Professor Moriarty's Deadly Nausea Ray

At some point during their long cinematic dormancy, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson developed a taste for 99¢ “Go-Go Taquitos” at 7-11.  If you’ve been by a 7-11 recently, maybe you’ve seen the signage for this campaign:  Holmes and Watson—A.C. Doyle’s legendary sleuths now transmigrated into the bodies of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law—staring out from a soupy curtain of London-like fog, imploring us to “Get a Clue” by purchasing said Taquitos.

As an effortless and most likely unexamined exercise in corporate Dadaism, these ads are breathtakingly ridiculous.  The idea of Holmes sending Watson down to the corner to procure an evening’s repast of microwaved lard tubes is so ludicrous as to ultimately be rather inspired—an insult to Holmes, Doyle, literature, cuisine, and civilization so profound as to be sickly hilarious.  The very premise is funny, of course, but the slogan truly transports this campaign into the stratosphere of schlock.  “Get a Clue” comes straight from the Carl’s Jr. “Go fuck yourself I’m pleasuring a cheeseburger” school of advertising (so masterfully captured in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy).   But why not go even further?  I, for one, would heartily enjoy seeing a new version of A Portrait of a Lady with Isabel Archer lugging a 64 oz. Big Gulp with her across Europe—not just on 7-11 signs, but in the actual film.  “Wait one moment, Pansy, I am absolutely parched…. sluuuuuurrrrppp.”  If this is to be a part of the cinema’s future, I would prefer it happen sooner rather than later so I can at least get a few jaded kicks out of it. 

This isn’t to question the entertainment value of the new Holmes movie.  From all accounts (or at least from people I trust), it’s supposed to be pretty good—much better, in fact, than anyone could have expected.  There are probably worse ways to spend your Holiday movie bucks.   And in the end, I would certainly prefer seeing Holmes more than a patronizing lecture on American colonialism performed by mutant Smurfs at play in the world’s most expensive Yes album cover.    

Still, there is something to be said for a less ambitious cinema, movies that are happy to simply be movies, that make no effort to compel you to participate in a slate of play-dates with an entertainment conglomerate’s other snotty little children.  Wouldn’t it be great, if just for once, a major motion picture could arrive without 20 second snippets from the studio’s ancillary label mixed in wall to wall?  That didn’t implore me to go on-line and search for Iron Man’s missing underpants?  That didn’t insert its characters into another “run around and grab stuff without getting killed” video game?  That might resist whoring out Doyle to merchants of slurpees, jerky, and lotto tickets?

A relic of this less ambitious cinema was on TCM last week: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in Terror by Night (1946).  This title came toward the end of a series featuring Rathbone as Sherlock, movies that began as “A” product at 20th-Century Fox (The Hound of the Baskervilles—1939) but then migrated to the B-unit at Universal.  Not that the studio system wasn’t also happy to kick Doyle’s corpse in the crotch.  When Universal took over the series in 1942, a title card appeared at the opening of Voice of Terror to proclaim Holmes/Watson so utterly “timeless” that they would now be appearing in mysteries set in contemporary London--complete with Nazis!

Terror by Night features all the charms studio romantics typically associate with the B-film.  It also makes a solid case that the B-film was the ideal vehicle for Holmes and Watson.  Doyle’s original stories, after all, while hugely popular, were generally short pieces of light fiction that--like the B-film--were to be read and mentally disposed of immediately.  What better excuse to avoid spending huge amounts of money on elaborate sets, large casts, and complicated action sequences?

Terror by Night pastes together a couple of Doyle’s shorter Sherlock fictions to create a rather by-the-numbers whodunit on a train.  The son of a rich old dowager employs Holmes to guard them as they travel from London to Edinburgh with some mythical horse-choker of a diamond.  One attempt has already been made to steal the gem, and Sherlock (with Watson in tow, of course) is certain the thieves will strike again on the train.  And guess what?  The son is soon found dead in his compartment and the diamond has gone missing.  The bulk of the film involves Holmes deducing his way through the 5 suspects occupying the car’s 5 compartments.  

