1950s, British cinema, Crime/Detective

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

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Director: Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

This is the best film of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. In fact, it’s better than the book. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels hardly stack up against his short-story gems. The novel of Hound shoots itself in the foot by blowing the cover on its villain halfway through, then stumbling through an anti-climactic last act. It also avoids examining undercurrents the story presents, even copping out of the science/superstition clash that drives the narrative, only flirting with the ideas comically when Bishop Frankland threatens to sue amateur anthropologist Dr. Mortimer for body-snatching in his digs at Neolithic sites. But Doyle fails to bring anything to a point. He even writes Holmes out of half of the novel.

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Armed with a tight screenplay by John Bryant, Fisher’s film charges with force into the story’s potential. Opening with a typically thunderous James Bernard score timed with lightning bursts, the camera closes in slowly on the matte-painted Baskerville Hall. The velvet-threat tones of Francis de Wolff, playing Mortimer, intones the legend of the hound. In the 17th century, a tenant farmer is tortured in the Hall by aristocratic cads because he stood between his daughter—imprisoned upstairs—and Sir Hugo Baskerville (played with perfect sleazy elegance by David Oxley). Baskerville, for a coup de grace, roasts the man in the fireplace.

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Sir Hugo has to pay up on a wager to his fellow noble scoundrels on how long the man would last, and being the gentleman he is, he proposes paying with the girl. Proceeding upstairs, he finds the girl has absconded out the window via the ivy-covered walls. Hugo orders his hunting hounds released to chase her down, and sets out on horseback, crying “May the hounds of hell take me if I can’t hunt her down!” He catches her in the fog among wreathed ruins of an abbey and stabs her death with relish. He is then confronted by a growling, unseen monster that devours him greedily amid the creep’s blood-curdling screams.

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Having gotten our attention, Fisher dissolves to Holmes’ study as Mortimer concludes his reading. Unlike the novel’s agreeable geek, this Mortimer is a fat, faintly shifty self-publicist who responds huffily to Holmes’ less-than-enthralled air. Peter Cushing’s Holmes is introduced, his pencil-thin form leisurely lifting his hand with a gasp of vision not at Mortimer’s words but to play a chess move that’s occurred to him. Watson is played by Andre Morell, who had portrayed Nigel Kneale’s scientific titan Quatermass on television, making it clear he’s not a Nigel Bruce buffoon but a quick-witted, if slightly old-boyish, colleague.

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Dr. Mortimer engages Holmes to solve the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville with a litany of relishable clues, such as the footprints of a gigantic hound and the fact that Sir Charles tiptoed (“But he wasn’t tiptoeing,” Cushing intones, “He was running, Watson, running for his life until he burst his heart!”). Holmes is also to protect Sir Charles’ heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), who, it soon turns out, needs protection badly. There’s a stowaway tarantula in his boot, that crawls onto his shoulder (suggesting, in one shot, a large lump of lint), and is disposed of by Holmes who hits it like he’s killing an anaconda. Though hardly dangerous to anyone else, the spider could have been fatal to Sir Henry, with hiss inherited heart condition. Holmes announces he must stay in town, so he has Watson accompany Mortimer and Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall.

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First seen in delicately menacing sunlight with Bernard’s eerie oboe scoring, Dartmoor soon becomes a nightmare-drenched wonderland. There’s the convicted killer of prostitutes Selden (David Birks) loose from Dartmoor Prison, for piquance. There’s dingbat local minister and entomologist Bishop Frankland (Miles Malleson), for comic relief. Or is he? Did the tarantula come from his collection? Why does Mrs. Barrymore (Helen Goss), wife of the trusty housekeeper (John LeMesurier), weep at night? Why is Selden signaling to the hall? What are saturnine farmer Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his enfant sauvage daughter Cecile (Marla Landi) up to?

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Despite the noisy music and equally loud color, Fisher’s films are marked by a cool mixture of poetic realism and tightly built sequences, and, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a riot of florid atmosphere—rotting leaves, jagged stone, dawn-lit moors, rustling silk, blood-red coats, Marla Landi’s earthy skin, dripping mines, lanterns, and black bogs. Fisher’s Hammer films revitalised British cinema and rode point for a revolution of Horror popularity that only ran out of steam some 25 years later. Fisher began his directorial career in stultifying quota quickies. His one early work of note was So Long At The Fair (1951), featuring Dirk Bogarde and Jean Simmons, a fascinating mystery based on a great urban myth. The film sits heavily under the starchy influence of the standard period film, and would have benefited from Fisher’s later, rowdier touch.

