Based on “The Adventure of Charles Augustus,” “The Final Problem,” and “The Adventure of the Empty House” respectively, Igor Maslennikov’s only three episode film introduces to the cycle the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s greatest adversary. In “The King of Blackmail,” Holmes is retained by an upper class lady to free her from the threat of scandal and the detective, assisted by Dr. Watson, puts himself on the other side of the law to retrieve a set of contentious letters. “Mortal Fight” finds Holmes matching wits and fists with Professor Moriarty, culminating in their deadly battle at Reichenbach Falls. In the closing episode “Tiger Hunt,” a still-mourning Watson investigates the murder of a young gambler, only to become a suspect himself, and then helps solve the case with some unexpected assistance. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson explores the depths of Holmes and Watson’s friendship, forged and strengthened in the face of mortal danger and personal sacrifice.
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See the complete Episode 1 – “The King of Blackmail” here, at Film Annex.
See the complete Episode 2 – “Mortal Fight” here, at Film Annex.
See the complete Episode 3 – “Tiger Hunt” here, at Film Annex.
The series avoids any sophomore slump by going bigger and better in its second installment, expanding to 3 episodes and pitting Sherlock Holmes against his nemesis Professor Moriarty and his criminal cohorts. The first episode, “The King of Blackmail,” has Holmes hired by Lady Eve Blackwell, a woman whose prominent marriage is threatened should her blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton, release some scandalous letters. Holmes goes undercover and in disguise to determine where in Milverton’s estate the correspondence is hidden. Satisfied that there is no means to appease Milverton or bring him to justice, Holmes and Watson sneak into Milverton’s home and (somewhat clumsily) succeed in finding and destroying the blackmailer’s papers. The consulting detective’s actions put him on the trail of Professor Moriatry, and puts himself in the sights of the master criminal as well.
In “Mortal Fight,” Holmes’s attention on Colonel Sebastian Moran, formerly a corrupt officer in India and presently a crooked gambler in London, makes him a target of Moriarty and, having solved Moriarty’s coded correspondence and determined the identities of all his associates, Holmes and Watson escape to Switzerland to avoid attacks on their lives. Moriarty follows Holmes to Meiringen and eventually the pair battle and die, plummeting to the bottom of Reichenbach Falls. Watson finds a note from Holmes that instructs him to keep watch over Ronald Adair, a young gambler at odds with Moran. Despondent at his friend’s death, Watson vows to carry out his wishes, bring Moriarty’s criminal accomplices to justice, and protect Adair.
The episode “Tiger Hunt” concludes this installment of the cycle. Watson watches over Ronald Adair, a debtor to Moran who threatens the colonel with publicity of his cheating ways. When Adair is found mysteriously dead, shot in the head while in a locked room, Watson’s surveillance make him a suspect. At the same time, Holmes returns to 221B Baker Street alive and well, much to the shock and relief of Watson and their landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Rina Zelyonaya). Holmes reveals that he faked his death, surviving his battle with Moriarty by grasping the cliff-face and preventing his fall. Aware that his return makes him a target to Moriarty’s colleagues, Holmes fashions a decoy of himself (operated by Mrs. Hudson) that allows Moran an opportunity to assassinate him in a similar manner to Adair. Holmes and Watson capture Moran in an empty residence across the street while the colonel tries to shoot the false Sherlock with a high-powered air-gun. Elated at their reunion and saddened at the death of Adair, Holmes and Watson commit to strengthening their efforts against London’s criminal element.
The success of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson cycle is entirely dependent on the performances of Holmes and Watson and the relationship between the two characters. Maslennikov recognized the inherent dilemma in portraying these figures and the pitfalls often fallen into when adapting Doyle’s stories. Maslennikov noted, “In the movies and TV productions I’ve seen, Dr. Watson is turned into a comic character needed only to express admiration for Holmes’s exploits, or get in ridiculous situations because of his inability to be like Holmes.” Doyle’s comment that Holmes was “a calculating machine” and that any attempt to add to the character would only “spoil the impression” was another guiding caution to Maslennikov’s adaptation. The filmmaker stated, “Indeed, an actor who plays Sherlock Holmes encounters difficulties. The lack of vacillations, outbursts, and weaknesses, the same ‘shades,’ all contribute the most difficult obstacles to the performer in creating a living image. The partner should help here! It is indeed a duet, an equal and equitable pair. So, the actor for this role must have not so much comic characteristics as the ability to go into a partnership, to work ‘on a partner.'” With this in mind, Maslennikov based the cycle in only two sources, Doyle’s stories and Paget’s drawings, and, to the great success of the films, rooted his adaptations in the friendship of Holmes and Watson, treating them as admirable and able men in their own rights.
Vasily Livanov had previously worked with Maslennikov on Yaroslavna, Queen of France (1978) and was the director’s only choice for the role of Sherlock Holmes, however Livanov would have to shave off his moustache, trim his hair, and perform in various screen tests before Maslennikov could convince studio brass. On the other hand, the search for Watson was a long one until Vitaly Solomin appeared. Again, studio members doubted Solomin’s suitability for the role, the actor having played so many young, rustic men during his career. Maslennikov recounts that once costumers and make-up and hair artists had worked their magic on Solomin, all were struck that standing before them was not merely Dr. Watson, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself! Together, Maslennikov, Livanov, and Solomin create a Holmes and Watson unlike those seen in other adaptations – warm-hearted, generous, devoted. Watson finds Holmes’ eccentricities (his specialized knowledge, his strange company) curious and enticing, but, more importantly, he values Holmes’s willingness to help and his resolute opposition to that criminal element that seeks to harm and torment those that respect both the law and social order. Unlike other adaptations, Holmes’ admiration for Watson is obvious here, appreciating the doctor’s sense of honour and loyalty, his steadfastness in the face of danger, and his implicit trust in the detective’s abilities and motives. The personal and professional bond between the two characters is of paramount importance to the series and to the episodes canvassed here in particular. The sadness that Holmes’s death inspires is only credible given the bond that is established previously and elaborated on in later films. The relationship between Holmes and Watson feels so instinctual that the viewer is left guessing whether their modest grins and suppressed laughs are acted or actual. Livanov and Solomin’s performances are nothing short of masterful, presenting a duo who innately understand each other and are capable of communicating silently through looks and glances. Theirs is one of the great onscreen collaborations in film history and should be more widely known outside of Russia.
Credits: The included quotes are taken from Maslennikov’s interview by Avrora magazine (with the translation cleaned up a little). The episode titles for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are not consistently translated, sometimes being called “The King of Blackmailers,” “Deadly Fight,” “Deadly Combat,” and “Hunt for the Tiger.” The episode titles chosen and used above are selected for no better reason than personal preference. As a bonus, check out the post “How I taught Holmes baritsu …” at The Baritsu Society blog to read Russian fight choreographer Nikolay Vaschilin’s account of staging the climactic conflict between Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.