Charlton Heston is Holmes in a TNT film

Television

November 04, 1991|By Michael Hill

Considering the way some people feel about Sherlock Holmes, it is probably fitting that a man who once was the voice of God should be playing Conan Doyle's celebrated detective.

Charlton Heston does just that tonight in "The Crucifer of Blood," a 2 1/2 -hour movie that will run on the TNT cable channel at 8 o'clock with a repeat at 11 p.m.

Heston, whose great fame came from starring in a type of movie they just don't make anymore -- "The Ten Commandments," "Ben Hur" and that ilk -- has settled into a comfortable niche making much smaller movies for cable channels, some for Ted Turner's TNT, others for Disney.

While this might be a second career for Heston, it provides a first career for his son, Fraser, who usually comes along as Dad's producer and sometimes writer. This time, he gets his own god-like credentials, producing, writing and directing "Crucifer of Blood."

The result is a serviceable, diverting film immensely aided by the presence of top-notch British actors -- Simon Callow, Susan Harker -- in supporting roles. The film was made in England and was clearly meant for the international market.

The story begins in the far reaches of the British Empire, at India's Red Fort of Agra where a complicated plan to steal a chest of jewels, involving a variety of would-be thieves, plays itself out. The three surviving co-conspirators finally swear some unknown blood oath.

The scene then shifts to Holmes' office 30 years later, in 1887. After a few crowd-pleasing displays of his deductive powers that baffle his bumbling assistant Watson, Holmes turns his attention to the beautiful young woman who has just entered his quarters asking for help solving a mystery.

Irene St. Claire, played by Harker, tells Holmes that a strange symbol scrawled on a sheet of paper appeared at her home and scared the wits out of her father, who promptly disappeared. She wants to know what is going on, and Holmes agrees to take the case.

To no one's surprise, that father, confined to a wheelchair, turns out to be one of the three men who secreted the treasure away in India three decades before. The problem is figuring out exactly what the strange symbol means and why it is so terrifying to the old man.

The mystery takes Holmes, Watson and the mistake-prone local inspector, played by Callow, through a variety of twists and turns involving disguise and intrigue, adventure and danger, and a couple of murders. Holmes' powers of reason are taxed as he tries to make sense of the strange apparitions various witnesses claim to have seen during the crimes.

The younger Heston dresses his father in classic Holmes deerstalker-and-pipe attire and then directs this with a melodramatic sweep as the emotions of the various characters swirl wildly about the calm center of Holmes.

The eventual solution, which requires the oldest trick in the mystery-writers' book -- having the villain explain everything to a hero who is about to die just before the inevitable rescue -- even includes what sounds like a made-for-1991 anti-drug message.

Heston is fine in the role, but this is a dangerous time for an actor to be wandering into Holmes territory, what with the steel-edged Jeremy Brett portrayal available over on PBS' "Mystery" series. Heston is basically a nice man and that comes through. Though his Holmes is curmudgeonly, he just doesn't have the intriguing core of cynicism that Brett delivers.

"The Crucifer of Blood" is based on a much-praised 1979 play written by Paul Giovanni and, despite galloping horses and boat chases in the fog, the film retains a stagy character that robs it of the potency of realism.

This is not the best of Holmes, but neither is it the worst of Holmes. "The Crucifer of Blood" touches all the bases needed to give fans of this most esteemed of detectives a satisfactory evening.

*

In 1989, the historical documentary "The Johnstown Flood" ran PBS' "American Experience" series and won a well-deserved Oscar as best documentary. The work revealed that the flood, which killed hundreds of people in this working-class community, HTC was due to the bad maintenance of a dam that held back a lake used as a retreat by the patrons of an exclusive club.

"The American Experience" is repeating Charles Guggenheim's film tonight at 10 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, but it's not the same film. Guggenheim has located stills of life at that club, whose members were drawn from the wealthy industrialists of Pittsburgh. Some of these images were added to this expanded version. Their contrast with the devastation in Johnstown adds power to an already powerful work.

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