Thursday, April 5, 2012

On-Screen Sherlocks

I've become quite the Sherlock Holmes fan over the past couple of years -- although "fan" is, perhaps, too subtle a word. (It just sounds so much nicer than "obsessor," doesn't it?) My enthusiasm aside, however, it is an admittedly new interest. Despite previous attempts to try the books (or one of the myriad film adaptations), and despite my long-standing affection for the mystery genre, I could never quite seem to get hooked by Holmes.

That was until the theater release of Sherlock Holmes, the 2009 film starring Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role (and Jude Law as Dr. Watson). It turned out that this high-action, rough-and-tumble, steampunkified version of Sherlock Holmes was exactly what I needed to draw me to the character, and I haven't looked back since.

I've since then dove happily into the Holmes canon (the four novels and 56 short stories originally written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), as well as a number of pastiches (novels and short stories written by authors other than Conan Doyle about the great detective). I've also started exploring the myriad on-screen portrayals of Sherlock Holmes -- which, given their sheer number (the Guinness Book of World Records has repeatedly listed Holmes as "the most-portrayed movie character" of all time), is a project I'm happy to say won't be completed anytime soon.

So in honor of my first Holmes's birthday (Downey turned 47 yesterday), I thought I'd use the occasion to take a look at some of the best-known -- and the least-appreciated -- actors to bring life to the most famous of fictional detectives.

Jeremy Brett

Over seventy actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes -- and yet, of those seventy, two in particular have been consistently regarded as the best. Brett is one of them.

Born in England, Brett would play the character of Sherlock Holmes for 41 episodes of the Granada Television series, which was produced and aired in intervals from 1984 through 1994. From the start, Granada was interested in producing a series that was as faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories as possible. Full sections of dialogue from the stories made it into the scripts verbatim, and costumes and even poses from the original Sidney Pagent artwork appeared onscreen.

After agreeing to take on the role, Brett studied the original stories and made notes on the character's quirks, tics, and more eccentric behaviors. The result was a portrayal of Holmes that many fans find to be definitive, reflecting the intense research and thought that Brett had put into the character.

-- Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Arthur Wontner
Virtually forgotten today, Wontner was wildly popular as Holmes in his time, praised by critics and fans alike as "the perfect Holmes." One of the first actors to appear as Holmes after movies had gained the ability to "talk," Wontner's films were produced in the 1930s, and the first of these in particular was a box-office smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

Though the series appears slow-moving to modern eyes and ears, Wontner's portrayal -- and its cultural impact on the 30s -- should not be ignored. Perhaps the best praise to give his performance is to quote from a letter sent by Arthur Conan Doyle's widow, Lady Jean, who wrote to Wontner that she loved "your really splendid acting ... [and] masterly presentation of Sherlock Holmes."

-- Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Ronald Howard

This 1950s TV series plays something like a Sherlock Holmes sitcom -- although, technically speaking, "family show" would be the better term. But there's a quirky, sometimes silly, entertaining humor to the series that differentiates it from most of the other Holmes adaptations.

The show was produced and filmed in Paris on a shoestring budget, with scripts that rather varied in quality. But Howard can still be lauded for performing one of the more faithful portrayals of the character. The series is also noteworthy for breaking from the then-tradition of portraying Holmes as a middle-aged professional at the height of his career -- presenting him instead as a thirtysomething who was still somewhat close to the beginning of his detective days. And to modern eyes, the occasional lapses into the ridiculousness can add to the quirky charm; when the series works, it works well.

-- Ronald Howard in The Complete Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Peter Cushing

Still perhaps best-known as Grand Moff Tarkin -- Darth Vader's partner-in-crime from the original Star Wars film -- Cushing was a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes who was eager to portray the detective as closely to the original stories as possible. First appearing as Holmes in the 1959 Hammer Film The Hound of the Baskervilles (with fellow Star Wars villain Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville), he'd resume the part a decade later in the then-latest BBC Holmes series.

Filming for the television series was rough, with the production schedule rushed and demanding. And yet, despite the difficulties, Cushing continued to strive for as accurate and well-researched a portrayal of the character as possible -- and he succeeded. After the series ended, he'd go on to appear as the character one final time, in a 1984 production entitled The Masks of Death.

Sadly, while the Hammer Film's Hound and Masks of Death are still available, all but five the Cushing episodes of the BBC series have been lost. But the ones that remain are as faithfully entertaining now as ever.

-- Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Benedict Cumberbatch

(That's Cumberbatch on the left, for those of you who don't watch the series ...)

A cell-phone-wielding Sherlock Holmes may seem like sacrilege to some fans. And yet, the idea of placing Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day setting is not a new one. The only difference is when, exactly, "modern day" is. For years, film, stage, and TV adaptations have been taking Holmes out of his original Victorian setting and placing him in the era in which the adaptation is taking place -- sometimes for artistic reasons, sometimes for financial ones.

