It took four seasons of Sherlock, the BBC’s re-imagining of the world’s greatest detective for the modern digital world, for creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to turn their “high-functioning sociopath” into a human being, not just a great man but a good one. But in the process they turned Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-ordered world of logic and deduction into a surreal universe of comic book supervillains and absurdly complex schemes in the realm of scriptwriter fantasy. As much fun as it is to watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the flamboyant misanthrope as a performance artist who holds his audience in contempt, this Holmes became a cartoon of Doyle’s consulting detective, only fitfully grounded by Martin Freeman’s warm, witty, and highly observant Dr. John Watson.
It’s wasn’t the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won’t be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle’s motto: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”
After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.
Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.
We never stop recovering our film history. Lost movies are being found and older films on the verge of self-destruction are getting preserved and in many cases painstakingly restored, thanks to the digital tools that give filmmakers, producers, studios, and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods.
The preservation of our film legacy is essential, but it’s just an ideal until the preserved films become available for viewers at large to watch, not just limited to brief festival appearances. Film history needs to be living history, and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads, and (ironically) the shift from celluloid to digital projection, classic films are more available than ever.
This list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks, restorations of great films, and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers in 2015 in theaters, on home video, or via streaming services. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers across the country now have a chance to see regardless of where they live.
1 – Out 1
Set in “Paris and its double,” Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague epic (a staggering 12 ½ hours long!) is a film of doubles and reflections: two rival theater groups each rehearsing a different play by Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound” and “The Seven Against Thebes”), two theater group leaders who were once lovers, two street hustlers (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) who stumble into the conspiracy of “The Thirteen,” which turns out to be both a fictional creation by Balzac and a contemporary cabal that includes some of the characters in the film. Rivette, who collaborated with the cast to fill out his outline of a script, musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that his more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. Meanwhile their lives go on, even if their projects are sidelined, shut down, or simply left to evaporate as they move on to their next project.
Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.
We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).
Has any fictional character seen more cinematic service than Sherlock Holmes? Created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the master sleuth of 221B Baker Street found his way to the screen as early as 1903, and became the subject of a series as early as 1908. He’s been featured in respectfully faithful adaptations and thrust into fanciful adventures Conan Doyle never dreamed of. He’s stalked the alleys, lanes, and moors of his Victorian-Edwardian provenance, and been unceremoniously drafted to fight Nazi spies in the 1940s. Most movies have allowed him to remain his old misogynistic self; some have involved him in all manner of romantic liaisons ranging from the insipid to the sublime.
Conan Doyle purists (the Baker Street Regulars, they call themselves) reflexively denounce any deviation from the letter of the lore. For others, the Holmesian film legacy is more problematical to sort through. And the best Holmesiana is not always to be found in the best films. Indeed, though pleasures abound, only one Holmes film of our acquaintance can be said to be absolutely first-rate. (We reveal which in good time.)
The great man’s profile is about to be raised this Christmastime with the release of a new adventure entitled, rather presumptuously, SherlockHolmes; this Guy Ritchie extravaganza proffers Robert Downey Jr. as a chopsocky version of the detective, with Jude Law as a sardonic Watson and Rachel McAdams as “the woman,” Irene Adler. Better yet, there’s a gratifyingly comprehensive three-day slate of Holmes pictures scheduled for Turner Classic Movies on Dec. 25-27, including all fourteen of the movies that made Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce the preeminent Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, to generations of viewers. They’ve also got the 1922 John Barrymore portrayal of Holmes we’ve never had a chance to see. Stout fellows, TCM.
For now, here are ten (more or less) notable additions to Sherlock’s silver-screen dossier. Yes, we know many of you revere Jeremy Brett for his several seasons as Holmes on public television, but we’ve limited the field to feature films. There’s also an eleventh entry, a ringer that we submit as the most appalling misappropriation ever of the Conan Doyle mystique. Oh, yes: the game’s afoot!
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce—the most beloved, though not necessarily the definitive, interpreters of Holmes and Watson—first played the roles in a 1939 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It doesn’t take a Sherlock to deduce that 20th Century–Fox wasn’t thinking franchise; Rathbone didn’t even get top billing, which went to studio contract player Richard Greene as the endangered Henry Baskerville. The direction was undistinguished, but the Fox crafts departments were great at doing period and the movie has atmosphere in spades. Rathbone was never out of work in the Thirties, more often than not as a villain (A Tale of Two Cities, Murdstone in DavidCopperfield, rapier bait for Errol Flynn in CaptainBlood and TheAdventuresofRobinHood). His crisp Brit delivery and aquiline features (a grande dame of the theater once referred to him as “that young man with two profiles pasted together for a face”) were ideally suited to portraying Conan Doyle’s fiercely focused sleuth. As for Watson, Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, mumbling, fuddy-duddy stylings irked Baker Street aficionados but made an effective contrast to Rathbone and endeared him to audiences. Fox recognized it had enough of a good thing to re-team the pair in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (also ’39)—even more atmospheric, with Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to boot. Still, a franchise had to wait till Universal picked up Rathbone and Bruce three years later. Meanwhile, prospective viewers of Hound should be warned that the film ends rather abruptly, giving short shrift to the Grimpen Mire climax. And for decades it ended more abruptly yet, because the reissue cut censored Holmes’s curtain line: “Quick, Watson—the needle!”
John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes was not the first screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the most well-known fictional character in English literature, and certainly not the definitive. This production, directed by Albert Parker as a mix of dime novel adventure and pulp crime thriller, is ostensibly based on Doyle’s stories but more directly on the play by William Gillette, a stage actor who made a career playing Holmes. It offers an origin story to the detective and his battle with criminal mastermind Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) that begins at college, where Holmes’ friend and fellow student Watson (Roland Young) introduces him to a mystery that leads Holmes into the criminal empire of Moriarty. Jump ahead a few years and Holmes is now the brilliant (and publicly modest) detective of 221 Baker Street, dedicated to dismantling Moriarty’s underworld web and still carrying a torch for a beautiful young woman (Carol Dempster) he met once in his college days.
That young woman is Alice Faulkner and her plight — she’s held prisoner by Moriarty, who is after letters in her possession that he can use to blackmail a Crown Prince — brings Holmes’ battle with Moriarty to a head. That’s the simplified version of the story, which is overly convoluted and tangled and, for a Holmes mystery, often quite sloppy. Or is simply that Holmes is so smitten with Alice that he’s not thinking clearly when he leaves her in the clutches of her captors, convinced she’ll be safe for the time being? Not the most logical of deductions, to this untrained mind.
The confused motivations and complications are simply discarded when the film shifts from mystery to elaborate battle of wits between Moriarty, determined to finally kill the meddling detective, and Holmes, who plots to end Moriarty’s reign of terror. It’s also one of the wordiest silent films I’ve ever seen, filled with pages of intertitles explicating the overly convoluted plot and providing Holmes’ commentary of clues, deductions and schemes.