Jenny LairdJohn MillsAnton DiffringAnne Baxter
The Masks of Death
Medium: TV
Date: 1984
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Anthony Hinds, Arthur Conan Doyle, N.J. Crisp
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: UK
Actor: Peter Cushing, John Mills, Anne Baxter, Ray Milland, Anton Diffring, Gordon Jackson, Susan Penhaligon, Marcus Gilbert, Jenny Laird, Russell Hunter, James Cossins, Eric Dodson, Georgina Coombs, James Head, Dominic Murphy
Format: 72 minutes
Series: << Sherlock Holmes - Peter Cushing
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 17 January 2011
It's Peter Cushing's last Sherlock Holmes! 25 years earlier he'd played the role for Hammer, then later he did it again for a BBC TV series. This was just a one-off TV movie, but on top of that it was also his last leading role before retiring from acting. He did Biggles a couple of years later, but otherwise this is the end of the great man's career.
And you know what? He looks exactly as he always did. He's like a skull on a stick, with those cheekbones. Age doesn't seem to have slowed him down and even his characterisation of Holmes is pretty much as it was before. Cushing's Holmes is capable of flashes of warmth, but is basically unsympathetic to other human beings to an almost autistic degree and could not unreasonably be described as a callous bastard. He's just one who's on the side of the angels. He has a couple of charming moments with John Mills's Watson, though.
The actors are the reason to watch this. No one's blazing from the screen as the best thing you've ever seen, but it's nice to watch all these old warhorses. You see, this is an Old Sherlock story. He's retired. He's been dragged away from his bee-keeping in Sussex. We begin with a pointless framing story as a reporter interviews Holmes and Watson in 1926, then the story proper is set on the eve of World War One in 1913. You've thus got a cast full of veteran actors, a surprising number of whom are either playing their final or penultimate screen roles. That's true not only of Cushing, but also of Ray Milland (the Home Secretary) and Anne Baxter (Irene Adler). Considering the other actors, Anton Diffring is Anton Diffring. John Mills isn't making a big deal out of being Dr Watson, but he finds some lovely moments. Baxter disappointed me a little as Irene Adler, but I don't think I've yet seen an actress do the role justice and in any case Adler's not particularly important to the plot here. They just threw her in out of fannishness, I think.
Hmmm. Maybe that's not true. She's the one woman who ever beat Sherlock Holmes, which gives a reflective, backward-looking tinge to the film. It feels appropriate and adds depth for these ageing characters to be reminded of their younger days.
As for the storyline, it's okay. It's a TV episode. It's not the undying homage to Cushing's Holmes that I'd have liked it to be, but it's a perfectly acceptable runaround with red herrings and a capable villain. Imagine it as this week's instalment in a series and you'll be in the right frame of mind. In fact I'm sure I read somewhere that they'd wanted to make more of these, but Cushing declined.
What it is though is spoddish. There's a line beyond which respect for continuity becomes mere fanwank and this film is wobbling towards it. They mention Holmes's bee-keeping in Sussex and Watson's old war wound from Afghanistan. Irene Adler shows up. The dialogue contains quotes, e.g. "when you have eliminated the improbable..." etc. I won't pretend that all this annoyed me or anything, but I did think it drew attention to itself.
Don't break your back looking for this one. It's not substantial enough to justify built-up expectations. However it is a pleasant way to pass an hour or so, with old friends and a few cool bits here and there. Cushing's first meeting with Diffring is a laugh, as is his reaction to Watson killing a large young man who'd been sent to murder Holmes. "I would have preferred the opportunity to question the fellow, doctor." There's also a moment of unintentional comedy when Holmes repeats what John Mills's narration had just told us, giving us the very definition of a redundant voice-over. Overall, I enjoyed this. Of course I was always likely to do so, given that I'd crawl over broken glass to watch Peter Cushing, but that doesn't mean he hasn't starred in some shockers. I'd recommend sticking it at the end of Cushing's BBC TV episodes, perhaps, rather than treating it as a feature film in its own right. That's its level, I think.
If nothing else, it's a Hammer reunion for the director, writer and lead actor. That's appropriate too.
"You are my only friend, Watson."