Greatest Sherlock Holmes #5: Jeremy Brett’s The Crooked Man is an incomplete parable
There’s nothing wrong with metaphor or allegory in my opinion, even religious metaphor or allegory, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle twists his parables and his allegories until “The Crooked Man” becomes little more than a modern religious story, with a different lesson. “The Crooked Man” is one of the most classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories ever written and was originally broadcast on BBC, PBS, and Canadian television on May 22, 1984.
Unfortunately, most of the tension was sucked out of the story because of changes made by head writer Michael Cox and script writer, Alfred Shauhnessy. Jeremy Brett was not weak in his defense of Conan Doyle this time around, but he just couldn’t get through to the dumb writers for some reason. In his book, David Stuart Davies explains that Jeremy Brett was very defensive over the changes and wasn’t sure why they were made. I’m not sure why they were made either.
“The Crooked Man” is about Henry Wood, who was a soldier in India in 1857, around the time of the Indian mutiny. Not by chance, Sargeant Barclay chose Henry to go get help to relieve the regiment, which was pinned down in the fighting. Henry walked into a trap and was captured, repeatedly tortured until he became deformed, a shadow of his former self. He heard of Barclay’s deception from the enemy soldiers, and knew that he had been sent into the trap on purpose, so that Barclay could marry his girl, Nancy.
Henry encountered Nancy by chance on his return to England, and he followed her home, where he encountered Barclay. However, the long years had dulled his desire for revenge, but they had not done the same for Barclay’s guilt. He dropped dead, hitting his head on the fireplace fender. This is where Sherlock Holmes begins his investigation, without knowledge of the backstory or any of the pertinent facts.
This story is also a very good time for Watson to get involved, as he too was a military man in India. He leads off the episode guiding Holmes through a military fort, eagerly parading toward their interview with Barclay’s second-in-command, Major Murphy. Holmes is amused that Watson is happy to be amongst soldiers, and Jeremy Brett plays it just right, smirking here and there, smiling in amusement. Holmes has only taken up the case out of courtesy for Watson, because he certainly doesn’t like Major Murphy, and Brett acts restless throughout this episode, as if Holmes was bored.
This case seems very simple for Holmes. He solves it by the half-way point in the episode, after Holmes and Watson inspect Barclay’s house and discover evidence of Henry entering the house from the garden. I don’t think Nancy was ever a suspect in the murder, not even by the military police, as Major Murphy seems reluctant to put her under arrest.
Most of the story is told in flashback, the longest portions explaining the facts of Henry’s capture during the Indian mutiny. It is easy enough for Jeremy Brett and David Burke to simply react to these flashbacks and stories, but we miss out on some dialogue between the two. That’s okay though, because the real treat in this episode is Norman Jones, who plays Henry Wood. The make-up job is spectacular, and Jones doesn’t have to sell his character very hard for it to be effective.
The Street Scene Change
The changes made to this episode are its ultimate weakness. In the original story, Henry meets Nancy after being away for so many years, and the scene takes place on a lonely street at night, under a single dim lamp. He draws himself up out of the shadows and summons the courage to approach her, revealing that he survived his capture in India, but horrifies Nancy. This could have been the most dramatic moment in the whole series, but instead, they script the reunion to take place in a crowded homeless shelter, where Nancy catches a glimpse of him while she’s giving away tattered blankets. When they talk, it doesn’t have the same mood, obviously. Pretty dumb.
Paget illustrated the reunion scene in The Strand magazine when it was published in 1893, but I’m still surprised at the changes. Perhaps it was written that way so the reunion could be witnessed, as someone had to tell Holmes who Henry Wood was a little later. Maybe so, but it still doesn’t help the drama.
The story of Henry Wood is from a David story in the Hebrew Bible. Conan Doyle seems to have copied the story and replaced David with his character. In the story, David sent Uriah to the front of the battle so he could marry Bathsheba, which was the same thing that Barclay tried to do to Henry. God punished David and he learned humility, as well as fair treatment of his fellow-man. The Holmes story has no comparable ending, but tries its best not to become a simple revenge story. It is said that Barclay died after being overcome by guilt, but I think it is left up to the audience to decide if he died this way or from hitting his head.
Denys Hawthorne does alright as Barclay, but he could be better. He only has a few moments to be part of the story though, which is a shame. He’s really just there to be a jerk and get killed off. There’s no deep exploration of his character, or of anyone’s, for that matter. The only thing of note is that once again, we see the friendship between Holmes and Watson take the spotlight here. After taking the case for his friend, Holmes solves the case in record time and doesn’t even break a sweat.
All in all, this is a pretty average episode, but I think it is really boosted into great territory by the performance of Nathan Jones as Henry Wood. The script doesn’t do the drama any favors, but the sets and the make-up arguably make up for it. The story itself is somewhat of an incomplete parable when compared to the story of David and Uriah, but the moral of trust and friendship comes through all the more when you consider Holmes and Watson.
It might be interesting to learn what became of Henry Wood, if he ever spoke to Nancy again after the death of Barclay, and what became of them both. The original story never reveals this. After the way Henry Wood was treated in life, it is only right that he and Nancy have a second, more pleasant reunion, if nothing else. Perhaps Henry went to work at the homeless shelter to give back to soldiers who had fallen on hard times like him and worked alongside Nancy, building their relationship into trust and friendship once again. Considering the incomplete parable, I think I might imagine a happy ending for this one.