Monday, December 17, 2012




Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" rates with me as one of the best Sherlock Holmes tales, with spooky atmosphere, a hiss-worthy villain, and a method of murder so peculiar that it falls into my category for "bizarre crimes" in the uncanny mode.

The villain of the piece is the fulsomely named "Doctor Grimesby Roylott," though the name is altered to "Rylot" in this 1931 film, apparently the first sound-movie adaptation of the Doyle story.  Roylott is the consummate evil stepfather.  The story tells us that he came from an old but dissolute aristocratic family, but managed to get ahead somewhat by serving as a medical man in India, which exotic locale helps him come up with the aforementioned murder-method.  Back in England, Roylott makes a good marriage-- especially good for him in that his wife passes away shortly (apparently not by foul means) and leaves Roylott an inheritance contingent on the condition that he continue to care for his wife's two grown daughters by a previous marriage.  When one of the daughters threatens to marry and leave Roylott's care, she indirectly imperils Roylott's fiscal security.

To give the game away, Roylott murders the first stepdaughter by unleashing one of his Indian beasts-- a poisonous swamp adder-- through a ventilator leading into her room.  The crime goes undetected, but a year later the second stepdaughter also announces an engagement.  However, her stepfather so terrifies her that she fears on some intuitional level a repeat of her sister's fate. Thus she appeals to Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery, which the detective does, in such a way that the "biter" gets very literally bitten.

The 1931 film seems to follow the basic text faithfully, but the only surviving version has been severely cut, possibly having lost anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.  One of the worst cuts appears during a scene where the irascible Doctor Roylott confronts Holmes at the detective's office.  In the prose story, this provides Holmes fans with one of the best hero-villain faceoffs, as the huge-shouldered Roylott illustrates his malice to Holmes by grabbing a fireplace poker and bending it double.  Roylott then leaves before Holmes makes his riposte, calmly taking the poker in hand and bending it back to normal with his own strength.  In the 1931 film, Roylott confronts Holmes, they exchange words, and then a mysterious cut shows Roylott leaving quickly.  Was the poker-scene filmed in some manner?  The world may never know. 

This film was the first and only time in which respected actor Raymond Massey played Holmes for the cinema. Massey makes a decent but rather cold and imperious Holmes, while a bald actor named Athole Stewart plays a fairly "straight" John Watson (though Holmes still picks on him somewhat).

Lyn Harding, who would play Professor Moriarty in two future Holmes films, chews the scenery as the perpetually angry "Rylot," but his characterization does contribute the film's one original mythic moment.  The heritage of Freud makes it impossible to think of an evil stepfather preying on his daughters-by-marriage without sexual motivations, particularly when both women are about to marry when Roylott makes attempts on their lives.  However, the Doyle story constantly emphasizes that Roylott's only motive for violence is money.  To be sure, Holmes discovers that his client has received a modicum of violent treatment from Roylott, for the detective descries bruise-marks on the woman's wrist-- but this in itself still does not connote sexual motivations for the villain.  However, the film-- directed by one Jack Randolph, whose other credits seem to be a group of utterly forgotten Brit-flicks-- adds a scene at the manor, in which Rylot tries to force the stepdaughter to sleep in the same room where her sister died.  The sight of the huge older man trying to force the sweet young thing into a bedroom can't help but communicate sexual overtones, and I suspect that one of the filmmakers added the scene to spice up the proceedings a bit.

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