Wednesday 29 June 2011

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)

Gene Wilder. Where would we be without him? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I like living in a world with Gene Wilder. I like seeing him as Leo Bloom and Dr. Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and, of course, Jim (give yourself a point for knowing that one). One of his other lesser-known, but still great turns is as Sherlock Holmes’ embittered younger brother Sigerson in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Bringing with him the comedy talent of Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, whom he worked with through Mel Brooks, this also marked his second crack at feature writing and his first try at directing.

Sigerson Holmes (Gene Wilder), younger brother to the famous detective, is put onto a case of blackmail, brought to him by Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn). Assisted by Sgt. Orville Slacker (Marty Feldman), the pair try to solve the mystery of who’s behind it all and put an end to it their criminal deeds.

As I’ve previously mentioned, this was Wilder first time in the director’s chair, as well as being both writer and star. It should be understood that this was not a decision born of vanity. After the major success of the previous year’s Young Frankenstein, which earned both Wilder and Mel Brooks an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Wilder wrote another script, this time based on the one-off escapade of the great fictitious detective’s more fictitious brother. After writing it, he took it to his good friend Brooks and asked him to direct it. However, he declined the job, saying that he felt he couldn’t direct a script he didn’t write himself, and instead encouraged Wilder to try it himself. Though he did indeed take on the task, he said that it was “a terrifying commitment.” Clearly, he was nervous about being spread so thin on this, his first solo project.

Honestly, it kind of shows. Script-wise, the story is actually quite simple, though peppered with numerous red herrings that ultimately just stem from Jenny Hill constantly making stuff up. Also, there are some lapses in logic, on a level of story and common sense, which occur for the purposes of simply making a joke. These are less funny as a result, but they’re inoffensive enough that you can overlook them. It’s the direction that holds the most obvious problems, though. Scenes which don’t actually feature Sigerson are handled pretty well, but when Wilder could not actually be behind the camera during the scene, he does struggle, and you can see evidence of his uncertainty onscreen. There’s some fairly clumsy blocking here, a slight insecurity in the pacing there. There’s a moment near the film’s climax where you can actually see him cueing the entrance of other players. He tries to be subtle about it, but it is quite obvious.

However, for all the troubles with the direction, Wilder shows a very heartening willingness to try. Others that found themselves in the same position would be tempted to just put the camera on the spot, lock it off and let the scene play out before them. Wilder is a braver man than this. He moves the camera, involves it, and therefore the audience. Yes, it’s not as sure-footed as other directorial debuts may have been, but nor does it shrink from the challenge. Wilder clearly has a sense of the audience watching, and he wants to give them a proper film. Along with the set pieces and musical numbers (yes, I said musical numbers), little jokes and character gems are scattered throughout the film, showing further evidence of his comic sensibility and his awareness of the audience’s enjoyment. As such, for all its flaws, it’s actually a rather touching effort. Wilder cares, and I truly thank him for that.

Another sign of Wilder’s good sense is to surround himself with people who are not only his friends, and can therefore provide moral support, but they’re also a wealth of talent… and Wilder does not waste it. The comedy of the film largely depends not so much on character, but on context. The moments when people break character or pretence are what make it funny. Marty Feldman was always famous for playing weirdos and oddballs because, well, look at him. He just has one of those faces. Here he largely plays against type, being the straight man of the duo, with Wilder providing the ranting, egotistical (and damn funny) counter. Feldman’s Sgt. Slacker is a normal(ish) officer of the police records department, but he also has a phonographic memory. He remembers precisely everything he hears, but he can only access these mental recordings by smacking himself in the head. He spends most of the film in proper clothes, nice hat and pleasant demeanour, occasionally looking rather perturbed at the peculiarities of Sigerson, but when he slaps himself and then recounts an entire conversation in two different voices, neither of them his, it’s great comedy.

Equally, Madeline Kahn, also already established as a great comedienne, gives a great show as Jenny Hill, a beautiful showcase singer, governess and compulsive liar. She pulls off the elegant and easily flustered side of Hill wonderfully, but when she cracks, she becomes near hysterical. A fine example would be when she is sharing a carriage home with Sigerson and Slacker and two other carriages, replete with sinister types, pulls along either side of them. Upon spotting them, she signals her distress to the others simply by saying, “Scream.” Not actually screaming, not even screaming the ‘scream’, just saying it. She just whimpers it again and again. When they still haven’t got a clue what she’s doing and they ask her what she means, her response is: “I mean… AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!” It’s that it almost comes from nowhere is exactly why it kills.

And who knew Leo McKern could actually be this funny? He’s so full of great twitches and tics here that he damn near steals entire show. The scene where he opens the bidding on the secrets documents at the heart of the mystery is pure gold, and he’s got such a great partner in Roy Kinnear, who is just invincible as McKern’s put-upon assistant. The real triumph, though, is the whole scene between McKern and Dom DeLuise, who actually pretty much does steal the show. Equal parts business deal and full-on fight, it’s so absurd and ridiculous and at such a great pace (Wilder actually was behind the camera on this one) that it’s a riot from beginning to end. Make no mistake, this might just be the funniest DeLuise has ever been.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is a great film. Its direction isn’t as assured as it could be and there are some holes in the script, but it’s an absolute delight of absurdity. The cast is populated with some superb comedic talent and there are great laughs to be had in almost every scene. You may not have heard of this, but you owe it to yourself to give it a watch.

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