Silent Movie Review: “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (Monochrome May Special)

Welcome back to Monochrome MayThe Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things weiß und schwartz.

Today we’re going to do another Silent Movie Review, this time looking at one of the early Sherlock Holmes serials. 

Based on the short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Man with the Twisted Lip is a silent film directed by Maurice Elvey. It was created in 1921 as the eighth of the Stoll Pictures Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series starring Eille Norwood as the great detective. I should also mention that there will be some story spoilers in this review, but the movie is now over a hundred years old, and the short story even older, so…

The detective reveals himself

The Man with the Twisted Lip is the story of a missing person case, perhaps even a murder. Sherlock Holmes is beseeched by Mrs. St. Clair (Paulette del Baye) to investigate the circumstances surrounding her husband Neville’s (Robert Vallis) disappearance. Holmes and his compatriot in crime-solving Dr. John Watson (played by Hubert Willis) take the case, and Holmes discovers that her missing husband may be connected to a crippled beggar in the Piccadilly Circus area of London, a man named Hugh Boone who is also known as “the man with the twisted lip,” Of course, Holmes eventually solves the case after one or two twists. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ranked The Man with the Twisted Lip in his personal list of the top 19 favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, but as a film, it isn’t well-executed. Far too much of the opening sequences are explained away with text cards, so much so, in fact, that I have to wonder whether some of the movie was lost over time, though I haven’t yet researched the issue to find out. 

Holmes with Mrs. St. Clair*

The text cards remain large and legible, but sometimes are cut off in the process of formatting the movie for a goes off the screen. The soundtrack with my copy is obviously just filler music, not the original intended soundtrack (if there was one in the first place), or a new orchestration designed to accompany the movie. I should note that my copy of the film is on DVD by Alpha Video, so there may be better versions available.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is that Holmes himself doesn’t seem very smart. He’s initially convinced of an incorrect solution, until a new piece of evidence just happens to fall in his lap. The narrative of how he figures it all out isn’t well told, and it’s not a great adaptation of the original story, either. The film simply cuts out too much of the connective tissue that demonstrates how Holmes’ mind went from one place to another. 

Holmes and Dr. Watson at Baker Street

Despite these frustrations, there are several facets of the film that are indeed well done. First of all, the performance of Robert Vallis as Neville is very impressive.  Viewers will not know he and Hugh Boone are the same person (See? Spoilers), as the makeup and mannerisms of both personalities are strikingly different. Still, the fact that Mrs. St. Clair doesn’t recognize her husband in disguise doesn’t make much sense (neither in the film nor the book). However, del Baye’s performance manages to be convincing enough, as she flails and swoons at the possibility that her husband might have been killed, and therefore never really looks directly at him when he’s disguised as Bonne. Whether this was a decision made by the actress or the director, it was a good choice. 

There is also an early scene where Holmes himself removes a disguise, which includes elaborate makeup. The scene seems too long and a bit overwrought at first, but it actually serves as a clever foreshadowing moment for the eventual solution to case of Neville St. Clair. 

The hair-raising climax! …not really

Overall, The Man with the Twisted Lip could be worth a watch for Robert Vallis’s performance and the skill of the makeup artists. Otherwise, it’s probably not going to enthrall most classic silent film aficionados unless they are also fans of Sherlock Holmes, but if you’re among that rare cross-section of viewers, you’ve probably already watched it, anyway.

If you are interested, why wait? Give it a watch for yourself below!

*Thanks to Movies Silently for providing such great still images.

Thanks for reading! You can check out more of our Monochrome May content here.

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