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Master Blackmailer, The
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by Jay Seaver

"In which cat-burglar Sherlock Holmes becomes engaged."
3 stars

It has occasionally been said that it is better to build a movie up from a short story rather than to cut down a novel (at least, I've occasionally said this). You will, at least, get the complete story rather than potentially missing someone's favorite part. Of course, the issue then becomes whether what is added feels like an organic outgrowth of the story, or whether it is interesting enough to bother with. "The Master Blackmailer" does well enough on the first count, but has times when it struggles on the latter.

Charles Augustus Milverton (Robert Hardy) is the king of the blackmailers, though he maintains appearances as an art dealer. He's been at it for at least a dozen years, as a prologue shows. Now, in 1894, a dowager has hired Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) to track him down, with only the letters "CAM - Devil" scrawled in a book of poetry as a clue. At the same time, this shadowy figure is trying to extort over a thousand pounds from Col. John Dorking (David Mallinson) on the eve of his wedding to Lady Charlotte Miles (Sarah McVicar). Holmes and Watson (Edward Hardwicke) are too late to do anything about that case, but perhaps they can be of assistance to his next prospective victim, Lady Eva Blackwell (Serena Gordon).

Before writing this, I took the time to re-read the story upon which it was based, Sir Arthur Conan Doyles "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton". It didn't take long; the story runs about a dozen pages in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (that I am the sort of person who owns a copy of that tome should surprise no-one reading this series of reviews as it is posted). The original story covers basically the last act of The Master Blackmailer, although it's not immediately obvious. One of the reasons Doyle's stories were so memorable was that he would have Watson throw out offhand references to things that could be stories in their own right, and that's what screenwriter Jeremy Paul does here. The Dorking/Miles storyline, for instance, was just mentioned in passing, although Paul does a good job of weaving it into the rest of the story, along with the scenes of Holmes wooing Milverton's housemaid, Agatha (Sophie Thompson), for information.

Those scenes are probably the best additions to the story, as they give us a welcome chance to see Brett's Holmes in a new and interesting context. For most of the movie, Brett is playing Holmes as harsh and/or righteous, and it's enjoyable to watch him seem to soften here, although even as Holmes romances Agatha, we can see how he's busily working to extract information from her. Still, there are a couple of moments when we get hints that the real person is neither the part he's playing nor the brusque manner presented to Watson and others; there's something tragically honest yet wonderfully underplayed about his response of "I don't know how" when Agatha asks "Escott" to kiss her.

Few other members of the cast get a moment or two that are that good. Edward Hardwicke, as Watson, is a bit underused even if a somewhat larger role has been written for him; Colin Jeavons is barely present as Inspector Lestrade. Serena Gordon is quite charming as Lady Eva, though her anguish is a bit overshadowed by that of Davi Mallinson's Colonel Dorking. Norma West adds a dash of interest as Eva's godmother, Lady Diana Swinstead, and while Gwen Ffrangcon Davies is only in one scene as the dowager who hires Holmes, she makes an impression (even if you don't immediately realize that the actress may have been a hundred years old when she shot her part).

The movie does have some memorable villains, though. Hans Meyer is a scarred, sinister henchman as Milverton's butler, and Nickolas Grace is suitably slimy as an accomplice who specializes in connecting servants with axes to grind and information to sell with Milverton. And Robert Hardy is note-perfect as the title character. His Charles Augustus Milverton is a callous and unpleasant man; there's little effort made to paint him with any charm or respectability. Maybe it's not a complicated portrayal, but it certainly elicits the sort of visceral hate that the character deserves.

And yet, for as good as Brett and Hardy are as the respective nemeses, The Master Blackmailer is strangely inert for much of its running time. Paul and director Peter Hammond are able to stretch the story out to feature length without it showing signs of strain, but despite a few interesting moments, the cat and mouse game between Holmes and Milverton never develops as one hopes it might. They're running in place until the narrative gets to the start of Doyle's story, where Holmes finds himself having to take unusually desperate measures to thwart this villain.

As verbose as Doyle could be, he did display a knack for getting right to the good stuff. Watching "The Master Blackmailer", I can see why the producers decided that this story was a candidate for expansion - Milverton is a villain that could be built up beyond what the usual one hour's length of an episode was capable of. It just doesn't consistently go as well as they might have hoped.

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originally posted: 12/19/09 14:58:46
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User Comments

12/09/13 SoBrettish I find the film great! 5 stars
12/26/10 anne great. I just love it. 5 stars
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