Has any fictional character seen more cinematic service than Sherlock Holmes? Created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the master sleuth of 221B Baker Street found his way to the screen as early as 1903, and became the subject of a series as early as 1908. He’s been featured in respectfully faithful adaptations and thrust into fanciful adventures Conan Doyle never dreamed of. He’s stalked the alleys, lanes, and moors of his Victorian-Edwardian provenance, and been unceremoniously drafted to fight Nazi spies in the 1940s. Most movies have allowed him to remain his old misogynistic self; some have involved him in all manner of romantic liaisons ranging from the insipid to the sublime.
Conan Doyle purists (the Baker Street Regulars, they call themselves) reflexively denounce any deviation from the letter of the lore. For others, the Holmesian film legacy is more problematical to sort through. And the best Holmesiana is not always to be found in the best films. Indeed, though pleasures abound, only one Holmes film of our acquaintance can be said to be absolutely first-rate. (We reveal which in good time.)
The great man’s profile is about to be raised this Christmastime with the release of a new adventure entitled, rather presumptuously, Sherlock Holmes; this Guy Ritchie extravaganza proffers Robert Downey Jr. as a chopsocky version of the detective, with Jude Law as a sardonic Watson and Rachel McAdams as “the woman,” Irene Adler. Better yet, there’s a gratifyingly comprehensive three-day slate of Holmes pictures scheduled for Turner Classic Movies on Dec. 25-27, including all fourteen of the movies that made Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce the preeminent Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, to generations of viewers. They’ve also got the 1922 John Barrymore portrayal of Holmes we’ve never had a chance to see. Stout fellows, TCM.
For now, here are ten (more or less) notable additions to Sherlock’s silver-screen dossier. Yes, we know many of you revere Jeremy Brett for his several seasons as Holmes on public television, but we’ve limited the field to feature films. There’s also an eleventh entry, a ringer that we submit as the most appalling misappropriation ever of the Conan Doyle mystique. Oh, yes: the game’s afoot!
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce—the most beloved, though not necessarily the definitive, interpreters of Holmes and Watson—first played the roles in a 1939 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It doesn’t take a Sherlock to deduce that 20th Century–Fox wasn’t thinking franchise; Rathbone didn’t even get top billing, which went to studio contract player Richard Greene as the endangered Henry Baskerville. The direction was undistinguished, but the Fox crafts departments were great at doing period and the movie has atmosphere in spades. Rathbone was never out of work in the Thirties, more often than not as a villain (A Tale of Two Cities, Murdstone in David Copperfield, rapier bait for Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood). His crisp Brit delivery and aquiline features (a grande dame of the theater once referred to him as “that young man with two profiles pasted together for a face”) were ideally suited to portraying Conan Doyle’s fiercely focused sleuth. As for Watson, Nigel Bruce’s bumbling, mumbling, fuddy-duddy stylings irked Baker Street aficionados but made an effective contrast to Rathbone and endeared him to audiences. Fox recognized it had enough of a good thing to re-team the pair in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (also ’39)—even more atmospheric, with Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) to boot. Still, a franchise had to wait till Universal picked up Rathbone and Bruce three years later. Meanwhile, prospective viewers of Hound should be warned that the film ends rather abruptly, giving short shrift to the Grimpen Mire climax. And for decades it ended more abruptly yet, because the reissue cut censored Holmes’s curtain line: “Quick, Watson—the needle!”