"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Elementary, My Dear Readers

221B Baker Street, London, has seen many occupants come and go since the 19th century, all of whom are named Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of more than just stories about a detective...he was the originator of a cultural fascination that has made its way through books, movies, radio and television. Holmes and Watson have been portrayed by many actors in countries all over the world, My focus here is 5 of the most famous movie/TV characterizations. Who are your favorites?

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. What movie buff does not picture them first when Holmes and Watson come to mind? Rathbone with his marvelous profile, clipped British accent, pipe in mouth and deerstalker cap and cape ... Bruce as the mumbling, bumbling dear old Watson, faithful to Holmes, steadfastly British and easily fooled by both criminals and Holmes alike. Who could not love them? Despite the fact that almost none of the movies were actually based on Conan Doyle's stories, the movies were atmospheric with the beauty that only black and white can bring, and each one is met like an old friend, always welcome. Some of the stories were updated to the 1940's and made as obvious propaganda films for the war effort, but who cares? It's Holmes and Watson, and they will always be first in my heart.

In 1984, British television began presenting 36 episodes starring an actor who many believe to be the best Holmes, Jeremy Brett. With David Burke as Watson (later replaced with Edward Hardwick), Brett was a darker version of Holmes, more sardonic in demeanor, always with a little sneer in the flare of his nostrils, and also more outwardly enthusiastic at times. The deerstalker cap and cape were nowhere to be seen, having been earlier taken from a stage play version and not as Conan Doyle's description anyway. The episodes were taken from Conan Doyle's stories, and in that respect pleased Holmes' purists. It's difficult to admit, but this characterization was truer to Conan Doyle than the Rathbone versions, and Brett was marvelous.

In 1970, a most interesting movie was released called "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" starring British actors Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. I found this odd, wonderful movie extremely fascinating with its spoof quality, dark humor and also depth of characterization. Stephens reveals the darker side of Holmes as a cocaine addict and anti-social personality, yet also makes us laugh when he bemoans the requirement that he wear the deerstalker cap and cape because Watson wrote him so in his stories. He finds it difficult to live up to the written description of himself, and berates Watson for it. This movie is also notable for the hauntingly beautiful score written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Although I feel disloyal to Basil Rathbone, I feel compelled to admit that my favorite Holmes performance is that of Richard Roxburgh. In 1992, The Hound Of The Baskervilles was released, and it is a marvel of acting and storytelling, remaining quite true to Conan Doyle's original story. Roxburgh, known for unusual parts such as the nasal-voiced duke in Moulin Rouge, and as Dracula in Van Helsing, plays Holmes as a handsome, brilliant emotional man who never loses his logic and reserve. Ian Hart is an intelligent and keen Watson, a critical and caring friend who worries about Holmes' addiction. The cast is superb, and any Holmes lover would miss a real gem if they did not see this movie.

In closing, I must bring up the new version of the Holmes/Watson phenomenon to be released soon in theatres. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law play Holmes and Watson in a movie touted to be an action thriller. The picture here does not show fully the outfit that I have seen Downey wearing, a slouch hat, baggy pants, and frankly in many of these pictures he looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin. I worry about this one, although I must see it. Sherlock Holmes is a cerebral personality, always dressed impeccably, every inch the British gentleman in Conan Doyle's stories, nothing like what I have seen of Downey's persona. I like Robert Downey, but I am not sure how he will do. Jude Law doesn't worry me as much. He looks the part, and he is a good actor as well. We'll just have to see, won't we? I'll try to keep an open mind, but hope that this movie will not be just another graphic novel brought to explosive thriller life.

Three cheers to Holmes and Watson!  What would movies be without them?


  1. I was rather disappointed in Downey's portrayal, he's demeanor and character is so far away from the books that if they gave everyone in the movie different names I never should have made the connection to Holmes. But then, after seeing Brett I don't think anyone will ever impress me. :)

  2. I agree with you about the Downey versions. Actually, I would go further and say it is practically literary blasphemy to even use the names of Holmes and Watson in these comic book action movies. Brett was wonderful, of course. I would say, however, that Roxburgh rivalled him in his portrayal, although he only did Holmes once. Too bad he didn't do more. Thanks for stopping by! Come again!