The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson: King of Blackmailers (1980)

Europe in Disguise

This is a Russian TV production, closely following the Conan Doyle stories. Comments that I have seen accept it as a good version, mostly on the basis of the characterisations.

But I find it dreadful, and credit two influences. The first is my understanding of the role the Holmes stories played and the monumental effect they had on fiction, long form film and even public notions of science. They were from an era where science was beginning to ‘explain’ enough things in real life — including evolution — that the public had to invent stereotypes to accomodate. Doyle himself was a fantasist, believing in radical non-science. He developed and later hated the man for whom every element in human life was explainable through the scientific method.

The power of the stories was how Holmes was able to surprise us by pulling sense out of observations we would overlook. At some point, Doyle went even further. Sherlock employed hundreds of agents and often went sleuthing himself. Brother Mycroft appeared, who never left his chair, and yet was even superior as a scientist of humanity.

Watson in the original stories was not a sidekick for adventures, but the viewer’s avatar.

Nonetheless, eager TV adapters want to see the man skulking around, chasing bad guys and often getting into peril. That is not what makes these stories not only special, but foundational to how we as a society fictionalise reasoning. So this would have been a failure even if a British production. But it is not.

This is a Soviet production. I write this in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and accompanying massive war crimes. Russia has had a love-hate relationship with Europe for as long as it has been a nation. It wants to be European in tastes, art and culture, but it has a profound victim complex and considers itself at war militarily, economically, and in a confusing way culturally.

Some film from the Soviets is precious, because it goes to the soul. My own life has been changed by Tarkovsky, and even the brief dip Kurosawa made in the Tarkovsky winter. ’Siberiade’ is precious. Like the great Russian writers and poets, European influence for these filmmakers is simply weather and they write and film inner passions and consequence.

This is the other side of the coin. Reader, you may say that I am reading too much into this, and my revulsion of the Russian wars and torture are marring a simple amusement. Perhaps, but see how the many minor artistic decisions here have perturbed the original. Watson is simple a buddy. Holmes does sleuthing, not thinking. The complexities of the British upper class have no coherence, and thus what drives the blackmailer has no power. The immense effectiveness and weaknesses of upper class beauties is lost. The role of Scotland Yard as an efficient but (then) unscientific institution (representing the state) is lost; we just see an inspector. Soviets had no police institutionally driven by truth.

Posted in 2022

Ted’s Evaluation — 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.


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