Monday, January 11, 2010

Holmes, Sweet Holmes

By 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle was tired of Sherlock Holmes. His creation, the great consulting detective who disdained intuition and worshiped at the altar of deductive logic, had defined its author instead of the other way around. And so, in the story "The Final Problem," Holmes confronted his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, on an unfenced ledge high above the gorge of Reichenbach Falls. An epic wrestling match ensued and the two men plunged to oblivion.

As hard as it may be to believe today, the public outcry that followed was so intense that Doyle reconsidered his decision to kill off Holmes. He knew a cash cow when he saw one, and so -- not for the last time in the annals of entertainment -- returned a mortal character from the dead for a series of further adventures. Before that, though, Doyle wrote a play called "Sherlock Holmes" in the hopes that it would provide a stream of income as he built a new home and pursued other interests. (Oddly, for a man who invented a literary character synonymous with rational thought, these interests included a fascination with the occult.)

Doyle's effort was not the first play about Holmes, but it would become the most significant. Believing that the drama needed further work, a literary agent connected Doyle with the actor and playwright William Gillette (see photo above, as Holmes), who gave the play its needed refinements. Starring as Holmes, Gillette performed the play over 1,300 times before American and British audiences. His refinements included three alterations that forever defined Sherlock Holmes in the eyes of generations of moviegoers.

First all, Gillette coined and added to the script the immortal phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson," words that never actually appeared in any Doyle's stories or novels. The other two refinements turned out to be iconic: Gillette changed the stem of Holmes' pipe from straight to curved and outfitted the detective in a deerstalker hat. Basil Rathbone as Holmes displays both here:

It didn't take long for the new medium of film to make use of Sherlock Holmes. He first appeared in an eponymous 1908 short film, then again in 1916. Thus began his century-long run as the most commonly recurring character in movies other than possibly Jesus Christ: I can't think of any other character whose life in film extends as far back as Sherlock Holmes. Actors offer interpretations of the detective as if he were Hamlet. Robert Downey, Jr.'s deconstructed Holmes currently in theatres is undoubtedly the most radical vision of Holmes, but he's not the first actor to depart from Doyle's original conception.

Indeed in 1922, John Barrymore essayed a brooding, cautious Holmes, the famous profile sculpting the immediate atmosphere as if it were stone. Barrymore's Holmes carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, as if each decision and deduction had cosmic import. Sighing and filling his cheeks before exhaling, Barrymore showed none of the airy self-confidence that Basil Rathbone would two decades later. In the following clip, Barrymore's Holmes meets Professor Moriarty for the first time. Notice how the bright makeup and dark backdrops combine to emphasize Barrymore's profile:

The advent of sound offered studios the opportunity to show Holmes as Doyle conceived him: Quick of wit, sharp of tongue, and formidable in intelligence. Basil Rathbone wasn't the first Holmes of the talkie era, but it was he who developed one of the most iconic characters in film history, an amazing feat for an actor who never achieved the status of screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. Those two giants created screen images that rendered their own personas iconic; Rathbone, in constrast, extended and increased the stature of an unforgettable character by the way he as an actor interpreted Holmes.

A highly respected supporting actor who often appeared opposite Errol Flynn -- another icon of the Bogart/Wayne mold -- Rathbone's casting as Holmes in 1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles was nothing short of inspired. Polished and urbane, this unflappable Holmes willingly and even callously risked the lives of others to close a case. Rathbone delighted in Holmes' skills with disguise, relentlessly twitted Nigel Bruce's hapless Watson, and knew at all times that he was the smartest guy in the room. Here he is at the end of Dressed to Kill (1946):

As mentioned, Rathbone excelled as a disguised Holmes. In The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, impersonated a music hall singer:

As was perhaps expected of a wartime series, Rathbone portrayed Holmes as a bemused observer of the establishment who was nonetheless a conservative patriot committed to preserving it. Typically, he rescued a would-be baron or lady from a nefarious plot, and in one instance he saved the life of a newly crowned prince. Whatever the case, the aristocracy -- and by extension the British Empire -- was always safe in the hands of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes.

Many versions of Holmes followed, each inevitably compared to Rathbone's and most found wanting. Christopher Lee offered a tinge of the macabre while Ian Richardson contributed a blue-blooded touch in their versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles. In Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Robert Stephens capitalized on Holmes' famous "aversion to women" (the words are Doyle's) and played a Holmes who may or may not have been gay:

(For the record, Colin Blakely's Watson was decidedly heterosexual.)

In 1988's witty parody Without a Clue, Michael Caine played a dunderheaded Holmes while Ben Kingsley showed that, behind the scenes, Watson was in fact the unappreciated (and frustrated) brains of the outfit:

Incidentally the various screen portrayals of Watson make for another blog entry. Whatever scintillating chemistry it engendered, Nigel Bruce's lumbering, blundering Watson from the Rathbone series was quite at odds with Doyle's quiet and steady original character, who actually was of normal intelligence.

