Friday, December 2, 2011

Sherlock Holmes & das Halsband des Todes (Germany, 1962)

The first 15 minutes of the film:

As a result of the popularity and financial success of the series of films based on the writings of the English mystery author Edgar Wallace, the German film industry of the sixties was forever in search of yet another popular franchise to cash in on. It is not at all surprising that some producer would eventually hit upon the idea of adapting the works of yet another and even greater English author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Producer Arthur Brauner, the man behind the then successful (but since mostly forgotten) Dr. Mabuse films (and a number of Bryan Edgar Wallace films), with the assistance of his brother Wolf Brauner, angled the permission from the Doyle estate to make a film based on the novel The Valley of Fear.
In what would seem like a stroke of genius, they pulled in Terrence Fisher – who had done Hammer's excellent Sherlock Holmes film The Hound of Baskervilles (trailer) in 1959 – to direct the film (aided by the unknown Teuton Frank Winterstein), Curt Siodmark to write it, and Christopher Lee to play the great detective. But as the great Christopher Lee himself has said with truthful insight: "The whole thing was a really classic example of having the right ingredients and coming up with a very unpalatable dish." That the film might be less than spectacular is already indicated within the first five minutes of the film, when the exact same long shot is used twice, but even this obvious lazy slip-up fails to prepare the viewer for the cinematic disaster that follows.
Before discussing what is wrong with the movie, however, it must be said that there are some plus points to Sherlock Holmes & das Halsband des Todes, or Sherlock Holmes & the Deadly Necklace, as it was titled for the English-language release. Like many of the better Universal films of the 40s, the action takes place in an interesting time warp in which the lead lady (a buxom, beautiful and wasted Senta Berger as Ellen Blackburn) looks like a Gibson Girl and everyone drives cars from the twenties and thirties or horse-drawn carriages. And though most of the numerous characters are underdeveloped and underused, they are at least generally well-cast. The German actor Hans Söhnker is convincing as Prof. Moriarty, and Thorley Walters – an English actor also found in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964 / trailer), Trog (1970 / trailer) and Vampire Circus (1972 / trailer) – does a pleasant turn as Watson, paying due respect to the bumbling characterization made famous by Nigel Bruce in the Universal series but also occasionally making the good doctor a bit more palatably competent. Leon Askin, most famous in the USA as the fat and laughable Nazi General Alfred Burkhalter of Hogan's Heroes, might not be too convincing as Moriarty's chauffeur and man-for-everything, but he is fun to watch. Best of all, however, is Christopher Lee. Dubbed or not, Lee is one of the most convincing screen Sherlock Holmes ever, his characterization of Holmes played, as Lee himself has said, "as he was written – as a very intolerant, argumentative, difficult man." It is completely un-understandable that it took another 28 years before he played the famed detective again in the 1990 television movies Sherlock Holmes & the Leading Lady (trailer) and Incident at Victoria Falls (trailer).
In Sherlock Holmes & das Halsband des Todes, Holmes and the Good Doctor once again face off with the evil Prof. Moriarty, who is in pursuit of a valuable, bejeweled box containing the priceless necklace of Cleopatra stolen some years before by Peter Blackburn (Wolfgang Lukschy) from the Egyptian archaeological site at which the famed and respected Moriarty was working. The box gets stolen and stolen again, a few people die, Holmes gets to disguise himself a couple of times and do some light detecting, Moriarty naturally attempts to kill him and the story sort of meanders on to a rather anti-climactic end in which, like throughout the entire film, nothing really happens.
It is tempting to lay the blame for the cinematic fiasco on the script supplied by Curt Siodmark, a well-known name in the field of both classic and bad genre films, but some sources claim that the script he originally supplied was much altered by an unknown rewriter, so he can be given a benefit of a doubt. What is without a doubt, however, is that not only that the plot of the film has very little to do with its supposed literary source – The Valley of Fear – but it is also lacks any and all suspense and features very little real action. Thus, though it may be open to discussion whether or not Siodmark helped ruin the film, it is definite that the final version of the script used was truly substandard.
In regards to the direction itself, it is also difficult to put the blame there. Though Terrence Fisher may have made a turkey or two in his life, he was also an old hand at putting together an acceptably decent film, and in the case of Sherlock Holmes und das Halzband des Todes, he did so. In fact, the direction of the movie, in regards to its staging and composition, often recalls the classic silent masterpieces of early German cinema and, as a result, is one of the more interesting aspects of the movie. (Whether Fisher is responsible for this Expressionist tinge is open to question, for it is his unknown German co-director Frank Winterstein who has the better credentials in this area. Winterstein, like Fisher, may never have worked in the silent area, but he did work as second unit director for those who had once worked during Germany's golden era of filmmaking: He assisted Fritz Lang in 1959 on both Der Tiger von Eschnapur / The Tiger of Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal / The Indian Tomb (edited together and originally released in the US as Journey to the Lost City [trailer from hell]) and, two years earlier, he also assisted the one-time silent film actor and major Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan on the decidedly homosexual-intolerant movie Anders als du und ich / Bewildered Youth (1957 / scene which indicates that liking/making avant-garde music or painting means you're gay). (Anders als du und ich should not to be mistaken with Richard Oswald's indefinitely more homosexual-tolerant silent movie from 1919, Anders als die Anderen [what's left of the full film].)
In the end, the fault that Sherlock Holmes & das Halsband des Todes is such a mess probably lies in the hands of the producers for, of all those involved, the brothers Arthur and Wolf Brauner, have the longest list of trash credentials. Or at least Arthur Brauner does, which is why it is easy to want to lay all blame on him. True, Brauner may have produced such "classic" German films as Mädchen Hinter Gittern / Girls Behind Bars (1948), Die Halbstarken / Teenage Wolfpack (1956 / trailer) and, eventually, Hitlerjunge Saloman / Europa Europa (1990 / trailer), but he was also the driving force behind such instant trash classics and non-classics as the 1965 remake of Mädchen Hinter Gittern, Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill (1964 / trailer), Jungfrauen Report (1971) and Vampyros Lesbos (1973 / trailer) – not to mention a ton of other long forgotten (enjoyable and painful) celluloid garbage. Indeed, like most producers, Brauner was obviously a man whose decisions were often based less on intelligence than finances. For example, although it is understandable and acceptable that Christopher Lee's voice is dubbed in the German version of the production, Brauner actually had the audacity to have some cheap, unknown Englishman dub Lee when the film was finally released in English-speaking lands. Furthermore, aside from whatever qualities the original script might or might not have had, if the script originally supplied by Curt Siodmark was actually rewritten by some unknown, it would have been the producer that okayed it.
Of course, special mention still needs to be made of the movie's rightfully infamous soundtrack. Though it has been described by some as "jazzy," in truth it is much more a third-rate imitation of those eccentric soundtracks common of German films at that time. Unluckily, the unknown and long-forgotten Martin Slavin – who ended his life as the musical director on cruise ships – succeeded only in creating an oddly off-putting soundtrack that is less individualistic than simply completely at odds with the entire film.
Thus, many scenes that work in regards to direction and acting are undermined by the overly present and grating score. (It is hardly surprising that one of Slavin's last known film credits is something as respectable and demanding as the X-rated animation film Once Upon A Girl... (1976 / trailer).
As is most obvious, Sherlock Holmes & das Halsband des Todes is not one of the best Sherlock Holmes films ever made. Were it not for Christopher Lee's presence, it would undoubtedly be one of the worst. A true shame, for had this film been artistically and financially successful, it would have probably led to a whole new series of Holmes films starring Christopher Lee as the famed detective.

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