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The Len-Film and Livanov Holmes Pt 2

(for translation go: Alex Morse)

The Agra Treasure - Len-Film 1983

Pt 2: Becoming Sherlock Holmes - A Victorian Gentleman


In homage to the style of the Len Film Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, part two will now move away from the main action of examining and reviewing The Agra Treasure, to explore a sub-text; the nature of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Vassily Livanov and the notions of what makes a Victorian Gentleman.
 

Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen and in theatre countless times through the years - and across the globe. His popularity waxing and waning but never disappearing. His archetypal figure has graced productions as diverse as Monty Python and Star Trek: The Next Generation. What is his undying appeal - and how can an actor hope to make their performance of Holmes distinctive yet acceptable?
This piece will attempt to explore some of the issues arising from these questions - it does not pretend to have solid answers to the mystery. Not even Conan Doyle ever quite solved the Strange case of Sherlock Holmes. (link)

The Actor and the Performance used here for the sake of example is Vasilly Livanov who played Holmes on screen in the 1980s for Russian television.
Every production needs to find a key, a touch-stone for their interpretation, Producer Maslennikov has remarked; "{HOLMES} is reliable... Anyone who goes to him feels secure... He is the personification of gentlemanly behaviour." And this is echoed by Livanov himself, "I just try to play him as the perfect English gentleman."

What does this mean and by what methods is this aim achieved?

In the previous piece it was noted that Holmes can be (and often is) reduced to a series of signs; The pipe, the slipper, the needle, the violin, the deerstalker - and it is in the combination of these symbols that Holmes takes shape. Equally, their deployment signifies the creation of a Victorian gentleman and - therefore - a view of Victorian society.
Essentially, in a manner beloved of Roland Bathes (see Mythologies) - by the use of accoutrements.
To give a recent example, The Rupert Everett Holmes, of The Case of the Silk Stocking, dispenses with many of the usual visual props - but only to substitute others, and the camera still focuses on those embellishments that characterise his Holmes.
 


 

His is a 21st century in one important respect - he is the Holmes in a Trilby hat - and he is the Holmes with 'good shoes.'* Sherlock's leather shoes, (a variety of which are seen in the Granada Holmes but rarely dwelt on,) are often in the camera's eye - even to the point of giving them a close up of their own. Such fashionable lingering illustrates how clothes can be fetishised and connects the modern Holmes to the 'Chap' trend and other retro-movements today. link
 
 
 
Such things are less obvious in the Livanov Holmes - but they are there nonetheless. His Holmes never dresses less than well, whilst the camera sometimes dwells on his neat leather gloves - and he has a terrific line in proto-steam-punk gadgetry, with his tool kits and his glasses. Livanov has a great aptitude with physical props, a skill shared by Peter Cushing. Certainly the world created by Len Film must have been far removed from the daily reality of Soviet life, (just as the Granada Holmes was a world away from England of the 1980s) and clearly, whenever it is able, the Russian production favours the more expensive looking side of Victorian life. In The Acquaintance for example, Watson's breakfast; the camera is placed at the end of the table - once again using the fish-eye lens to exaggerate the length - such a feast is more Jeeves and Wooster or Blandings Castle than it is Holmes. But it is not implausibly English... and it is also very funny.

Watson - a Victorian Gentleman - is actually middle class, enjoying those pursuits; Turkish baths, opera, horse racing, that were available for the first time to a man of his (limited) income. Watson is always eager to know the identity of Royal clients, a sign of his middle class background. As is his awkwardness with lower class people. (In the Russian series - see for example, Holmes with the Cab driver in Hound or the street urchins in Acquaintance).

As an aside, there has been criticism of Jeremy Brett's Holmes (in relation to Livanov in the Acquaintance) for being too energetic. In actuality the Holmes of Doyle's writing is (at times) very active - he has 'fits' and 'bursts' of almost manic activity. The idea of the armchair sleuth (originating with Poe's C. Auguste Dupin) is actually befitting of Mycroft, not Sherlock. And in fact, Livanov too has his share of lively action - it is just that he is more relaxed with it. Another Holmes actor, Peter Cushing is in an interesting middle ground between the two, whilst the most recent Sherlock, Rupert Everett is shown flinging newspapers around in a scene directly nodding to Brett's interpretation. Ironically, there have been comments made by Russians about the Russian Mycroft as being 'too fat' - when in fact this is the accurate image of the man - described as fleshy and corpulent by Conan Doyle and played as such in several film and TV adaptations in the West.

