I realized I'd seen this story before. William Gillette's famed stage play, in which the author pretty much defined the dramatic role of Arthur Conan Doyle's super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, had been revived numerous times since its initial turn of the century run. A scene in which a cigar smoking Holmes eludes some thugs in the dark finally clicked with me: the play had been revived on Broadway, featuring Frank Langella in the title role, and I'd seen it telecast on HBO, back in the early-to-mid 80s when the channel would screen stage plays.
But the 1916 film of the play, in which Gillette and much of the company reprised their stage roles, was lost until last year. The Cinematheque Francaise had found the 1920 French serialization of the film (all footage present, but split into four chapters for weekly screenings). Allied with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, LCF has restored this version of the film, which had its North American premiere tonight.
It is very much a movie of its time. Many of the Silent Film Festival's offerings (especially those from later in the silent era) do manage to feel timeless both in the emotions they evoke and the still novel ways in which they're made. But Sherlock Holmes is very much a mid-teens silent, shot largely with wide shots on stage sets, punctuated by the occasional close-up or camera movement.
But as stagy as it often feels (and Gillette and company were speaking their original dialogue from the play, little of which made it onto the intertitles), it retains a mythic heft that's hard to ignore. Holmes was very much the role of Gillette's career, and much of how we've envisioned the character through the years can be traced back to his interpretation. His Holmes is a little younger than we're used to, not much older than Cumberbatch, and though Gillette doesn't have the advantage of his and Doyle's mellifluous dialogue the tactility of Holmes' intelligence is very much evident on screen.
Over the movie's four acts and two hours the story grows from a search for some missing letters into an all-out gang war, its sides spearheaded by Holmes and Moriarty. When young Billy the Page disguises himself as a street urchin for the final chapter we've clearly deep in Feuillade territory; though the French producers were chasing a waning Holmesmania and playing to the local thirst for serials, the movie almost feels made for that structure, and feels of a piece with Les Vampires or Judex.
The movie's very much the William Gillette show, and yet the lively supporting cast all get to make an impression. Edward Fielding's Watson is a spin on the character that we haven't quite seen elsewhere. A little older than Holmes, neither a Nigel Bruce buffoon nor the itchy but competent soldier played by Jude Law and Martin Freeman. Watson here isn't half of a duo act (as those just mentioned certainly are), but a sly but supportive friend. Watching Gillette and Fielding side by side you know damn well you're looking at Holmes and Watson, maybe even at THE Holmes and Watson. Even if the movie (gorgeously restored, and beautifully accompanied at tonight's screening by the Donald Sosin Ensemble) doesn't quite register the way a Holmes story should, its characters sure as hell do. The resurrection of this movie is what film restoration is all about: letting us see the pioneers of cinema back on screen where they belong, restoring their souls to their proper grandeur. These characters resonate, and breathe. Gillette moves. Holmes lives.