Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Igor Maslennikov, 1979)

Eclipse LogoThe first of Igor Maslennikov’s television films introduces master detective Sherlock Holmes to his friend and compatriot Doctor John Watson.  In the first episode “The Acquaintance,” Watson becomes a flatmate with Holmes, mistakes the sleuth’s odd behavior as something nefarious, and assists him in breaking a plot against Helen Stoner, a young heiress.  In “Bloody Inscription,” Holmes is invited to assist local law enforcement in solving a mysterious murder and finds himself on the trail of a devious and devoted killer.  Blending Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson offers a vision of Holmes and Watson unseen in other adaptations, celebrating the admiration, generosity, and mutual respect that make them one of the most enduring pairs in literature and cinema.

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See the complete Episode 1 -“The Acquaintance” here, at Film Annex.

See the complete Episode 2 – “Bloody Inscription” here, at Film Annex.

Maslennikov appropriately starts us at the beginning – with Dr. Watson having returned from military service in “colonies in the East” (avoiding any reference to Afghanistan that might have been too topical for Russian audiences) and taking up residence at 221B Baker Street with the eccentric Sherlock Holmes.  Unaware of his flatmate’s occupation, Watson finds Holmes’s unusual acquaintances (old vagrants, royalty, street kids) and possessions (laboratory equipment, medical specimens, firearms, master keys) suspicious and takes him for some criminal.  Understanding the doctor’s natural concern, Holmes reveals himself to be a consulting detective, much to Watson’s relief.  Having cleared the air, “The Acquaintance” then shifts to a case of murder (transitioning from Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”).  Helen Stoner, a young heiress, visits Holmes recounting a tale of her sister’s death three days before her wedding (marriage being the triggering event to the women receiving their inheritances).  Her widower stepfather maintains she died of heart failure within the locked bedchamber and now insists that Helen occupy the same room.  Helen is terrified in her new bedroom, hearing knocks and hisses within it.  Watson fears the girl may be delusional, however his concerns are dispelled when her abusive and hostile stepfather attends their residence threatening them over their potential meddling.  Watson, being a proper and steadfast gentleman, refuses to allow Holmes to attend Stoner’s home alone, and the pair investigate Helen’s new room.  Holmes recognizes the stepfather’s plot and counters it, resulting in the stepfather being killed by the same snake, an Indian “swamp adder,” that he used to kill the sister and which he attempted to use against Helen.  In the process, a friendship is forged between Holmes and Watson, the latter identifying the former to be the greatest of detectives.

The second episode, “Bloody Inscription,” returns Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to “A Study in Scarlet” where Holmes is invited officially to consult on a murder investigation.  Holmes and Watson attend the murder scene and the detective quickly provides a detailed description of the murderer, much to the chagrin of the tenacious, but over-confident Police Inspector Lestrade (Boris Brondukov).  Another murder occurs before the killer is captured and a revenge plot that originates far away in the American Utah Territory is revealed.  Holmes employs highly detailed deduction and key research efforts to identify the killer, but it is ultimately Lestrade who is hailed in the press for cracking the case, leaving no mention of the consulting detective.  Offended at the news story’s incredulity, Watson vows to chronicle Holmes’s adventures.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson establishes the narrative style and the production design for the entire cycle.  While the architecture may be overly ornate at times and the interiors sometimes gloomier than might otherwise be expected, the series is generally successful in evoking Victorian London and the streets of old Riga seems an adequate substitute for Baker Street.  The closing scene between Holmes and Watson is a recurring conclusion to each film.  The pair sit in front of their flat’s fireplace, in high-backed chairs.  Shot from behind, they are largely hidden from view, with only their arm and hand consistently visible as they share an end table between them.  The image conveys the harmony and conviviality of their bond, intimate and gentlemanly.  Bracketing this concluding imagery is each film’s opening credits, relying on a series of crawls and credit sequences (usually shown through a coded template) and an introductory musical piece by Vladimir Dashkevich, a Russian composer best known for his film work and for Maslennikov’s Sherlock Holmes series in particular.  Dashkevich purportedly modeled the number after an hourly musical piece played on the BBC World Service, hoping thereby to evoke a sense of Britishness in the listener.  Maslennikov ultimately committed himself to creating the Sherlock Holmes films solely in reliance on Doyle’s stories and Sidney Paget’s iconic illustrations.  Despite the inevitable lens of Russianness that the films pass through (arising just by difference in language alone), the dissonance one might expect is surprisingly muted and what does exist may in fact be beneficial, allowing the non-Russian viewer to come at these iconic figures and familiar stories with a freshness that is often hard to inspire in Holmes adaptations.  Fans of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson should feel comfortable knowing that Maslennikov’s cycle remains faithful and consistent to what is established in the first of the series.

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