As for the 'idea' of activity, this had to be part of the character of Sherlock Holmes because it was an expected element of a Gentleman's background to be able to row, box (as Holmes does in 'The Solitary Cyclist' for example), play cricket or rugby and to take exercise by walking. Holmes predilections for Opera, the Theatre, music and fine food are similarly expected. However, Doyle allows Holmes a Bohemian edge by making his favourite eating house 'Simpsons', the vegetarian eatery, still extant today. Whilst his knowledge of Japanese martial arts would have been rare for the times indeed (Livanov shows his mettle in 'The Final Problem / Mortal Fight'.). He is not, however, a superman; see 'The Stockbroker's Clerk', where he is bested - or 'Illustrious Client' where he is again beaten in a fight. Idleness and apathetic behaviour - were seen as negative traits - later spoofed by PG Wodehouse.

As is well known - the single attribute prized most by a Victorian Gentleman was his honour. This could be used against them, - for example, the incomplete investigation of fraudulent mediums. The rise in child mediums was due to the fact that they could NOT be investigated, to accuse an 'innocent' ie female child, was dishonourable conduct. This was indeed given as the reason for several abandoned investigations. see Washington, Goldsmith et al. Conan Doyle himself (it could be argued) fell into this trap - since honour dictated an acceptance of the Cottingley Faeries - as Parental influence could not be used to explain aberrant behaviour and the girls could not be accuse directly of perpetrating a hoax* Compare this to his reaction to the Edalji case etc (see Barnes, Green, et al).

Was he aware of this? The ambiguous end of 'The Land of Mists' suggests so - as Challenger (frequently one to buck the established societal codes) accepts Spiritualism and thus avoids accusing his daughter.
Doyle of course was middle class.
Thus accusations can be made of Victorian hypocrisy - the average age of a prostitute was thirteen. The infant mortality rate was high and 60% of infant deaths were due to Laudanum (or other opiate based) medicants.
Holmes and Watson are not unaware of this, 'The Man with The Twisted Lip' and Holmes's sympathy with Kitty in 'The Illustrious Client' to cite but two examples..

On screen the most dramatic has been Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree - very much the well meaning liberal middle class man confronting hypocrisy - much more so than John Neville in A Study in Terror - where the confronting is done by Anthony Quayle's Whitechapel Doctor). For Livanov's Holmes a key moment is to be found in The King of Blackmailers (1980). Throughout this episode (the first of a trilogy), there is much importance attached to the concept of the Gentleman. We see Holmes and Watson first as 'Gentleman of leisure'; travelling by train, Holmes (with a newspaper and a bright red blanket,) rests his legs, whilst Watson shaves with an 'en-suite' sink of water. The pair idly chatting over a case of poisoning involving opium in garlic sauce. After a brief visit to their comfortable lodgings, (Holmes income however is in question - does he lodge at 221b as a Bohemian affectation or not? For Watson it is (initially) simply a question of afford-ability. And Holmes?? The Russian presentation of Baker Street avoids this issue. As does the Mat Fruer Hound for example.), we are shown around the palatial Diogenes club. This is a Gentlemen's retreat where none may speak except in out of the way alcoves. Here we are introduced to Sherlock's suave brother Mycroft. The two brother's play a game of detection without leaving the room as they chat and smoke. In the course of this, Holmes makes a "monstrous failure". He overlooks the importance of a shabby man in he street - who will later be revealed to be following him. However, there is a case for Holmes which Mycroft explains; blackmail - and the intended victim is a woman. Holmes tells Watson later that a "Gentleman, MUST always help a lady." The blackmailer of course is no Gentleman and on meeting him Holmes and Watson's reactions are fierce. To Holmes, the villain Milverton is a 'bastard' - whilst Watson is quite prepared to hit him with a chair. Physical action of THAT sort is not required however, Holmes restrains Watson with a gentle touch of the hand, but the camera has witnessed the extraordinary moment where the colour drains from Sherlock's face as his true anger is revealed, (Livanov is a master at this - for a comedic version, watch his reaction to Watson and Mrs Hudson as he returns from the dead in 'The Empty House / The Hunt for the Tiger'). It is clear that he will stop at nothing to prevent Milverton's crimes.

But what does this actually entail? For Livanov's Holmes it signals the end of what has been merely fun, a problem to solve, (during which Livanov himself gives one of his most energetic and winning performances) - and he rounds angrily on his brother and himself over his failure thus far. He now determines two courses of action - direct and 'un-gentlemanly', he will disguise himself as a lower class tradesman and work his way into the house - and then once he is sure of his way around, Watson and he will burgle the place. Watson on discovering both of these actions is appalled - but Holmes tells him that the honourable thing is to help the victim, and Watson (after some comical sulking) decides to go along with the plan. "You could be a natural born criminal" remarks Holmes sarcastically.
And so the law is broken - but in a typical 'Gentlemanly' fashion with large black masks and biscuit treats for the guard-dogs, which Holmes casually snacks on as well.
There is a comical Parrot and much activity.

