In the beginning of the 80s, American producer Sy Weintraub, that made a series of very successful Tarzan films for television, entered arduous negotiations with the Conan Doyle estate to acquire the rights to do a series of six tv movies, starring Ian Richardson as the famous detective. Alas, he was unaware the rights of the stories were about to expire and Granada Television was preparing their own series, starring Jeremy Brett. Still, Weintraub filmed two of the six planned films, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles, which are now released in DVD and Blu-ray, and also available on demand, in a brand new 4K restoration, courtesy of Second Sight.
Written by Charles Edward Pogue (which would some years later achieve recognition by his script of The Fly), both films take some liberties with the original story in which they are based on, though keeping with the more traditional tone of the detective classic adaptations. Ian Richardson (House of Cards, the British original, that is) wears the hat, smokes the pipe and plays the violin, while his sidekick Dr. Watson (played by David Healy in The Sign of Four and Donald Churchill in The Hound of the Baskervilles) is the eternal womanizer, a bit slow, well intentioned and gun quick partner of his adventures. Both stories make the choice of not centering all attention on Holmes & co, giving the audience moments with the other characters. This ultimately makes the final reveal a bit too easy to guess (or not needing guess at all, like in The Sign of Four), even for those that don’t know the original stories, and thus taking some of the charm of Conan Doyle’s creation away.
With an extremely well achieved cinematography for an 80s television production (particularly the highly atmospheric fog shots in The Hound…, which just sing in this new restoration), these two films are entertaining mostly for Richardson, who can’t help having an extraordinary charisma that surpasses his character. His rolling eyes to the ‘deductions’ of the Scotland Yard peers and cheerful sarcasm towards Watson make his interpretation strangely modern, despite his markedly RSC pronunciation. As for both Healy and Churchill, their portrait of the Doctor, though adequate to the films in question, does not translate so well into modern times, mostly because of what Lucy Liu and Martin Freeman have done with the character in Elementary and Sherlock, respectively.
It may be a somehow Americanized version of the British hero, but Sy Weintraub’s The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles do give us yet another approach to an ever fascinating set of stories, and one that is competent, compelling and worth seeing. Sure, it doesn’t have the modern approach, or the surrealism of the 1930s German production, but then, what’s wrong with a little bit of old style adaptation for a change?
The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles are available on 25th April 2016 on DVD, Blu-ray, download and on de-mand, courtesy of Second Sight.