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Indeed, before the Fisher-Hammer explosion, British genre cinema, though rich and fascinating, lacked the damn-the-torpedoes drive of their American brethren. Suddenly, that WWII-era, stiff-upper-lip veneer cracked, and out came a bloody-gorged beauty, luxuriating in sex, violence, pounding melodrama, black humor, and with a coherent thematic agenda. Like the “Angry Young Man” tales that were emerging at the same time, Fisher’s early Hammer films jumped with the eagerness of a terrier on rats onto the skeletons in the English cupboard—particularly sex, class, and religion. Hollywood and European Horror of the ’20s and ’30s, only took cues from Freud and surrealism. This hitherto unexplored element in the Gothic genre became, in the hands of ’60s Horror practitioners, at its best a potent vessel for revisionist views of history, power relations, and morality shifts.

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Dracula, for instance, the invading foreign seducer preying on the flower of English femininity, was refashioned by Fisher and Lee as a suave precursor of James Bond, a vampire Heathcliff, a variant on the handsome ruffians Stewart Granger played years before. Amidst the generic explosion the success of the early Hammer productions generated, Fisher’s films laid down the blueprint for a movement away from purely metaphoric horror into more socially and psychologically aware works.

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Whilst too many horror stories are reflexively conservative creations, serving up doses of misogyny, fear of sexual deviancy, and needful conformity, Fisher began a trend that would be expanded on by later directors such as Peter Sasdy, Michael Reeves, Gordon Hessler, Hans Geissendoerfer (in his vampirism-is-Hitlerism parable Jonathan, 1968), Roman Polanski, and George Romero. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, written by Anthony Shaffer and starring Lee, created as a parody/tribute, inverted Fisher’s style by replacing Gothic chic with deceptive folkish whimsy, but reverently employed his intellectual approach. Much later, Fisher would be paid homage by Neil Jordan with his remarkably bizarre fantasy The Company of Wolves (1984) and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999).

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Fisher’s films show a consistent fascination with the relationship of Manichaeistic forces: good and evil and their fraught relationship. As axiomatic as this fascination sounds in the genre context, it is, in fact, hardly so. Some directors, Jean Rollin for instance, regarded traditional “good” as an idiotic blind alley. Others, from Murnau through to Polanski and Romero, regard it as fragile and ineffective. Still others, the true exploitation directors, conform to standard moralist structures even as they rejoice and celebrate what they purport to condemn. In Fisher’s films, good and evil stand entwined, evil usually rather more attractive than good, and fatally so.

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Fisher’s moral eye was unpredictable, original, and inescapable. He turned tragic titan Victor Frankenstein into a ruthless, destructive sociopath, a meddler so driven to discover that everything, even human life, becomes incidental. He is light years from Colin Clive’s preening motherly male, instead a manifestation of the alienation found in Edward Teller’s disinterested statement about the detonation of the atomic bomb he helped create: “Who wants to see that? It’s just a big bang.” Fisher then became the only director to do anything interesting with Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing, turning him from aged savant into dashing man of iron, comforting in his fearless resolve and paternal, caring strength, but frightening in his puritanical brutality and willingness to crush the leech-like sensuality of vampires (usually women). As well as the first servings of truly in-your-face gore in his stakings, Fisher also offered a clear statement of the painful relation between “good” and “repression,” an indictment of for-your-own-good regimes.

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In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes stands in the same position as Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein as an arbiter of rationalism in an ignorant, intellectually sluggish world; he is Frankenstein with a moral compass. He clears away the shadows and reveals the greasepaint and old rope used by Stapleton to make Sir Henry think the past is quite literally haunting him. Holmes is (here at least) a less interesting figure than Cushing’s Frankenstein and Van Helsing, except in his haughty, egotistical streak, a strong trait in the stories, more emphasized here than any other film.