The most well-received contemporary version of Holmes is Jeremy Brett's icy interpretation for the Mystery! television series. Brett is a bit cold and mechanical for my taste, but many people like him and he has certainly garnered excellent reviews. Here he is displaying the logic of deduction:

Now, a little more than a hundred years after Holmes first appeared on the silver screen, comes the first completely deconstructed Holmes in the form of Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal in the film Sherlock Holmes. Downey's performance takes its cue from a London that is a far cry from the romantic city of Rathbone and the others, a town awash in fog and atmosphere. This London is grimy and incomplete, and Downey's unkempt, mumbling Holmes matches it nicely. (No film, but the unfortunate trailer is here.)

This Holmes is less interesting in saving the British Empire than he is in solving the case for its own sake. In this sense, he's closer to Doyle's conception of the character than Rathbone's wartime interpretation. And there are other links to Doyle: My recollection is that Holmes was not unfamiliar with martial arts, and the scene in which he shoots a "patriotic" VR in the wall is recreated here with wit and verve. Irene Adler makes an appearance, although Rachel McAdam is far too girlish for the part. Mary Morstan, who appeared in the novel The Sign of the Four and eventually married Watson, appears as the good doctor's fiancee and gives as good as she gets in her interactions with Holmes. Most important, Doyle's fascination with the occult is central to the plot.

The plot itself involves a depraved member of the House of Lords who may have risen from the dead to threaten that useless institution and the rest of Parliament. Holmes, in part an action hero in this film, stays hot on his trail even as events seem to undermine his treasured deductive logic. (I don't want to give away the ending, so I'll just say -- a la Holmes' television counterpart Dr. House -- that there is an explanation for everything.)

With one exception involving the premature launching of a ship, the action sequences tend to drag the film down. Though coherent, they could be from any movie about any protagonist. As this particular protagonist is notably cerebral and has a notably strong personality, they seem all the more incongruent. But there is much to like about Sherlock Holmes. Downey's interpretation is rooted enough in the past that, for all of its modernity, it makes sense. Jude Law's querulous, exasperated Watson is refreshing. The scenes in which Holmes thinks through his next physical moves come off very well and lend credibility to Holmes as an action hero. All in all, this is a movie worth seeing despite its limitations.

What is next for Sherlock Holmes? Probably a sequel to this movie, although I think the most inventive use of the character is Hugh Laurie's recreation of him as House, the brilliant, pompous, drug-addicted physician of the TV show of the same name. I'd like to see more reinventions of Holmes in different modern settings, although it takes an actor of Laurie's presence to pull this off. Whatever it might be, audiences will flock to the movies and ooh-and-aah over Holmes' brilliance. After all, he's captured our filmgoer imagination for over a hundred years and there's no reason to think that he'll stop any time soon.


Roy said...

Hmmmm... That trailer didn't do much for me. And I'll admit that the Jeremy Brett interpretation is my favorite.

In print, there are some interesting developments. Check out Laurie R. King's "Mary Russell" series of books, starting with the first - The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Basically it deals with Holmes after his "retirement" to raise bees on the Sussex Downs. Despite the premise, which some Keepers of the Holy Flame detest with a passion, the series is well written and actually sticks, personality-wise, to the Holmes of Doyle's creation. A little more human, maybe, but still acerbic, condescending, and a bit of a curmudgeon as he ages.

K. said...

As I wrote, the trailer for the Downey film is unfortunate. The entire marketing campaign makes it look much worse than it actually is.

I've read some of the Laurie King books. As latter-day Holmes stories go, they're good. The feminist twist works well.

Anonymous said...

There is one character who predates Sherlock Holmes in films and that is Ned Kelly. He first appeared in a film in 1906. However, this was in Australia and our films generally get ignored in film history not much is known in the northern hemisphere about him, or Oz films in general.
Ned was a real person.
Australia produced the first feature film.
Americans probably don’t believe this.

Peter Tibbles

K. said...

Peter, wasn't Mick Jagger in a movie about Kelly?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Terrific retrospective on the many Holmes interpretations. It's nice to read more about Gillette's career as Holmes.

K. said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. I began watching the Rathbone movies at age 11 in Columbus, Ohio. An afternoon movie program (remember those?) broadcast them. My boys and I watched The Hound of the Baskervilles at around the same age; they were equally taken. The younger of the two even dressed as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween!

Anonymous said...

Hi K,
Yes, Mick played Ned in a film made in 1970. Marianne Faithfull was supposed to be in it too but she came down with a serious drug overdose. I guess she didn’t like Melbourne. To be really charitable, that version was less than ordinary.
Heath Ledger played Ned in the most recent film (2003). That played fast and loose with the facts but was a much better film.
Peter Tibbles

K. said...

I take it that as an actor, Mick makes a great singer.