Sherlock Holmes: The Master Blackmailer
by Parama Chaudhury
The celebrated duo of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are back as the infamous Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a two-hour feature film by Granada Television. The Master Blackmailer is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”
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In the travails of all great fictional detectives, there is a Dostoyevsky-like story of the perfect crime, which is so despicable that it must be avenged by the detective by any means, legal or not. The Master Blackmailer, brought to DVD and video by MPI Home Video, tells such a story with the greatest of all sleuths, Sherlock Holmes, as the conscience-stricken detective who decides to bring down a particularly odious criminal by hook or by crook. Blackmail is, after all, the most heinous crime that exists and so any means are justified in pursuit of an expert blackmailer. In The Master Blackmailer, Holmes tries threats and coercion, and racks his brain for an innovative trap for the blackmailer, but when all else fails, he resorts to the old fail-safe method, a timely break-in. Adapted from “The Adventures of Charles Augustus Milverton,” a story which provides a rare peek into the inner workings of Holmes’s shrewd mind, The Master Blackmailer is an enjoyable film because of the adept performances of the main characters and some spectacular cinematography, but it ultimately fails to capture the multidimensional turmoil of Conan Doyle’s story.
The film opens with a melodramatic scene in Paris, where we catch a fleeting glimpse of a beautiful noblewoman writing a billets-doux before a crackling fire. En route to the intended recipient, the letter is sold by the servant entrusted with the delivery. Then we cut to England, several years later, where a heavily veiled woman is pleading for mercy, apparently from a blackmailer. This sets the stage for our introduction to Mr. Charles Augustus Milverton, a man who insinuates himself into the lives of the rich and notable by inducing their household help to sell their potentially scandalous letters to him. Holmes and his faithful assistant Watson become involved with this blackmailer when an old lady tells them about how this man - she doesn’t mention his name but gives them some clues - destroyed the lives of her grandsons. The monster lives and breathes, she tells Holmes.
Up to this point, the narrative of the film has been quite choppy, but where it has failed to maintain our interest with a steady flow of information, it has piqued our interest by building up a sense of anticipation. It is at this point that the jerky movement between the different parts of the plot starts to distract our attention and make us fidgety as we wonder on whom to concentrate our empathy. Without a proper explanation of why Holmes is talking to this old lady and whether he has been engaged to follow a case, we jump to another potential blackmail case. A seemingly upright soldier, with a high society fiancée, is blackmailed about his homosexual affair, and eventually commits suicide. Now even though we have been thrown headlong into this new story, the director suddenly slows down and develops this new story in painstaking detail.
This story seems attractive enough, and together with the Monet-like construction of the scenes where the high society types are lounging in the sun, lulls us into thinking that this is the main story we should concentrate on. But not quite! Before we can sink our teeth into this one, we are introduced to a friend of the soldier’s fiancée who seems particularly vulnerable to blackmail. Her lady’s maid has been selling some of her old love letters, and now her marriage to an earl is threatened by the existence of those letters. This is the actual case that Holmes and Watson are charged with, and all the other stories were just evidence of the extent of havoc that Milverton has wreaked. It is hard to suppress a feeling of disappointment when we realize that this was the only reason for the self-consciously disjointed construction of the first few minutes of the story. After all, so much anticipation has been built up, that we expect to see some of those early stories and the characters in those stories play a non-trivial part in the main story. A link to these characters is revealed towards the end, but it seems flimsy and is not developed very thoroughly. One gets the feeling that since the focus of this story is an abstract, almost philosophical one - meting out justice in a case where there is no mystery - the director felt the need to spice things up by visualizing some of the background action. That strategy seems to have backfired.
Jeremy Brett, as the famed detective, is in his element here, showing off the various aspects of the great mind that is Holmes. Holmes is always driven by the prospect of a challenge, a particularly adept criminal, but in this case, there is nothing to work his mind around. Everyone knows who the criminal is, but there is simply no way to stop him without risking scandal. Holmes is so disturbed by the evil that this man is sowing, that when all else seems lost, he decides to stoop to the ways of petty burglars and get into Milverton’s stash of private letters which form the fodder for his nefarious business dealings. Holmes is a complicated man with a highly developed sense of crime and punishment, and of morality, but this is not at all apparent in the unfolding of The Master Blackmailer. The best scenes are the ones in which Brett expresses his indignation and his helplessness. But the director keeps cutting to the action - the damsel in distress, her strangely familiar aunt, their run-ins with Milverton at an art gallery- and the internal drama that is the central focus of this story is diluted to a uni-dimensional struggle between the good and the not-so-good.
The casting is creditable; Robert Hardy is suitable sinister as the blackmailer, Milverton, while Serena Gordon is an angelic Lady Eva Blackwell and Norma West plays her aunt, Lady Swinstead as a tragic diva. This along with the contrasts evoked by the cinematography, from the dark, sensuous aspect of Paris to the light and airy feeling of an English summer when the ladies lounge on hammocks in between games of croquet, make The Master Blackmailer enjoyable. Unfortunately, the director’s lack of commitment to the pace of the story, which is slightly slower than usual, and refusal to make Holmes’s moral dilemma the centerpiece of the narrative, reduces one of the more complex of Conan Doyle’s stories to a run-of-the-mill story about greed and its downfall.
Parama Chaudhury is a graduate student, an ex-writing instructor and a budding freelance writer based in New York City.
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