However, despite their energetic efforts - and the use of Holmes special burglar kit. The two men find themselves helpless as a previous female victim shoots Milverton dead. All their 'Gentlemanly' activity has been for nothing - the wronged woman has dispensed her own justice.
The two detectives are forced to make a hurried exit pursued by the very men and dogs that Holmes had earlier befriended. This first failure signals a darkening of tone as the way is prepared for Holmes conflict with Moriarty and his apparent death at the Reichenbach falls. This change in tone is reflected by the elements of the production as the episode progresses from swift editing and bright music, past the interlude of Livanov's hilarious disguise before the music becomes sombre and tense and the scene cutting becomes longer and more menacing - climaxing in the burgling and confrontation scenes.
 

To conclude this exploration of Holmes and the Victorian gentleman, a few brief remarks on the productions themselves.

Firstly - an opinion. The notion behind this examination of the Len Film series has been that the Soviet Holmes is an attempt at Western style entertainment - and an authentic re-enactment of Conan-Doyle's text. Having now watched several of the episodes I realise the hidden the hidden xenophobia of such an argument. The best episodes of the Len Film adventures are those where there seems no self-consciousness of what is being adapted and the manner of its presentation. In other words, the series is best when the production crew and cast sem to relish what is a RUSSIAN Holmes and a RUSSIAN series. The notion that it may somehow fail as a Western reproduction is unhelpful, since it suggests that only the West, indeed perhaps only the UK can 'do it right'. This is the desire for verisimilitude and, on the whole, I do not believe that this is necessary to the success of a drama. Especially given the plethora of 'inauthentic' productions made in the West, whether simply because the adaptation is unfaithful to Doyle - such as the Richardson Holmes episodes - or garbled and 'foreign' seeming, which is how most US versions seem to those in the UK.

The text is simply the text - the idea that nation has rights of ownership is a nonsensical one. The problem comes when the character of Holmes is removed so far from Doyle that all expectations are let down - because this raises the question are we really watching Sherlock Holmes? Many critics felt this to be the case with Everett and Silk Stocking, that is was a different character altogether, simply sharing Holmes name as a way to lure the viewer. A judgement that seems over-harsh, but which is understandable. It is a criticism often levelled at fan fiction writing, that the author is merely using the names of characters as a pretext for demonstrating their own work. My viewing on this is generally that this does not matter unless the character appears to represent someone else already known, this appears to be the case with the upcoming Guy Ritchie production - where his statements on Holmes appear to resemble sexton Blake or Bulldog Drummond rather than Sherlock Holmes. In which case why NOT make a film about them - since both have proved popular in the past and might be deserving of rediscovery and reinvention for the modern age.

Nonetheless, as a Western viewer it is impossible pretend that no elements in the Len Films will not seem out of character, or place or time.
An example would be language. Holmes' use of expletives such as 'Goddamn' and 'Bastard' DO seem uncharacteristic for the English Victorian detective. Yet this is surely just a question of translation. Subtitles could perhaps be corrected - since the Russian words are not direct equivalents - I would suggest 'Villain, Blaggard - Dear God, My God, Great Scott' etc.

Certain ways and manners - Solomin's Watson wears his hats in the English fashion, with the rim above the ears - and he smokes in the correct way for an English gentleman. Both Cushing and Brett, with their assorted Watson had specific training in these areas - so it is to the credit of the Len Film studio that this was replicated at all.

The colour scheme used by the series with its emphasis on deep reds, browns and various autumnal shades, evokes to the western eye the sort of 'Russian' colouring known from adaptations of Checkov and other stereotypical bourgeois entertainments on stage and screen.

The transposition of plots and dialogue are noticeable elements in most episodes - but this is not unusual in any Holmes production up until the Granada series.

Finally then - perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to the Russian series is the fact that later Granada episodes, such as their version of The Master Blackmailer, owe a very great debt to the work of Len-Film often reproducing structure, plot and dialogue elements seen first in the Livanov series first.
 

Pt 3 - the last article and an examination in detail of The Agra Treasure concluded. next week...

 
*a trend going beyond Holmes to later heroes - compare John Steed. Articles on clothing in The Avengers Guide - 1976.
 

 
in the modern vein - James Bond.

NOTE FOR TRANSLATOR: 'FETISH' - in the sense ICON, SHRINE, TOTEM 
to worship the things not the being.    
Объект(Цель) V. Быть   
Object Vs Being.                    

ИКОНА;  ИЗОБРАЖЕНИЕ. Icon

РАКА;  ГРОБНИЦА;  УСЫПАЛЬНИЦА;  ХРАМ;  СВЯТЫНЯ;  МЕСТО ПОКЛОНЕНИЯ
. Shrine.









Note - Victorian Middle class conduct can be examined in both Tipping the Velvet and Topsy Turvy.









Tags: alek morse, article, russian sherlock holmes, sherlock holmes, translations
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