First airing in England (and being shown here on PBS), the British TV series Sherlock is placed in the 21st century for reasons decidedly artistic. Cumberbatch plays Holmes with as dash of Dr. Gregory House to him -- an analytical, aloof sleuth who is interested in solving crime simply for the challenge of the puzzle, and who may sometimes be out to prove just how clever he is. His put-upon roommate, played by Martin Freeman, adds an important dash of humanity to this modern-day detective series.

With nods to and variations on the original Conan Doyle stories, the show is prized among fans for its cleverly worked plotlines and quotable humor. With a long wait for the third series to come out, now's a great time to catch up on what you've missed so far!

-- Series One of BBC Sherlock on DVD

Robert Downey, Jr.

Downey's quirky, rough-fighting Holmes is not every fan's cup of tea. However, despite the films' emphasis on action -- and some decided elements of advanced Victorian technology (a style of alternate history fiction known as the "steampunk" genre) -- the movies have drawn all of their inspiration from the original canon. From Holmes's fighting and boxing prowess to Watson's new wife (and the good doctor's gambling addiction!), the adherence to Conan Doyle's written details makes this adaptation of Holmes a version of the character that is inspired by the canon, not a departure from it.

Though not a physical match for the part, Downey easily captures Holmes's sardonic manners and fascination with the details of his cases (he "[plays] the game for the game's own sake"). I was drawn to Downey's balance of Holmes's aloof detachment with his honest compassion for the people around him -- and to the patience-trying, laughter-inducing, genuine friendship between Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson.

They're Guy Ritchie films, which means lots of action, a few explosions, and plenty of fancy camera work. But, at its heart, this film series is also a Sherlock Holmes story, and the director, writers, and actors never lose sight of that.

-- Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Basil Rathbone

Of the two actors still regarded today as the "definitive Holmes," it is Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone who tie for the title.

Born in 1892, Basil Rathbone was first and foremost a stage actor who went on to appear in a plethora of classic films in the 30s:  Captain Blood, Anna Karenina, The Adventures of Robin Hood. But it was when he teamed up with Nigel Bruce to start making Sherlock Holmes pictures that his legacy was born.

He first appeared as the character in two box office blockbusters: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. After the films, Rathbone and Bruce took to the radio, making some 200 episodes of a popular radio Holmes series. (Sadly, only about fifty of these radio plays remain.) In 1942, the two actors returned to the screen for a fresh series of Holmes pictures by Universal Studios -- at which point the series, both for concerns of budget and for a desire to keep the attention of "modern" audiences, was moved from its original Victorian setting and placed into the world of WWII London.

Despite the "B picture" quality of the budget allotted these "modern" Holmes movies, there's a quirky charm to them that only increases with time. Rathbone plays Holmes with a mixture of keen analytical focus and high good humor, adding a dash of humanity to the character that I feel other actors often miss. Nigel Bruce, while often criticized for his bumbling, fumbling Dr. Watson (who is certainly as unlike the Dr. Watson of the Conan Doyle stories as a character can get), is still undeniably charming, and the real-life friendship between Rathbone and Bruce shine through in Holmes's and Watson's interactions.

Downey's Holmes was my first on-screen introduction to the character and will always hold a special place in my heart. But Rathbone, I think, will always and forever be my Holmes -- just as he'll remain the quintessential, ideal Holmes for millions of fans to come.

-- Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Honorable Mentions for other Movie Holmes:

Christopher Plummer
Murder by Decree
Holmes meets Jack the Ripper.

Nicholas Rowe
Young Sherlock Holmes
A teenaged Holmes and Watson team up at boarding school.

Michael Caine
Without a Clue
Turns out the real genius consulting detective ... is Dr. Watson.

Robert Stephens
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
A bit of a parody, this quirky film involves submarines, sea monsters, and a determinedly romantic Russian ballerina.

George C. Scott
They Might Be Giants
A rich man retreats into a fictional world -- in which he sees himself as Sherlock Holmes -- after the death of his wife.

Nicol Williamson
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
Sherlock Holmes is coached through his neuroses and addictions by Dr. Sigmund Freud.

-- Post by Ms. B


  1. Great post about different on-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes :)

    May I recommend adding Vasily Livanov to this list. He makes a great Sherlock Holmes and Vitaly Solomin is a great Watson as well.


    1. Thanks so much for the rec! I read your blog posts about Livanov, and he sounds fantastic (and I'm intrigued by your high praise for Solomin's Watson, as poor Watson is so often a hit-or-miss portrayal). I've added Livanov's versions to my must-watch list.

      Thanks so much for the rec, and glad you enjoyed our post! :)