Più forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913)

by popegrutch

Alternate Titles: Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes, Sterker dan Sherlock Holmes.

This Italian short trick film is a slapstick chase-comedy in the style of Alice Guy and other directors of earlier decades. The name of Holmes is only invoked to bring in the concept of crime and pursuit, the movie has nothing to do with the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmesThe movie begins with a man reading a magazine, while his wife peacefully dozes next to him at the table. An over-the-shoulder shot is cut in to reveal illustrations of a cop and a robber in the magazine, then the man also slumps to sleep, dropping the magazine to the floor. Two figures emerge from the magazine, by use of double exposure: One is the burglar from the illustration, and the other is a copy of the sleeping man, now dressed as the cop. He gathers up his hat and gun while the transparent burglar beckons to him from the fireplace. The burglar disappears, and the policeman pulls back a curtain, revealing an opening to the outside. In the next shot, he pursues the burglar through what looks like a thick forest, but might be simply his backyard (a fence is visible in the lower left of the screen). He fires his gun and waves his nightstick. The next shot shows us a lake, with the two figures running towards it from the opposite side. They leap in and swim towards the camera, fully clothed. About halfway, the burglar again becomes transparent through double exposure, and appears to walk on his hands across the surface of the water. He does some cartwheels to tease the cop, who is still struggling along through the water. Finally, he vanishes and appears on a bridge.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes1The next sequence leaves the forest behind, and appears to take place in a city. The burglar climbs up a building to a balcony on the second floor and enters through a window. The policeman leaps up the side of the building to follow him. They enter a dark room occasionally lit by flashes, but the cop doesn’t seem to know where the robber has gone. He spots his shoes underneath a curtain, but the robber suddenly opens the curtain and surprises the cop, laughing and pointing as the cop rolls out of the way. The cop pursues as he runs away, and the burglar backs into a close shot in front of a glass door (he somewhat resembles a young Robert De Niro). He backs through the doors, and the cop can’t open them at first. The cop is now holding the robber’s shoes, which I guess means he pulled them off in the last scene, when he rolled backwards. He throws them at the burglar, who dodges, and picks the cop up and throws him down when he runs at him. The robber again points and laughs, and his shoes magically appear on his feet. At the same time, a bag magically appears over the cop’s head, and the robber runs away while he struggles with it.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes2The robber enters a room where various sophisticated-looking people are sitting at a table, playing cards. Everyone leaps up in surprise when he enters, but he reassures them. After a moment, he warns them that the cop is outside, and they all line up against a wall. The robber makes them all disappear with a wipe. Now we cut to the hallway where he left the cop, who is still struggling with the bag, which seems to have a mind of its own. Each time he pulls it off, it appears on him again, like the clothing articles in “Up-to-Date Spiritualism.” Sometimes it covers his head and torso, others it covers his legs, but he is unable to escape it after multiple attempts. The burglar walks in and laughs at him during this struggle, and goes into another room to pull some levers. After he does this, there are suddenly two bags fighting with the cop, but I’m not sure if there’s supposed to be a connection. After he runs past the cop once more, he is finally able to get both bags off, firing his gun into the air and going through a different door.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes3Now the cop finds himself in a refined drawing room, evidently taking tea with a lovely young woman. He accepts a cigarette and a light from a servant and everyone leans in to listen to what he has to say. Meanwhile, the robber pulls back a curtain behind the cop and sneaks into the room. He puts the cop to sleep with a snap of his fingers, picks him up, and drags him out of the room. In the next room, he starts beating up the cop, and turns to the camera to show off, but the cop jumps him from behind and a nasty slapstick fight breaks out. The cop rolls over the robber and the robber is suddenly flattened out into a paper cutout. Then he jumps up and the fight continues. The cop throws him up into the air and when he crashes back down on the cop there is a flash of smoke, and the cop disassembles into several separate parts. The robber scurries away and the cop-parts reassemble. The robber runs back in and the fight continues again. Now the robber throws the cop against the wall and he sticks, suspended several feet above the floor. The cop jumps down and the fight continues again, with the cop getting the upper hand and the robber turning into a stuffed dummy. He winds up to give a knockout blow.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes4Then, suddenly the camera cuts back to the sleeping couple and the man winds up and punches his wife in the eye. She wakes up and berates him for his violence, while he tries to apologize and explain that he thought she was the robber from the magazine.

The most remarkable thing about this movie is its director, Giovanni Pastrone, who just a year later would produce the seminal epic feature filmCabiria.” This movie, by contrast, is a very simplistic, almost primitive example of a slapstick short that wouldn’t even stand up that well against a low-budget Keystone comedy of the same era, in terms of narrative or stunts. Still, there are some interesting indications of Pastrone’s ability here. The editing, in particular shows some sophistication, as do the camera angles. Although some scenes are shot strictly proscenium-style (the closing fight scene, for example), many are more creative. The cut to the over-the-shoulder shot to display the illustrations is much cleverer than simply cutting to a flat image of the paper (which is what Feuillade probably would have resorted to). The robber backing into the close-up also struck me as rather modern for such an old-fashioned movie. In the context of the struggle with the animated bag, we leave and return to that scene several times, in a simplistic form of cross-cutting. Some of the effects are good too. I honestly couldn’t figure out how they did the effect of the two men scaling the building, particularly the cop who literally leaps up the side of the building, but then climbs over an (obviously real) balcony without an apparent cut.

How the heck did they do that?

How the heck did they do that?

The narrative can be forgiven some of its jerkiness, given that the whole movie is a dream-sequence. It does follow a certain kind of dream-logic, as well, with magical acts permitting the impossible to happen, and what seem like minor inconveniences (like the bag) becoming insurmountable challenges. The ending, where the man gives his wife a black eye in his sleep, is a bit violent for my tastes, although not that extreme in the context of the slapstick of the period. It really has nothing whatever to do with Sherlock Holmes, but it’s one of the better shorts included on the “Sherlock HolmesDVD from Flicker Alley.

Director: Giovanni Pastrone

Camera: Segundo de Chomón

Starring: Domenico Gambino, Emiliano Verdannes

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music)

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