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The film is most crucially interesting in remoulding the relationship of Sir Henry and Stapleton’s daughter (in the novel, his actual wife, forced to pose as his offspring to make his potential future claims easier). Casting Lee as the descendent of the depraved Sir Hugo marks him as a powerful, imperious, sexually magnetic presence. As such, far more meaningful than the novel’s pallid baronet, Sir Henry is attracted to the gleaming-eyed, sullen-mouthed, Spanish-born Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi), who provokes and yet runs from his stirred lust. Sir Henry is cursed with the same rapacious instincts as his ancestor, but so is Cecile—her fire is the Baskerville genes sharpened by deprivation and centuries of rage held by the peasantry towards their aristocratic exploiters, to their deadliest, most sexually sadistic point. A femme fatale to the max, Cecile is Sir Hugo returned in his victim’s body.

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Likewise, Stapleton (Ewen Solon)—in the novel an insidious, devious naturalist, a false-benign opposite of Holmes—here plays the gentleman farmer but crippled (by an inherited trait of Sir Hugo’s, a plot point) and down-at-heel, generating his evil plot with native cunning rather than intellectual prowess. The Stapletons’ revenge enacts the classic “return of the repressed.” In the film’s breathlessly well-staged finale (apart from a less-than-terrifying mutt), Cecile, having lured Sir Henry to the Abbey, the ruins of which are, throughout the film, a bullring-like battleground of good and evil, and turns their passionate tryst to a mocking tirade in preparation to serve Sir Henry up for dinner. Doyle had a singular running theme of abused women in his stories–in one, a maltreated wife fills her villainous husband with the entire magazine of a revolver, to Holmes’ and Watson’s unblinking approval—and characterized Miss Stapleton as a terrified dove trapped by her husband. Fittingly, where in the book it is Stapleton who is sucked into Grimpen Mire, here Cecile is last seen sliding into the muck. The evil of the Baskervilles, their greedy sexuality, dies with her. Fisher, though not as decoratively sophisticated as Bava, was great at pace and action—two elements that directors with infinitely larger budgets and resources can never get in proper balance. None of his films slow for a second, whilst remaining as coherent as filmmaking can get. His trademark touches include vigorous close-ups and deep-focus dioramic shots that bind together elements and crystallise the action.

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Fisher expanded his intensely rhythmic approach to editing (his job in movies before becoming a director), and The Hound of the Baskervilles stomps on its tackier production elements to create a film of racing verve. Hound was a comparative box office failure, because the audience resented a lack of monsters, so a planned series of Holmes films did not join the painfully distended Frankenstein and Dracula cycles. Fisher continued provided visitations on traditional themes, though his romantic variation on The Phantom of the Opera (1962) proved a big flop and stalled his career. Generally out of place as Hammer films became sillier, sexier, and more violent, Fisher nonetheless served up several more bona fide classics, including The Gorgon (1963), The Devil Rides Out (1967), from a Dennis Wheatley novel, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), before retiring and dying in 1980.

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1970s, Mystery

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

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Director: Billy Wilder

By Roderick Heath

Sherlock Holmes comes just behind Dracula as the most portrayed fictional character on the movie screen, but few films about the great sleuth hold claim to greatness. One of the few is Billy Wilder’s elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was a dismal flop on release even after being shortened drastically from its original three hours plus, which is a true pity, as it stands as probably Wilder’s best post-The Apartment work in his unique genre of films, so ruthless in observing human nature but so deeply sympathetic to it. The personal attraction of Holmes to Wilder is intriguing and crucial. Holmes is the quintessential intellectual’s idealised self. Holmes is mythic and eternal because Conan Doyle deliberately avoided rounding him out. He presented a man that avoided normal human entanglements – in a word, women. With his usual writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder sets out to mock and subvert Holmes, and yet strengthen him as a man.

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The opening credits roll over the disinterment of Holmes’ and Watson’s personal effects, 50 years after Watson’s death, with Watson’s (Colin Blakely) accompanying letter promising the revelation of the more discreet details of Holmes’ life that were left out of his heroic Strand magazine accounts. Holmes’ deductions are skewered in the narration’s account of a murder’s solution: “You may recall that he broke the murder’s alibi by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk in the butter on a hot day.” Holmes (Robert Stephens) is bored, and, thus, crabby, exacting (he berates Mrs Hudson (Irene Handel) for cleaning up his filing system, which relied on the depth of dust for dating) and puckishly humorous as he complains about Watson’s distortions of him for the stories. Holmes wastes time sawing his violin, composing monographs on varieties of cigar ash, and finally taking to his seven-percent solution for days at a time (“Holmes, aren’t you ashamed?” “Thoroughly, but this will fix it.”) to kill his great energy. Holmes is suffering in the emergent cult of celebrity. His life mythologised by his friend, devoured by the public, he is a target for everyone who seeks to pick his brain for trivialities. Searching to escape this rut, he surveys various available cases and offers. One is from a circus owner, whose six-man midget acrobatics team has vanished. Holmes concludes from the offer of five pounds to find them (“that’s not even a pound a midget!”) that the owner’s a stingy blighter and the midgets obviously took a better job.

