The Masks Of Death
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It is 1913 and war is threatening in Europe. When the security of Britain is threatened, only Sherlock Holmes can stop a national emergency occurring. Three bodies are found in the East End of London, displaying no visible signs explaining the cause of death. The game is, however, afoot when Holmes and Watson are led to a country house owned by a German diplomat.
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As is typical (although never dull) with Sherlock Holmes-esque stories, the two cases are inter-linked and provide much interest and danger for Holmes and his faithful companion, Watson (John Mills). Whilst Peter Cushing was, admittedly, showing his age by this time (no disrespect intended), his performance is very convincing, although I am not entirely certain that pairing him with the great John Mills works as well as it might, only because I genuinely do not feel that this particular role suited him. This does not detract from the overall quality of the story.
Full of intrigue, danger and the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, I would honestly recommend this film, even just to fans of Peter Cushing and/or John Mills. There is a good deal of suspense throughout and the final conclusion to the cases is well thought out. John Mills' voiceover works quite well and provides a "book" feel to the film.
It is a pity that it hasn't been released on DVD, as I feel the film would significantly benefit from the extra quality.
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Cushing was 70 years old when shooting on the film began and once more the game was afoot. Tyburn surrounded him with several old friends and top flight talent so that THE MASKS OF DEATH would be a grand sendoff. His old Hammer compatriots actor Anton Diffring and director Roy Ward Baker were there and Tyburn recruited Ray Milland and Anne Baxter from America to enrich the proceedings. The biggest coup however was getting John Mills to play Dr. Watson. Picking up where Andre Morell had left off in HOUND (Morell died in 1978), Mills is the perfect Watson...intelligent, trustworthy, and devoted to his friend. There is a great chemistry there which enhances their scenes together and it helps to make MASKS one of the better Holmes offerings especially for a film that is a TV movie complete with blackouts. What it lacks due to budgetary restrictions is more than made up for by watching these old pros in action.
The film opens in 1926 with an aged Watson hiring a stenographer to set down in writing the details of a case that had been supressed by the British government for more than a decade. Cushing, his frame as thin as ever and with white hair, epitomizes Holmes with just a roll of the eyes as he urges Watson to get on with it. The bulk of the story takes place in 1913 right before the outbreak of World War I. While investigating the discovery of three bodies, their faces distorted horribly (hence the title), Holmes is approached by the Home Secretary (Milland) and a German aristocrat (Diffring) to drop that case and find a missing member of German royalty. This leads Holmes & Watson in many directions for there is more going on than meets the eye. To say anything else would be criminal except that Warner Brothers, who released this VHS, should release it on Archive DVD as soon as possible.
Brett's hamminess is fun, unlike the scenery-eating sonorities of Williamson, Plummer, et. al. But Cushing shares Rathbone's ability to convey the rapier intelligence of Holmes as intrinsic, "matter-of-fact brilliance."
And fondness for Bruce's Watson suggests that many subsequent Watsons have either been stodgily underplayed (which is fine) or else "enriched" with personal embellishments (notably Mason's engaging but speciously enhanced characterization in MURDER BY DECREE).
Indeed it is comparison to MURDER BY DECREE that enables one to appreciate the superiority of MASKS OF DEATH. Mills's Watson achieves audience appreciation by playing him as neither a buffoon nor a drab social-class-bound observer. His recurring bit about Holmes's fingers provides a subtle indicator of their relationship.
Except for fade-outs for presumed commercial breaks, every aspect of the physical production is superior to DECREE. The narrative covers virtually all the bases (violin, cap & pipe, disguises, Mrs. Hudson, but not the drug addiction) with straightforward respect and skill.
One disappointment is Anne Baxter as "the woman," since she doesn't convey requisite complexity and intelligence for Irene Adler. A glamorous older actress with the steely subtlety of Joan Hickson (especially in a tea room scene with Miss Bunner in A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED) would have made the potential nemesis much more interesting.
In sum, this version of the immortal franchise makes me want to see many more Cushing performances--preferably those not "Hammered" with faux ghoulishness.
as Sherlock Holmes. This one is one of the better ones with a great story that really is a mystery til the end. The quality of the VHS is quite
good and I love VHS anyway but after years of watching this I expected a DVD widescreen version to be released! I can't believe this great
movie hasn't been released with all the garbage being released on DVD today! John Mills plays a good Watson maybe one of the best ever.
If your a Holmes or mystery or Cushing movie fan you will want to add this to your collection even though only on VHS right now or ever.