a straight Sherlock Holmes adventure, with Sherlock and Watson embarking on a case at 221B Baker Street, but Sherlock soon dumps everything on Sigerson and disappears, thereafter only showing up occasionally in silhouette or disguise as he keeps a brotherly eye on things. You'll know him by his pipe.
I've even learned some Sherlockiana. I knew that Sigerson (Gene Wilder) was Conan Doyle's first draft's name for Holmes, but I hadn't known that Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) was the similar equivalent of Watson. Good change there, Sir Arthur.
The only bit I disliked was Queen Victoria saying "shit". The actress's delivery of the line doesn't work and it's the punchline of the pre-credits sequence. However apart from that, I didn't object to what I was watching. The script isn't particularly trying to make sense and the plot's pretty much dead on its feet by the time we reach the final Sigerson-Moriarty confrontation, but you've got to admire the surrealism of the opera costume room scene. It's like a lost episode of The Prisoner starring Leo McKern's Number Two. However I find it hard to credit DeLuise not recognising Gene Wilder in a domino mask, despite having just tried to murder him.
This isn't a stupid film. It's merely one with some strange ideas about comedy and little interest in the usual movie-making ingredients. It is often funny. You can't go wrong with this cast, while it's got some memorable laughs in scenes like the one with Wilder and Feldman's bare bottoms. I couldn't possibly give this a general recommendation, but it's definitely got curiosity value. However if you can overlook a couple of swear words, you should give it a shot if you've got young kids.