MOVIE REVIEW: A Study in Terror (UK, 1965)

It would seem the simplest of things to have the World’s Greatest Fictional Detective come up against one of the most notorious real world serial killers – especially since Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper were “contemporaries”. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a film company created by the Conan Doyle estate decided to actually pair up the two in a serious production.

Obviously, one can’t have the two match wits directly. The known history wouldn’t allow it. And it wouldn’t do to have Holmes fail to solve the case. But you could present Holmes with a puzzle that brings him into the world of Whitechapel around the time of Jack’s bloody reign of terror, and have him “solve” the case that way.

The plot is launched when a package arrives at 221B Baker Street. Turns out to be a case containing surgical instruments, sans one scalpel. Holmes, naturally accompanied by Watson, track down the source of the case and are soon hanging around a soup kitchen in Whitechapel, looking for the son of a duke, who had gone missing soon after becoming a doctor. A blackmail plot is soon uncovered…and the matter of Jack the Ripper is put aside for the time being.

It’s a decent enough movie, in all aspects. The only “glitch” I noticed was that I found it hard to believe that someone would send Holmes an anonymous package, without a cover letter or even a return address, and he would immediately see it as a call for his attention. They probably could have trimmed the musical numbers in the pub, too – they didn’t add anything to the movie.

I do have to speak up on behalf of John Watson, M.D. It’s all to easy to portray him as a buffoon, totally unable to follow the “obvious” reasoning of Holmes. Watson is the audience identification character; it’s his purpose to have everything explained to him. It would be nice on occasion to see Watson make some deductions of his own.

A case of surgical instruments, Watson! That’s your field; and you’ve seen my methods often enough. What do you make of it?”

Decent condition; it doesn’t seen to have had much use. This number here, that’s a pawnbroker’s mark, correct? And the line through the numeral 7 – that’s the ‘continental’ style. This was pawned at a shop owned by a foreigner, or at least one who employs a foreign clerk. The doctor would have been young, or at least new in practice. And fallen suddenly on hard times. The last thing he would have pawned would be the tools of his profession.”

Excellent, Watson! I concur with your analysis. Now, examine the felt lining….”

Inspector Lestrade (who also shows up in this movie) also deserves to be cut some slack. Holmes can pick and choose which cases he accepts; Lestrade has to work on whatever appears on his desk. Holmes has no one looking over his shoulder; Lestrade undoubtedly has supervisors breathing down his neck as well as paperwork to deal with. Holmes is not bound by any rules or policies; even in the Late Victorian Era, I’m sure that Scotland Yard and British law enforcement had regulations they were required to follow in dealing with suspects.

Don’t expect any insight into Jack the Ripper here, or anything like a definitive statement of his identity. This is a bit of a fun “What If?”, speculating on how Sherlock Holmes might have handled the case, or a similar one. It wasn’t the first (there were two stories prior to the movie) attempt at the matter, and it certainly won’t be the last.


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