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Watson insists they accept two free tickets to the Imperial Russian Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake”. On top of his hatred of ballet,Holmes is wary of ulterior motives. Predictably, Holmes is spirited backstage by the ballet’s director-general Rogozhin (Clive Revill, who here and in Avanti! provided priceless comic performances for Wilder). He is introduced to prima ballerina Madame Petrova, who has an unusual offer: Holmes is tofather a superchild with her in exchange for a Stradivarius. Rogozhin explains, as Holmes chokes on embarrassment, that Holmes was not their first choice for a father:

“We considered Russian writer. Tolstoy.”
“Oh that’s more like it, the man’s a genius!”
“Too old. Then we considered philosopher. Nietzsche.”
“Absolutely first-class mind.”
“Too German. Next we try Tchaikosvky.”
“Oh you couldn’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky.”
“You can and we did. It was catastrophe! Women – how you say – not his glass of tea.”

This last revelation provides Holmes with the perfect excuse to opt out, claiming to having been in a relationship with Watson for “five happy years.” Watson,meanwhile, dances in ecstatic abandon with ballerinas at the backstage party. As word of his apparent predilection spreads, he promptly finds his dancing partners made up of men.

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Watson, enraged, storms into 221B Baker Street. Holmes calms his distraught friend, who fears scandal, by reminding him of his legendary heterosexuality. “Yes,” Watson declares, “I’ve got women on three continents who can vouch for me!” But when Watson asks Holmes if any can vouch for him, “ I hope I’m not being presumptuous…But there have been women in your life…?” Holmes’ chilly reply is, “The answer is ‘yes,’ you’re being presumptuous.” This sustained comic movement brings up two important themes: shifting identities (the swan who is not a swan has several fellows in the story) and the question of what kind of sexual creature Holmes is. The possibility of his being gay is, for Holmes, a preferable smokescreen. We’ve heard him protest that Watson has “given people the distinct impression that I’m a misogynist. Actually I don’t dislike women. I merely distrust them.”

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Soon, Holmes and Watson are presented with a classic case. A woman (the always tantalising Geneviève Page) is brought to them by a cabbie who found her in the river, assaulted, with Holmes’ name on her lips. Holmes is brutally eager to get solve the case (“the sooner we find who she is, the sooner we can get rid of her!”) Holmes is disturbed by her crying in her sleep, and finds himself grasped by her, stark naked, in a feverish state, thinking he is her husband. Picking up various clues, he tracks down her belongings and identifies her as Gabrielle Valledon, wife of a Belgian engineer. When she’s clearheaded, Gabrielle explains her husband disappeared whilst on a job in England, working for a company called Jonah, Ltd., with only a postal address for contact.

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Checking out this address, they find only an empty shop where letters picked up by a wheelchair-bound lady, and a cage full of canaries, a number of which are picked up by some workmen and transferred to a smaller crate lined with copies of The Inverness Courier. The mysterious Jonah is mentioned again; even more mysterious is that a letter left by the woman is addressed to Holmes. It is from his brother, timed to the minute, requesting a meeting. Their trip to that museum of Empire fossils known as the Diogenes Club is occasion for Holmes to theorise about his brother’s involvement in all sorts of Foreign Office shenanigans. Christopher Lee’s Mycroft radiates a calm, acid authority as he warns Holmes to drop this case, shrinking his younger brother from indomitable hero to bohemian brat meddling with grown-ups’ games. Of course, this merely deepens Sherlock’s interest. But Mycroft may have a point. Mme. Valladon has an odd habit of flashing Morse code with her umbrella to an accomplice on the street.