Train movies—especially mysteries-- have their own logic and rhythm of course.  In the real world, a murder and the theft of a multi-million dollar diamond would result in the train grinding to a halt and the immediate embarkation of a forensics team.  In Terror by Night, Holmes simply has the train car locked up and sets out to expose the killer before they reach Edinburgh (a trip, by the way, that we are told will take “all night” and at one point—in a brief cut away to stock footage—appears to detour through the Alps.  By 1946, thousands of American G.I.’s had been to the United Kingdom—but apparently a few 4-F’s left back in Hollywood took the idea of the Scottish “Highlands” a little too literally).  Far from distracting, however, this chronotope is wholly appropriate to the genre—the sealed car moving inexorably forward becomes an analogue of the narration itself, a hermetic diegesis intertwining enigma and journey through the moving time-space of deduction.  We know Holmes will succeed in solving the mystery by the time they reach the station, just as we know he will not solve it with an hour or so to spare—as expected, the killer’s revelation takes place just as we roll into Edinburgh in the film’s 59th of 60 minutes. 

Confining the story to a single train car presents a perfect example of the B-film’s narrative/material economies.  There are some short expository scenes in a coffin shop and on the London platform, plus a couple of detours into the baggage and dining cars while on the train—but a good 90% of Terror By Night unfolds either in the corridor or in one of the 5 passenger compartments (which of course is actually the same set re-dressed several times for minor variation).  The set-ups here are thus extremely limited and repetitive—more a matter of moving the various actors on and off the set than moving the actual cameras.

There is a brief and frankly gratuitous attempt to inject a little jeopardy into this world by having a mysterious figure push Holmes from the train—but for the most part the entire mystery unfolds as a series of discussions between rotating groups of characters either passing in the corridor or seated in their compartments.  And given the extraordinary luxury of British rail travel in 1946—at least as imagined by Hollywood—we might as well be back in Holmes’ study at 221B Baker Street.  Indeed, despite the fact that one man is dead, a priceless jewel is missing, and other incidental characters eventually turn up dead or wounded, no one seems particularly concerned about his own personal safety.  In the midst of what we would now call a spree killing, Watson still finds time to play cards with an old friend and Holmes has ample opportunity to smoke and speculate in his berth.  It is an interesting compromise with Doyle’s original conception of the Holmes character: even though murders are unfolding in their very midst, the characters engage the crimes, not as participants, but as if they were simply reading and thinking about them.

Of course, some might argue a movie that unfolds like an exercise in reading and/or polite conversation sounds pretty dull.  True, there are no asses kicked in Terror By Night.  Nothing explodes, nor are there any spectacular stunts to speak of (unless you count Rathbone dangling for a few moments in front of a rear projection of the Midlands speeding by).  But there is still a certain charm in a movie that, like the issues of Beeton's, Lippincott's, and The Strand  in which Holmes first appeared, invites you to kill an hour or so in its company without making any further demands on your time, money, or consciousness.   Of course at that point the Holmes “franchise” was only 50 years old, “timeless” enough to be transplanted to 1940s London and yet not so completely evacuated from history as to become a hyperreal prop for taquito sales.  

Which leads to a final set of questions.  What advantage, exactly, does Sherlock Holmes bring to the marketing of the “Go-Go Taquito?”  Does the “Go-Go Taquito” do anything to increase box-office for Holmes?  Or has this whole process become so reflexive that no one even dares question it anymore?  I’m sure marketers could produce figures proving a spike in Go-Go Taquito consumption over the next few weeks—and that’s even more disturbing (although there is still no way of knowing if a campaign featuring big signs reading, “Eat a Goddamn Go-Go Taquito Already.  They’re only 99¢,” would be any less effective).  Perhaps in the sequel, Holmes and Watson can combat the nascent forces of mass marketing taking shape at the turn of the last century, preserving their own historical legacy by thwarting future attempts to annex British literary history to the peculiarly American desire to attach meaning—any meaning, really—to even the most abject of consumables.

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