Friday, 30 August 2013

A MISLAID HAT AND CHRISTMAS GOOSE: PETER CUSHING IN 'THE BLUE CARBUNCLE' REVIEWED WITH GALLERY


A seemingly minor issue involving a mislaid hat and Christmas goose turns fascinating for master detective Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) when a priceless gem is found in the bird's gullet...


The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle made its debut in January of 1892.  The story offered a tremendous showcase for showing off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famed sleuth's ability to make precise deductions from the most mundane of materials.  It also shows off the character's rigidly applied personal code, in that he rejects a pushy dowageress' offer of a substantial sum to retrieve her stolen gem because the case (and the client) strikes him as petty at best, while he subsequently throws himself into the mystery for his own personal amusement because it's a riddle which captures his imagination.  In many respects, it's one of the most satisfying and intriguingly plotted of the Holmes stories - and yet, it remains a seldom dramatized tale so far as film and television are concerned.


The first - and as of this writing, last - version for cinemas emerged in 1923.  It was part of the long running Ellie Norwood series of Holmes films - and like the majority of the films in that franchise, it is believed to be lost today.  It would take until 1968 for the next version to emerge, this one as part of the BBC produced Sherlock Holmes series starring Peter Cushing.  It would take over a decade for the story to be filmed again, this time as a TV film produced in the then-Soviet Union. Granada added the story to their stable of Holmes adaptations starring Jeremy Brett in 1984, while an animated version was done for the program Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999).


The BBC version presents a generally faithful adaptation, courtesy of screenwriter Stanley Miller.  Though suffering from some of the same cramped production values that dogged some of the other entries, this is, on the whole, a very satisfying and briskly paced entry in the series.  Cushing gets one of his best showcases as Holmes in this episode - he perfectly captures the character's arrogance and unerring sense of logic, and he also has a marvelous moment of realization wherein the long-suffering Dr. Watson is able to gloat over one of his deductions being inaccurate.


Nigel Stock, for his part, again proves to be a most satisfactory Watson - he has moments of befuddlement worthy of Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone series, but on the whole he is allowed to play the role as Doyle intended, as a sturdy and reliable medical man.  The supporting cast performs quite ably, as well, including Frank Milddlemass in the role of Peterson.  Middlemass was a busy character actor who would go on to play one of the stuffed shirt lodgers that Cushing verbally lacerates in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969).  Intriguingly, he would also go on to play the meatier role of Harold Baker - the gentleman whose loss of his hat and prized Christmas goose sets the mystery in motion - in the 1984 version with Jeremy Brett as Holmes.It has to be said that, overall, the Brett version is the stronger of the two versions - it offers up healthier production values and much more stylish direction (Bill Bain's work in that capacity in the Cushing version is very much of the "efficient" school), but it also tinkers with the finale somewhat, making it less true to the original story than the Cushing version.  Purists may therefore prefer this earlier version - and those who prefer Cushing's more controlled take on the character versus Brett's ultra-neurotic characterization are also bound to find this a much more tolerable viewing experience


Ultimately, it is to be regretted that the majority of the Cushing episodes have been lost to the mists of time.  While the majority of the earlier episodesstarring Douglas Wilmer have survived, many of the Cushing episodes were not so fortunate and fell victim to the BBC's practice of "wiping" old shows to make room for new ones.  Of those believed to be lost, one that seems of particular interest is The Naval Treaty, which featured such outstanding character actors as Dennis Price and Peter Bowles.


Price and Cushing would later go on to appear in Hammer's Twins of Evil (1971), by which point former matinee idol Price was reduced to appearing in small roles in low budget horror films just to keep the tax man away from the door.  Another lost episode, The Greek Interpreter, actually costarred Edward Hardwicke, the son of the distinguished thespian Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who would later go on to play Watson opposite Jeremy Brett's Holmes.  The loss of these episodes is indeed unfortunate, but in the "small miracles" category, at least Cushing's fanbase is not completely deprived of seeing their favorite actor playing Holmes on this series.


Indeed, The Blue Carbuncle would mark his final portrayal of the character for many years - until he was enlisted to play an aged, but still sharp, version of the detective for the Tyburn TV production Masks of Death (1984), costarring John Mills as Watson.  Cushing would later be offered a chance to play a choice supporting role in the Jeremy Brett vehicle The Last Vampyre (1994), but ill health made his participation impossible - and the role would be played instead by Maurice Denham.  Cushing's association with the role nevertheless remains quite strong for many, and he is frequently cited alongside Rathbone and Brett as being the definitive interpreter of the role on screen.


IMAGES: MARCUS BROOKS

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