Selling Sherlock Holmes – The Pressbook for “A Study in Terror” (1965)

This is one of my favorite pressbooks because the marketing concept is so wacky and clearly an ill-advised attempt to cash in on the crime-busting efforts of television’s latest sensation Batman which had aired on the small screen in January 1966 and on the big screen in July of that year, a month before A Study in Terror found its way into U.S. theaters.

Rather than merely adapting the British exhibitors manual – the film had been released in Britain in October 1965 – Columbia, clearly deciding the movie was too old hat for American audiences, aimed to hijack some of the ideas currently being used for the Twentieth Century Fox television series/movie.

So potential moviegoers were treated to bizarre taglines such as “here comes the original camp-counsellor-in-a-cape” and “Flyaway Batman!” complete with the “Bam!” “Biff” and “Crunch” opticals that had become synonymous with the Batman television series. Not  content with that, the advertising team invoked Superman as well with a spoof tagline: “faster than a speeding computer…able to leap tall tales in a single stroke of genius.” A third  famous character was drawn into proceedings – “He’s James Bond in a cape.”

Also referenced was a famous movie campaign from two decades before. “Sherlock Holmes is Back and Jack the Ripper’s Got ‘Im” echoed the legendary tagline that welcomed Clark Gable back to the movies after his war stint “Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him.”

Interestingly, although exhibitors were supplied with a choice of several taglines, the core advertising image – a pistol-packing Holmes above a busty screaming victim – remained the same, contrary to the normal practice of devising a number of advertisements that allowed the exhibitor to choose the one most relevant to their customer base.

Outside of the spoof Batman ads, the campaign focused on the clash between the master sleuth and the villain. Other taglines spelled it out: “Sherlock Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper” / “Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper in a mad, mad thriller” / “Sherlock Holmes strikes back at the foulest fiend of them all, Jack the Ripper” and “The sleuth versus the slayer.”

Supplementary taglines were occasionally included: “girl after girl, he gives a new twist to the world’s oldest profession” / “the most savage killer of the century and the screen screams with suspense” / “the battle of wits is as terror sharp as the murder weapon.”

With copyline writers doing overtime, the Pressbook clocked up over 15 separate adverts. Pictorially, the emphasis appeared to be on cleavage and brutal murders of women.

With a virtual cast of unknowns, the Pressbook writers had to work hard to summon up interest in the principals. John Neville for example had been originally approached for a musical Baker Street and he fitted in shooting the film with his work in the theatre. Adrian Conan Doyle, son of the famed author, proclaimed that Donald Houston was “completely, utterly. right for the part.” The role of a disfigured girl was considered a “professional risk” for Adrienne Corri and Barbara Windsor announced she was going to turn brunette and concentrate on drama rather than comedy.

Another famous writing team was called into the promotional whirl, bestselling authors Ellery Queen writing the novelization of the screenplay.

On the basis that the detective was well-known, the marketeers felt safe enough exhorting exhibitors to persuade local libraries to hold a Sherlock Holmes Week and approaching bookstores to feature the other books in the series as well as the novelization. Another suggestion was a competition to name all ten stars who played the character. Sherlock Holmes fans were known as Baker Street Boys and “there may be a member or two in your community…who may prove tremendously helpful in radio/newspaper/television promotion.”

Another promotion focused on deerstalker hats and the hero’s interest in the violin and pipe-smoking lent themselves to tie-ups with retailers of such products.

A Study in Terror (1965) ****

Excepting Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) the world’s most famous fictional detective had been absent from the big screen for over two decades so it seemed an inspired decision to set him on the trail of the world’s most infamous serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The result is high-class comfort food – the first of the series made in color – classic deduction coupled with barbaric murders in a fog-bound London replete with cobbled streets, Dickensian urchins and sex workers apop with cleavage and corset. Throw in sensitivity towards the abject poverty of the period, female exploitation and a nod towards an upper-class cover-up and you have a movie with a surprisingly contemporary outlook.

This is a tougher Holmes, handy with his fists, sporting a spring-loaded knife in his walking stick. The investigation draws in the Prime Minister (Cecil Parker) and the Home Secretary (Dudley Foster) as well as Sherlock’s pompous brother Myron (Robert Morley) and the ubiquitous Inspector LeStrade (Frank Finlay).

Pretty quickly it is Suspects Assemble. Due to a scalpel being the murderer’s instrument of choice, doctors are immediately implicated, the most likely candidate the philanthropic Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle) who operates a soup kitchen. Publican Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), with a sideline in blackmail, is another possibility. And there is the mysterious disinherited son of a lord, Michael Osborne who has married sex worker Angela (Adrienne Corri).

The Italian ad campaign combined a more conservative Sherlock Holmes
with exploitative illustrative detail.

As ever, the plot is complicated by red herrings and sleights of cinematic hand. But the highlight of a Holmes picture is the sleuth’s mastery of deduction based on clues missed by the ordinary mortal and every now and then the story comes to a halt to allow time for the detective to demonstrate genius. Occasionally he dons a disguise. And thoroughly enjoyable these scenes are before he gets down to the main business of uncovering the killer.

A Study in Terror introduces social depth to the Holmes saga. When the crimes focus the media spotlight on Whitechapel, Dr. Murray draws attention to the constant “murder by poverty” ignored by the state. Female exploitation is of course the norm in the sex worker business and small wonder that such women are easy targets for the Ripper and although that is an overdone trope in this case a different angle comes into play. 

Shakespearian actor John Neville (Oscar Wilde, 1960) handles the main character with considerable aplomb with Donald Houston (The Blue Lagoon, 1949) as his often baffled sidekick Watson. Robert Morley (Genghis Khan, 1965) is a splendid Mycroft although Anthony Quayle (East of Sudan, 1964) fails to nail down his Scottish accent.

The considerable supporting cast includes Judi Dench making her second film appearance, Barbara Windsor of Carry On fame, John Fraser (Operation Crossbow, 1965), John Cairney (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963), Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  singer Georgia Brown (Nancy in the original stage production of Oliver!), Edina Ronay (The Black Torment, 1964), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with the Pistol,1968), former British leading lady Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist, 1948) and future television comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Are You Being Served?, 1972-1985).

The picture was unusual in that it was not drawn from the existing Holmes canon but as an original devised by Derek and Donald Ford (The Black Torment), the former going onto a more extensive career as a director of British sexploitation pictures such as Suburban Wives (1972). Production company Sir Nigel Films had been set up as an official vehicle to exploit the Holmes legacy.

Director James Hill (The Kitchen, 1961) had won an Oscar for the short Giuseppina (1960) and was a year away from his breakthrough Born Free. Given the low-budget this is a highly watchable picture.

Flick Vault has this for free on Youtube or if you want to own it forever there’s a DVD.