Masks of Death (1984)

Director: Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Peter Cushing, John Mills, Anton Diffring, Gordon Jackson, Ray Milland, Anne Baxter, Russell Hunter
Music: Malcolm Williamson

The Masks Of Death is a autumnal take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The characters are much older than we are used to. Peter Cushing in particular, as Holmes looks gaunt and frail – he was 69 years old at the time. John Mills, who plays Watson was 76 years old. Despite their ages, and subsequently the lack of vigorous action sequences, this film is still very enjoyable. I guess this stems from watching a group of seasoned professionals do their thing the only way they know how. Sherlock Holmes was clearly a character that Cushing enjoyed playing, having starred in Hammer’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles in 1959, and then later taking on the role in the BBC television series in 1969.

The film has a weird little cowcatcher at the front, set in 1926 where Homes, or more precisely Watson is recounting the tale of one of Sherlock Holmes’ untold adventures to a reporter. She begins writing down her notes, and we flashback to just before The Great War, in 1913.

Even in 1913, Sherlock Holmes has long since retired and spends his time tending his bees in Sussex, but on one of his occasional visits to London he returns to 221B Baker Street – It appears that Mrs. Hudson keeps Holmes lodgings in ship shape condition for his return visits to the big smoke. Joining Holmes for the afternoon is his old friend Dr, John Watson. As they chat and reminisce, they are interrupted by Alec MacDonald of Scotland Yard (Gordon Jackson). MacDonald has a baffling case which he cannot fathom. In the past month three men have died, all with their faces frozen with a look of horror. Intrigued, Holmes agrees to help MacDonald out.

Two of the men died in Whitechapel, so after a visit to the morgue, Holmes begins his investigation there. The last man who died was a professional beggar, and he died on a grating in one of the many laneways in Whitechapel. Holmes finds the grating, but a new derelict has taken up residence upon it. The derelict is one Alfred Coombs, played by Russell Hunter, who spy fans will remember as the stinky character, ‘Lonely’ in the TV series Callan. Coombs rants and raves like a mad man, and Holmes gets no useful information from him – or does he?

Back at Baker Street, as Holmes and Watson try to decipher the rambling of the mad man Coombs, they are payed a visit by the Home Secretary (Ray Milland) and Graf Udo von Felseck (Anton Differing). It seems that Graf Udo von Felseck is on a secret mission of peace in England. He has been escorting the young Prince of Germany, to lead him in talks with the British Government. But before these talks could commence, the young Prince has been kidnapped from von Felseck’s country estate. If it is discovered that the Prince has been kidnapped, then war between the two countries is imminent.

Naturally Holmes accepts the case, and along with Watson they head to Purbridge, and von Felseck’s estate and attempt to pick up the trail of the missing Prince. Among the house guests at the estate is Irene Adler (Anne Baxter). In his career, Holmes has only been bested four times. Irene Adler was the only woman to do it, and naturally Holmes is very suspicious of her presence at von Felseck’s.

While I loathe to can this film, because I enjoyed it very much, but there are some incredibly large plot holes, and simply overly contrived situations. At one stage Holmes is lured to a chalk mine, where the villains of the piece attempt to assassinate him. Believe me, if they wanted him out of the way, they could have quite simply shot him earlier in the film. The subterfuge is completely unnecessary – except to confound the audience. This is a film for Holmes completists, and/or those who enjoy watching the films of Peter Cushing. Others could find it a bit slow paced, lacking in action, and the story too contrived.

The illustration of Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes at the top is from Pat Art.

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