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Sleeping Cardinal, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour actually starts a series."
3 stars

When one hears about lost films, one tends to romanticize them. We think of movies from the start of the twentieth century as wonderful, since the bad ones seldom play TCM, repertory theaters, or show up in very prominent locations at the video store. In truth, most of them are far more likely to resemble "The Sleeping Cardinal". Not so much because it's the bad ones that got lost, but because previous years had no more masterpieces per hundred films made than today.

In the dark of night, a bank guard is killed. But before we learn that nothing appears to have been taken, we cut to a game of high-stakes bridge, where diplomatic service employee Ronald Adair (Leslie Perrins) is once again winning. His sister Kathleen (Jane Welsh) is starting to worry - after all, no-one wins every time - and asks old friend Doctor John Watson (Ian Fleming) if he might have his friend Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Wontner) look into it. Holmes agrees, though he is more interested in convincing Inspector Lestrade (Philip Hewland) that the bank robbery was more than it appears, and that Professor Moriarty was responsible.

The Sleeping Cardinal is also known as "Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour" (dodgy punctuation and all), and that's the title printed on the version available on DVD. It comes by that by being an adaptation of the stories "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House", although the writers have rearranged parts of the two stories and invented other bits to fill it out. In some ways, that is to the film's benefit: One of the weaknesses of "The Final Problem" as a story is that we seem to come in toward the end, with Holmes ready to smash Moriarty's organization; here we get to see Holmes tracking the Professor down, while the villain pulls his strings.

Unfortunately, the writers also seem to be trying to compensate for a very limited budget as well as the limits of technology for the early talking pictures. The source material is action-packed: "The Final Problem" featured a chase across Europe, and "The Empty House" involved a scenario that practically demands exterior shots, both of which The Sleeping Cardinal is sadly lacking. Indeed, even when the action takes place in a relatively large room, such as Holmes's apartment, the characters will often stand bunched up close together or sit around a table, presumably so that the microphone can catch all of the dialog. At other points, Holmes will point out the window to make an observation, but the camera will not follow. Camera angles seem to be limited by the sets resembling those used in multi-camera sitcoms, even if that means the person in the middle of the screen winds up standing with his back to the audience. The lighting is also frequently troublesome; the image is often very dark, unless director Leslie S. Hiscott wants to call the audience's attention to something specific.

This all makes for a movie that is duller than it should be; much of the action winds up taking place off-screen, although Hiscott and company do manage a few good moments. The restrained nature of the film has the odd effect that Arthur Wontner's Holmes actually seems older in this film than in his later times playing the role. He sounds weary and not quite certain of the character's voice yet; he leans too heavily on "Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary!" and seems to struggle when given a lengthy chunk of Arthur Conan Doyle's original text to recite, actually seeming more in-character when the words digress a bit. He's still got much of the character down, though, though his Holmes is stern-sounding and a bit egotistical, he's also not without a sense of humor. Ian Fleming (listed as "Jan Fleming" in the credits, and not the creator of James Bond) makes for a fine Watson; he has good chemistry with Wontner, and actually manages the trick of making Watson not look like a fool despite the script continually putting the character in potentially humiliating positions. Jane Welsh and Leslie Perrins are plenty enjoyable as the Adairs, and Philip Hewland is not a bad Lestrade. The cast drops off a bit after that, though.

It's not all bad; the filmmakers do manage to take some advantage of their limitations by showing us Holmes demonstrating his methods. It's just that the times we can see his mind at work don't make up for how the action it leads to frequently takes place out of sight, or how that action frequently relies on him seeming to have information he wouldn't discover until later.

For all its faults, I'm glad that "The Sleeping Cardinal" has been found and made available. It's not the greatest Holmes film, or even the best starring Wontner - that would likely be 1935's "The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes" - but it's the first with Wontner and Fleming, and like all those films, winds up fairly entertaining despite their limitations.

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originally posted: 11/28/09 16:48:19
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User Comments

4/12/10 B. Askerville British atrocity made under the protective Cinemaotgraph Act of 1927 2 stars
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  DVD: 20-Oct-2009



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