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.

Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) ****

Rod Taylor made a brisk transition to two-fisted action hero from his previous forte of drama (Hotel, 1967) and comedy foil to Doris Day (The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966) in this violent adventure set in the Congo in the early 1960s. As Captain Curry, assisted by sidekick Sgt Ruffo (Jim Brown) and 40-man local outfit Striker Blue Force, he leads an ostensibly humanitarian mission to rescue settlers cut off by the Simba rebels as a cover for collecting $50 million in diamonds. The loot is essential to save the toppling regime of President Ubi (Calvin Lockhart).  The only feasible transport is train. There is a three-day deadline.

Problems immediately ensue, not least a clash with Capt. Heinlein (Peter Carsten), former Nazi leader of Blue Force, who is even more ruthless than Curry, mowing down two native children who stray too close to the train, and apt to take a chainsaw into a fistfight. The train is attacked by a United Nations plane and on reaching its destination Curry is forced to wait three hours until the time-controlled giant diamond vault can be opened, giving the rebels time to catch up. Then it’s an ongoing battle of one kind or another.

Although the worst of the violence is carried out by the rebels – rape, torture and massacre – a core element of the drama is how a lifetime of killing has affected Curry. Ruffo, a man of principle who grew up in a primitive tribe, acts as his conscience – and that of the audience – spelling out how violence is more than a money-making scheme and essential to upholding order in terrorist times. Curry has some redemptive features, saving widow Claire (Yvette Mimieux) from the rebels and then from Heinlein, sending alcoholic Doctor Wreid (Kenneth More) to help a woman give birth, and eventually acknowledging his strong bond with Ruffo. Although Curry would like to think he is the opposite of Heinlein, they are carved from the same stock and when the savage beast is loose blood lust takes over.  

Mimieux is more or less there as bait, tempting Heinlein and any rebels in the vicinity, but coming into her own in convincing Wreid, paralytic by this stage, to carry out a section on the pregnant woman, and as a reminder of civilization for Curry.

The action scenes are terrific, especially the plane strafing the train, and there is a particularly good ruse, instigated by Ruffo, to outwit the enemy. Hollywood never managed to portray the terror of the native Vietnamese on being overrun by Viet Cong, and this film could easily be that substitute, especially when some of the rescued white settlers realize they will not escape.

This is not one of those films like Born Free (1966) or Out of Africa (1985) which are scenic odes to the continent, in part because the picture was shot in Jamaica, but in the main because director Jack Cardiff (The Long Ships, 1964) chooses to focus on the mechanics of the mission. And in so doing, he writes a love letter to a train. There had been a mini-vogue for war movies set on trains – Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and The Train (1965) come to mind – but none reveal an adoration for the power and perhaps the beauty of the locomotive. Every move it makes (to steal an idea from pop group The Police) is noted on screen and on the soundtrack, the hissing, the belching smoke, the wheels, cabooses, engine, the coupling and uncoupling of links, the screech of brakes, and various tracking and crane shots as the train snakes its way through enemy terrain.

Rod Taylor is excellent in the kind of role he is made for. Jim Brown in a major step up the billing after The Dirty Dozen (1967) is surprisingly good in a part that calls as much for reflection as action. Peter Carsten is the all-time Nazi scum. Yvette Mimieux, who had partnered Taylor in The Time Machine (1960), is also in transition mode, her role a meatier dramatic departure from the likes of the innocuous Monkeys, Go Home! (1967). In what was essentially his last major role – even though it doesn’t amount to much in screen time – Kenneth More wavers considerably from his stiff-upper-lip default.

The score by Jacques Loussier is particularly good, as Quentin Tarantino attested when he incorporated elements of it for Inglorious Bastards, which was a boon for the composer since up till then he was best remembered for the music accompanying the advert for Hamlet cigars. You might get a laugh out of the screenplay credits. Quentin Werty (i.e. Qwerty, the first six letters on a typewriter) the pseudonym of Ranald McDougall, Oscar-nominated for Mildred Pierce (1945), co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Wilbur Smith, with television writer Adrian Spies.

An outstanding example of the all-out action mission picture, its occasional outdated attitudes do not get in the way of the picture and half a century later from what we now know of how wars are fought the levels of violence will appear realistic rather than exploitative.   

Catch-Up: This completes a Rod Taylor mini-season – previously features in the Blog are The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967).

Catch it on Amazon Prime.