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Holmes and Gabrielle travel to Inverness as “Mr and Mrs Ashdown”, with Watson posing as their butler, riding third class, conversing – one-way – with a group of Trappist monks who are reading the Book of Jonah in their Bibles and whispering in German to each other. Meanwhile, in their sleeping compartment, Holmes, explains to Gabrielle why he distrusts women:

“The most affectionate woman I ever knew was a murderess. It was one of those passionate affairs at odd hours right in my laboratory. And all the time right behind my back she was stealing cyanide to sprinkle on her husband’s steak and kidney pie…”

“You musn’t judge all women just because…” Gabrielle protests.

He cuts in, “Of course not. Just the ones I was involved with. And I don’t just mean professionally. Kleptomaniacs. Nymphomaniacs. Pyromaniacs. Take my fiancé for instance. She was the daughter of my violin teacher. We were engaged to be married, the invitations were out, I was being fitted for a tailcoat, and 24 hours before the wedding, she died of influenza. It just proves my contention that women are unreliable.”

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This explanation for Holmes is brilliantly offered by Wilder as an affliction of cruel logic for a rigorously logical man. After a grievous early loss cheated him of a traditional romantic sensibility; of course, the devious genius obsessed with criminals would be most attracted to women with hints of unstable or criminal tendencies, the only ones with minds that work like his, to tantalise all the poles of his personality. That he is attracted enough by Mme. Valladon’s beauty and mystery is enough to rattle him; the more intelligent and supple she proves, the more rapt he is.

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As this unlikely threesome book into their hotel room overlooking Loch Ness, Watson swears he saw the monster in the loch, strenuously disbelieved by Holmes. In a graveyard they witness a burial of coffins, one large, two small, which the gravedigger (Stanley Holloway) tells them was a father and two children who drowned in the loch. Then comes a peculiar spectacle, four schoolboy mourners who, as Holmes realises even before seeing their wizened faces, are midgets, the band who abandoned their circus; two of their fellows are now buried. Holmes, Watson, and Gabrielle disinter the larger of the two coffins, fearing it might contain M. Valladon, in the night, and find the engineer buried with several dead canaries stained ghostly white, signs of gas poisoning. Gabrielle is distraught, with Holmes providing less-than-delicate consoling, but soon they’re back out, searching for any sign of where Valladon was working, with Gabrielle signalling via umbrella code to the Trappist monks trailing them.

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At Urquart Castle, they find restoration works being run by an auxiliary of the Diogenes Club and soldierly guides who know nothing of history. Holmes pursues his gathering theory, and he, Watson, and Gabrielle ride a rowboat on the loch chasing the monster. He is able to hear, through Watson’s stethoscope, a throbbing engine beneath the waves, just before the “monster” surfaces, overturns their boat, and heads for its “lair” in Urquart Castle. Returning to shore, sopping wet but unharmed, Holmes is called for by a carriage and driven to the castle. Holmes is confronted by Mycroft, who explains to him what Holmes has already deduced – that the navy is testing an experimental submersible, the HMS Jonah, crewed by midgets; that it is run by a battery system built by Valladon that, when it leaked and mixed with water, produced gas that choked Valladon, and what he surely has not deduced – that Valladon’s real wife was murdered weeks before and the woman posing as her now is Ilse von Hoffmanstall, a German agent who has subverted Holmes’ method and used his abilities to trace the Jonah project.

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In silent agony, Sherlock now must watch as Mycroft, in fatuous style, shows Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) the craft. Victoria, pint-sized, grandmotherly, is delighted by the machine, and asks, innocently, “Where’s the glass bottom?” Mycroft explains confidently that she misunderstands the machine’s purpose: “Jonah is to be commissioned as a warship!” Victoria’s horrified opinion, almost word for word that of a real British admiral, is, “It’s unsportsmanlike! It’s un-English!” and orders it destroyed. Sherlock is given the job destroying the warship, which he does, and unmasks Ilse with dutiful melancholy. He gives Ilse the gift of knowledge that she outwitted him. As she is driven away by Mycroft and his men, she signals with her umbrella “Auf wiedersehn” to him. Some months later, after she has been exchanged back to Germany, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft, informing him that Ilse was shot for spying by the Japanese. Holmes turns back to the seven-percent solution, which even Watson cannot argue against, and Holmes disappears in his room.

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This is one of the most gossamer tragedies ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough.

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