The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoProduced by Soviet Central Television between 1979 and 1986 at Lenfilm studios, Igor Maslennikov’s adaptations of the tales of Sherlock Holmes are considered national treasures still watched regularly in Russia.  These 5 films, made up of 11 episodes, are generally hailed as the most faithful versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and count among the best portrayals of his iconic characters.  Weaving multiple works into each film, Maslennikov emphasizes the friendship, humor, and camaraderie shared between Holmes and assistant Dr. John Watson, played respectively by Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin.  Expertly crafted, lovingly reverential, darkly suspenseful, and endearingly playful, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson is anything but elementary.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

After some initial discomfort as joint tenants of 221B Baker Street, Holmes and Watson work together to save a young heiress from a murder plot and are invited to assist in tracking down a mysterious killer.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

In the only three episode film of the series, Holmes and Watson find themselves acting as criminals to defeat a blackmailer, Holmes risks mortal danger resisting the machinations of master criminal Professor James Moriarty, and Watson is identified as a suspect when a young gambler is shot dead within a locked room.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

When a spectral hound returns to terrorize the Dartmoor countryside and threatens the safety of Sir Henry Baskerville, the sleuths take up the case and search for a rational explanation for the otherworldly creature.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Treasures of Agra

A young woman seeks Holmes’s assistance in finding her long missing father and embroils the detectives in a case of murder, lost treasure, and old grudges, all while stirring up memories and emotions for the fairer sex.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Twentieth Century Approaches

Holmes and Watson are brought out of retirement to investigate a series of minor cases that reveal a plot that threatens the tenuous peace of the entire continent.

With notes on the films by Louise McReynolds and a 1981 interview with Igor Maslennikov for Avrora magazine.

*          *          *

Maslennikov on setOf the seemingly countless Sherlock Holmes adaptations, it is surprising that none have found a home within the Criterion Collection.  Further, it’s surprising to many, even amongst fans of all things Holmesian, that arguably the best reworkings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were done for Russian television.  It is true, but the films unfortunately exist in hard-to-find or fragmented DVD editions.  These gentle, suspenseful, and highly faithful TV movies deserve wider knowledge and better presentations.  Over the next 5 posts, we’ll canvass director Igor Maslennikov’s intentions for and challenges faced in these adaptations, review production anecdotes, discuss casting and performances, compare the faithfulness of the cycle against the celebrated changes and shifted emphases made by the director, and consider the enduring appeal of the series and the subject matter to Russian audiences.  A Criterion Collection Eclipse set would be a perfect setting to bring these works together and showcase an unexpected treasure of Russian filmmaking to North American audiences.  Soviet cinema in the Collection is shockingly limited to a mere 11 films, the most recent of which dates back to 1976.  This is likely representative of some impediments to obtaining distribution rights to Russian cinema, but we can hope that those barriers are surmountable by Criterion in the future, at least as far as it relates to these 5 brilliant adaptations.

Igor Maslennikov’s name may not be commonly known outside of Russia, and there is unfortunately little English material on his career, but he is a celebrated filmmaker who graduated from Grigori Kozintsev’s Lenfilm workshop, the Higher Directors’ Courses, resulting in his becoming a filmmaker for the studio.  He’s made various films, but is most acclaimed for his cycle of Sherlock Holmes adaptations made for Russian Central Television and released between 1979 and 1986.  Each of the 5 films are made up of two episodes, with the exception of the second film which is constituted by 3 episodes, each episode lasting approximately 70 minutes.  The enormous success of the series led to Maslennikov being appointed a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1988 and receiving a State Prize in 2001.  Aware of his debt to these films, Maslennikov went so far as to title his 2006 memoirs The Baker Street in Petrogradskaya.

Eclipse set packaging is all about matching colours together.  Until Criterion breaks down and starts incorporating patterns into their Eclipse designs, we are left trying to emulate the colour blend of tweed for a The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson Eclipse set.  A light taupe and mossy green combination would work just fine.

Credits:  Without knowing which favoured Criterion contributor is a closet Holmesian and therefore an easy choice to provide the set’s liner notes, we assigned this imagined task to Louise McReynolds of UNC Chapel Hill.  McReynolds is a professor of Russian history with a particular focus on “middlebrow culture.”  Her teachings include an emphasis on cinema and she most recently authored Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia (2013).  Those interested to see McReynolds discuss Russian crime literature and the reception of Sherlock Holmes in Russian/Soviet culture should watch her lecture at Villanova University, “Sherlock Kholms: Detective Fiction in the Late Imperial Russia.”

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