Four novels and fifty-six short stories were enough to make him a legend of literature and then consecrate him to new life on the big and small screen. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the famous Sherlock Holmes, he certainly would not have expected such a lasting success for him, capable over a century later to expand into multiple incarnations that still thrill millions of spectators in every corner of the world today.
On the occasion of the television re-presentation of Guy Ritchie's film (broadcast in prime time on MEDIASET 20), we have decided to take you to the discovery of first film ever dedicated to the detective, from 1916, and until a few years ago date for disappearance. After the discovery of a copy still intact, this lost heirloom was finally able to show itself to the contemporary public through the publication for the home video market - on DVD and Blu-ray - and was also made available for free in the internet archive and on YouTube.
But what are the merits, apart from advanced age, of a work that on paper could only attract fans of the popular investigator or lovers of silent cinema? Although we are not faced with a milestone of the so-called silent was, this archaic Sherlock Holmes has several arrows in his bow.
Matter of style
"His gaze was sharp and penetrating; and the thin aquiline nose gave his expression a vigilant and determined air. The chin was prominent and square, typical of a man of action. His hands, invariably stained with ink and acid-induced discolouration, possessed an extraordinarily delicate touch, as I have often occasion to notice when I watched him handle the fragile tools of his philosophy.".
Thus the Scottish writer described on paper the physical and character aspect of the astute detective and in this the prominence of William Gillette gives the character the right characteristics, while avoiding its darker sides for obvious reasons and also allowing itself a predominant romantic subplot.
Gillette was a well-known stage actor, in his first and last experience for the film medium, that he had played Holmes for over 1,300 occasions on the stage.
It must be said that the imprint and savoir-faire that will remain etched in the public and in Holmes' mythology, of which in fact he can be considered as a sort of second father, is due to him.
A metamorphic relevance and a frightening number of performances that allow him, even in the intermediate passage, to manage his now habitual alter-ego with the right charisma, making it the key element of the two hours of viewing.
The gist of the story
Split vision in four distinct acts, transmitted at the time as real episodes complete with summary texts between one and the other, and which is a sort of free reinterpretation of four original stories, namely A scandal in Bohemia, The Last Adventure, The Adventure of the Red Beeches e A study in red. Precisely this formula removes partial organicity from the whole which, in the course of events, is forced to rely on to a couple of forcings which, however, do not take away the liveliness of the narration.
The young, beautiful and naive Alice Faulkner is in possession of some letters written to her sister by a prince with whom she had had a love affair.
The missives can be compromising and Alice has decided to guard them jealously to safeguard the good name of the family. But the Earl von Stalburg and British officer Edward Palmer are on the trail of the documents and hire Sherlock Holmes to help them recover.
Letters are not only tempting to them, but also to the shady Larrabee spouses, who came to know of the real value they have. The couple thus deceives Alice and offers to host her in his house with the aim of stealing her precious envelope. Sherlock will take the girl's defense, while his opponents will come to contacting its most bitter nemesis, namely Professor Moriarty.
The episodic subdivision quite clearly places a single passage and relative setting in the respective act, allowing in fact a clear and decisive approach to current events, already partially anticipated by the titles of the various chapters. The classic intertitles of silent cinema leave aside dialogue and jokes to concentrate exclusively on the exposition of the events in progress and in the same way, in the initial stages, they introduce the various figures involved.
On the other hand, all the actors did nothing but recite the original text hand in hand and this, even at the lip level, did not allow for further nuances to be reported later in the form of words.
The impression of witnessing a schematic progression is therefore justified, as pointed out by the clear changes between one sequence and another even when chronologically linked, but the intent of Gillette, the actual promoter of the project, was precisely that of reproduce the theatrical canvas faithfully and this ends up castrating more daring and similar solutions to the world of the Seventh Art.
The risk of excessive didacticism had therefore been taken into account and, compared to other contemporary works of the time, may make this archetypal Sherlock Holmes seem more aged.
Where the operation regains momentum it is in the most thematic phases: the protagonist's unfailing investigating gaze and the various tricks with which he always manages to be one step ahead of his enemies seem to come straight from the pages of novels, in a mix of cunning and verve action which invigorates the whole construct. The many supporters of the Watson shoulder will probably be disappointed, as he plays a role as a simple supporting actor.
Before the beloved 1940s series starring Basil Rathbone (one of the best Sherlock Holmes in the cinema) this is therefore where we can see for the first time the adventures of the most famous detective ever in film form; certainly had already appeared before in numerous courts and in another long of British production, made in 1914 but lost and never re-emerged from the archives of history.
Something that cannot be said of the work in question and that, also given the possibility of using it without spending a penny, appears as an unrepeatable opportunity for all fans of a 360-degree icon of modern culture.