Movies: A Study in Angry Yellow

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I love me some Sherlock Holmes. Own a nice set of the original canon, a huge annotated version of same, and am saving up for yet another, more recent annotated set. Lots of videos, of course. I wish I had more of the Grenada version with Jeremy Brett, or the BBC run with Peter Cushing, but I do have some one-shots that bear watching, and Sunday I decided it was time to re-visit one:  A Study in Terror (1965), available these days from one of my current favorite vendors, Warner Archive. I’d seen it on TV back in the day, but had not had a chance since the days of VHS.

The first thing to note is the really unfortunate poster that also forms the front of the box, a brazen attempt by the American marketing team to catch a lift from the Batmania craze. I wonder if it worked; I rather doubt it, but I also recall a slew of dubious offerings at the local cinema at the time (Rat Pfink a Boo Boo was only one of them, let me tell you), so perhaps claiming Sherlock was “The Original Caped Crusader” was the right way to go.

A Study in Terror is one of two Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper movies out there (Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree being the other), joining a ton of books and a videogame on the same topic. It’s a subject that really seems to bring out the best in all involved; I’ve yet to read or see one of the stories that didn’t entertain or at least offer a unique take.

Sherlock Holmes this time out is played by John Neville, another waypoint in a wide and accomplished career; Watson is essayed by Donald Houston, a character actor who strikes a fair balance between capable assistant and dunderhead. I’m very happy with the revisionist Watson movement that seems to have its roots in the Grenada series and Edward Hardwicke, culminating in the infinitely more able and believable characterizations by Jude Law and Martin Freeman. Both Neville and Houston offer reasonable, very human performances – it’s very possible to believe in the existence of both characters. Robert Morley puts in an extended appearance as Mycroft, but this version hardly grants the character the intellectual superiority Sherlock often mentioned in his older brother.

And if you look smartly, you will see a young Judi Dench in a supporting role.

Study plays pretty loose with the established facts of the Ripper murders, and its solution is a novel one, if also playing coy with its resolution as to explain why the killings are still considered unsolved. The one spoiler I will engage in is that the solution does not involve the Royals in any way, which seems to be de rigeur since publication of Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which forms the core of Murder by Decree and Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s superb From Hell.


The other departure from fact in the movie is that every one of The Ripper’s prostitute victims is a stunning beauty. Necessary for the movies, I suppose, but if you’ve looked at photos in any of a number of books written about the case, very, very far from the truth. But: A Study in Terror is a good Holmes flick. Great costuming, good production design, good performances.

In the interests of contrast (I guess), I then turned to something that had been living on my hard drive a long time: a pretty bad VHS rip of Werner Herzog’s God’s Angry Man, a 1980 documentary about televangelist Dr. Gene Scott, an extraordinary fixture on late night TV whom I would watch, spellbound, not knowing what the hell was going to be coming out of his mouth next. Scott would rant and rave and throw temper tantrums and make occasional interesting points about scripture. He would cover a chalkboard in scribblings and bizarre diagrams years before Glenn Beck. And by God, you did not cross him or he would fire you on the air.

Herzog captures classic Scott as, live and on the air, he first refuses to say anything else until the thousand dollars he needs comes over the phones, and when that oppressive hunk of dead air yields no results, starts yelling at TV land in general:

The on air stuff is spaced out by interviews with Dr. Scott, in which he paints himself as a lonely man tasked to do an impossible job, with no friends and no privacy. All the privacy he has, he claims, is in a black leather bag. He of course refuses to divulge its contents to Herzog. Sadly, this all comes across as just as much shinola as his onscreen exhortations to hand over your money: he is an habitual world builder, and I don’t think he is capable of stopping. Though when he says he would love to ditch all this and just become an anonymous farmer, I do think I see a bit of honesty gleam in his eyes. At 45 minutes, I at first thought God’s Angry Man was too short, but I now think it’s just about the right length: you can’t take the full measure of the man, but you get a pretty good idea as to his character.

The scary thing is, even though Dr. Scott succumbed to cancer in 2005, apparently his tape recordings are still being broadcast by his foundation, Dr. Gene Scott yet haunts the airwaves.

The next day belonged to the Venus Transit. The astronomy mavens of the college where I work pulled out their equipment and made dang sure that anyone who wanted a look at the event had the chance, and I was there to record it all. You know what was really neat? The simple joy of students who had just been walking past, discovering they were able to see it, when they  thought they’d have to make do with YouTube and the like the next day. They got to see it live, and they were delighted with the opportunity. That was cool.

And the next day Ray Bradbury died. That’ll harsh your buzz, let me tell you.

I don’t have any movie versions of Bradbury’s work to hand, though I wish I did. So instead I looked to a recent arrival, a work of whimsy and imagination itself. I pulled out the new Blu-Ray of Yellow Submarine, and hoped that would be close enough.

Yellow Submarine is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know if you could say that your mind was blown at 11 years of age, but it certainly had that effect on me. Stunning use of many different forms of animation, and a kind of music that I was only just beginning to become aware of, something beyond the country classics played by the radio station.  A lot of things changed there, in the dark of the Rialto Theatre. I honestly don’t know what would have happened had I seen 2001 the same year.

I’m going to quote myself, from a review I wrote for the DVD, released in 1999 :

Yellow Submarine was like a present we gave ourselves at the end of the Sixties, preserving as it does the things that were right about the period – optimism, idealism, irreverence, and an innocent faith that Art could make all things right – and none of the negatives. Even past such philosophical frippery, Yellow Submarine was important historically, proving as it did that an animated film did not have to slavishly ape Disney movies to be successful.”

 The audio and video are both steps up from even the DVD, which was pretty doggone good. I had heard some grumbling about Digital Noise Reduction and the like, but I only spotted some glitching in the Sea of Holes segment (a favorite, of course – seeing those limitless planes of holes rushing at you and around you on the big screen was amazing). Past that. the colors are predictably eye-popping, and the music magnificently re-mixed. It looks like they even restored the live-action Beatles clip at the end.

If I have a complaint, it’s that extras on the disc are the same as the DVD’s: they appear to have covered up the animation sequences in the contemporary (1968) making-of, Mod Odyssey, with the restored footage from the movie, but that’s all.

So, um, nice upgrade on the movie itself, I suppose. But nothing else. The more you know, etc.

Thanks, guys, I forgot.