on 30 January 2015
An outstanding example of early cinema that should appeal to any aficionado of the silent era, this 1922 film also proves its merit as a serious Holmesian adaptation. While there is no question liberties have been taken with characterization, a testament to the fact it was heavily based on William Gilette's infamous stage play, remarkably enough, those changes flow well with both the character and plot, so that this version of the Great Detective's exploits is actually not so Canonically dubious as this purist had originally imagined it might be.
Featuring possibly one of the most mesmerizing actors to fill the exalted role of Sherlock Holmes, John Barrymore's portrayal cannot be overlooked as mere fluff - true, the acting was above par, the plot strikingly complex, but he slips into the character so thoroughly, sans all those extraneous trappings not found in the stories, which would later become synonymous with Holmes due to the innumerable other actors who left their mark, even the love aspect becomes tolerable - if not believable. It is obvious Barrymore is deriving a monumental portion of his inspiration from Canon, because while there /is/ a love interest for him in the form of Alice Faulkner, his Holmes remains a thinker, his deductions and solutions deeply motivated in intellectualism. And make no mistake, while it does involve a romance, it is more of a background sub-plot, and this film is decidedly not a love-story.
On that account, though, being such an early example, Barrymore has mainly the books to gain insight from, and that is apparent in the way in which he plays a Sherlock Holmes under the spell of Cupid's arrow. His Holmes is obviously head over heels, but still manages to come off as tentatively innocent, quietly reserved about what must be an overwhelming emotion for one so accustomed to repressing them. He is blessedly free of theatricality, truly the "quiet thinker of Baker Street".
As a general rule, I normally find romance to be off-putting character assassination, but developing it as he did with the confines of how Holmes might react without losing his formidable acumen, Barrymore not only convinced me it could have happened in such a way, but also made it quite endearing. From a personal standpoint, he epitomized Sherlock Holmes for me that well. As did the film itself, its plot strikingly complex, with the entirety of it reminiscent of several Canon stories, possibly since I lost count of how many deductions and snippets of dialogue it paid homage to. And cleverly, too, with a Moriarty that was given a prominent presence and was possibly one of the most ominously creepy Napoleon of Crimes to grace the silver screen until Eric Porter epitomized the role.
Roland Young, unlike others who would shortly follow, portrays a capable, multifaceted Watson who is a schoolmate of Holmes' at Cambridge, as is Prince Alexis, who has been wrongly accused of theft and petitions the doctor for help. Watson, of course, petitions Holmes to look into the matter, where he sees Moriarty's hand, but is at the present unable to thwart the Professor. After the initial case is resolved - or rather, covered up by Moriarty - Holmes loses sympathy for the Prince regarding his ill treatment of his fiance, who also happens to be the sister of Alice Faulkner. There both his interest in her and that case will lie to rest until many years later, when he learns Moriarty is out to harm Miss Faulkner, who intends to use letters of her sister to blackmail the Prince (a la SCAN), letters he wants for his own nefarious purposes...
In summation; intricate plotting, a (apologies, but I must admit it) satisfying romance, competent Dr Watson, Barrymore's eccentric, cerebral Holmes who epitomizes the character, intelligent "dialogue" that did not require the complete cessation of neuronal activity, and one pretty impressive Moriarty, made for an extremely enjoyable silent film which is, from a personal standpoint, deserving of being ranked alongside other Holmesian classics. My only complaint is that Watson, while faithful to the man described in the original stories, his relationship with Holmes ringing true, was shamefully underused here. If that were not the case, I would be hard pressed to say this were not the greatest underrated film adaption. As it stands, its definitely one of the better ones, and really should be viewed by those who love the silents and serious Holmesians alike.