The Master Blackmailer

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
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The Master Blackmailer

The Master Blackmailer (episode No. 33) is the 3rd TV movie of the Granada series: Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson, aired on ITV on 2 january 1992. 102 min.

The episode is an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's short story : The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton (1904).

From 1989 onwards, the concern for profitability prevailed in Granada. The former leaders were dismissed and new leaders demanded, to meet the audience's wishes, feature films to which Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories could not provide enough material. Scriptwriter Jeremy Paul successfully took up the challenge with "The Master Blackmailer", but the following two: The Last Vampyre and The Eligible Bachelor received a much less favourable reception.

Salesmen impose their law!

Noting the growing popularity of Inspector Morse, Granada's programmers decided that Sherlock Holmes should also appear in two-hour films. The episodes of Inspector Morse were based on novels while those of Sherlock Holmes could only be inspired by the meagre short stories still to be adapted. They didn't care!

The remarkable work of Jeremy Paul

Forced to build a two-hour screenplay from a ten-page short story, Jeremy Paul faithfully reproduced the components of the original work. But the scene where Milverton successfully resisted the great detective, combined with the scene where Holmes robbed his lair, providing only half an hour's worth of film, Paul seized things that Conan Doyle had simply mentioned, such as the break-up of Charlotte Miles' and Colonel Dorking's engagement. He developed them in a dramatic, precise and documented way, evoking, for example, the underside of Victorian London with its transvestite clubs. We only regret that Paul has suppressed Lestrade's final comic appearance and especially Watson's superb lines to Holmes, who claimed to run the risks of Milverton's burglary without him.

A drama that amazes the audience

Robert Hardy perfectly embodies the merciless, Machiavellian, cynical and hypocritical character created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Similar to a snake, symbol of Satan, Milverton is the very incarnation of evil. The film makes the suffering of its victims palpable by immediately offering us the concrete image of "the ruin of a noble family": an ancestor, now desperately alone in her dilapidated mansion. Holmes felt an unparalleled horror towards Milverton but felt helpless in the face of this criminal who could not be arrested without splashing his victims. Hence his dark mood and rage, which Brett translates with tremendous power. The confrontation between the champion of justice and the champion of ignominy culminates when, leaving Baker Street as the winner, the blackmailer snickers his baby and sneer face upwards towards the nobly impassive face of the detective. To eliminate Milverton, Holmes would have to use means that would make his victory bitter: fool a friendly servant and allow Lady Swinstead to murder the blackmailer. Riddled with bullets, he staggered, rumbled, grabbed hold of himself, convulsed. Nothing free in this horrible spectacle: Milverton's agony is that of a filthy and tough beast. Admittedly, the film has little action before its last part, but its division into very short and contrasting sequences prevents any monotony.

A story filmed with mastery

Magnificent images abound in this beautiful film, remarkable for the artistic quality of its transitions. While in Baker Street, Holmes compared the blackmailer to a snake hunting in fat meadows, the image, after slipping from the darkness of the living room to the greenery of Charlotte Miles' garden, suggesting that the reptile slips into it, settles on a happy and peepy group of wealthy young girls, its potential victims. Each character has its own musical theme, romantic for Lady Swinstead, distressing for Milverton, and the music provides suggestive counterpoints to the image, associating, for example, the cancan of cabaret Bertrand, source of the plot against Eva, with the vision of Dovercourt castle.

The kiss that unleashed controversy

The kiss Holmes received from Agatha offended many spectators, who found it embarrassing and a betrayal from the original. But others were touched by the image of a human and vulnerable Holmes. One could certainly regret that the detective, having passed the age, is seen here as a jerk with a sentimental lyricism a bit ridiculous. But who would be scandalized today by this scene, which forms a welcome contrast with the dark image of Holmes given by the rest of the film.




Plot summary (spoiler)

In charged of neutralizing a demonic blackmailer, Holmes has only three initials as his clue: C.A.M. Colonel Dorking's letter to him will reveal that it was the scoundrel's letter that drove him to suicide, Charles Augustus Milverton. In disguise, Holmes broke into Milverton's house and courted his servant Agatha to obtain information. The blackmailer's next prey will be Lady Eva Blackwell. Unable to get Milverton to lower the price charged to return his letters, which would inevitably break his engagement with the Earl of Dovercourt, Holmes decided to steal them during the ball to which he had invited the blackmailer. But a provider of compromising letters having given him an appointment, Milverton returns earlier than expected. Holmes and Watson, quickly taking refuge behind a hanging, noticed that the visitor was in fact Eva's godmother, Lady Swinstead. Having let her go freely after she unloaded her gun on Milverton, responsible for her husband's death, the gentlemen burglars hastily burned the compromising documents accumulated by the blackmailer and fled in their turn.

  • Credits : Monique Claisse (texts), Sarah Fava (photos), Granada.