Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?
I planned to hate this new movie version of Sherlock Holmes. After a year of weak choices I reluctantly agreed to see the new Robert Downey Jr. version as, what seemed like, the least uninteresting choice on Christmas Day. Sherlock Holmes the movie follows the recent trend of live action comic book superheroes and series adventure fiction as source material for billion dollar special effects bonanzas. It recasts reliable Holmes iconography to re-imagine the consulting detective of 221b Baker Street as a raw, Saturnalian, and manic genius. Holmes is drawn into the case of an executed serial killer, Lord Blackwood, who has apparently risen from the dead by way of ritualistic magic. Blackwood, also connected to a politically powerful Masonic cult, plots to take control of the British government, and the world, by instigating fear and chaos. Blackwood leaves a trail of clues, both intended and accidental that Holmes un-puzzles with his famously obscure pedantry, disguise, ruse and preposterous deductive acumen. In the end the bad guy is stopped, the plot is un-foiled, a set of other clues regarding the certain sequel are spread around like giant breadcrumbs, and Holmes tarts off to his next case in homo-erotic bliss with his faithful pup Dr. Watson.
I planned to hate Sherlock Holmes because I predicted that the insertion of expensive special effects and the depiction of Holmes with fist-fighting and fucking physicality would ruin the tradition. But two things happened. 1.) This movie was great. I enjoyed Downey’s interpretation of the Holmes character as dark and pugilistic. Despite modern movie conventions, director Guy Ritchie successfully places this story in a believably dark and pugilistic, Victorian London and the action sequences are an engaging addition, not a distraction from the legend. This leads me too the second interruption of my pre-screening prejudice. 2.) Just what Sherlock Holmes image did I think was at risk? I left this great movie feeling I needed to take some literary responsibility.
When I was in the 8th grade my English teacher, Mr. Petty (who was himself an iconic character worthy of another essay) loved Sherlock Holmes. He forced out class to read 2 of the short stories from a course book. I don’t remember disliking those stories but I also don’t even remember which 2 of the 56 or so canonical Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes shorts they were. That was like 25 years ago and the complete lifetime inventory of my real familiarity with Sherlock Homes up to the end credits of the current film production. I decided I needed to examine my actual frame of reference.
According to the Wikipedia entry, The Guinness Book of World Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character” with 75 actors playing the part in over 211 films. Among these actors are John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, Frank Langella, Michael Caine, Rupert Everett, Charleton Heston, Roger Moore, Jonathan Pryce, George C. Scott, Leonard Nimoy, and John Cleese. The folklore has produced stories that depicted Sherlock Homes appearing with Dracula, Tarzan, The Ghostbusters, Dr. Who, and Batman. There is even a cartoon series Sherlock Homes re-animated in the 22nd century where Inspector Lastrade is an ass-kicking chick and Watson is a monocled android.
I revisited several of the original short stories and found the writing to be enjoyable although the detective mystery content seemed slight. Included in my back-reading was the “The Dancing Men”, apparently regarded by Holmes enthusiasts as among the best. In “The Dancing Men” an earnest country squire pays visit to Baker Street to request assistance with a series of messages appearing around his estate that depict a cryptic code of small dancing characters, the appearance of which seem to be having a unexplained terrorizing effect on the Squire’s young wife. What Holmes first sees as an exciting exercise in code breaking turns gruesome when the squire and his wife turn up shot, an apparent murder and attempted-suicide at the hand of the troubled wife. Upon the crime scene, Holmes walks the local investigators through a forensic explanation of the shootings concluding that there must have been a third gunperson on the scene. Employing the code of the dancing men scribbles he has already methodically unlocked, Holmes sends off a coded invitation to the murderer himself. It is a jealous ex-lover of wife-victim, who returns to the scene and discovers he has been outfoxed by the famous Sherlock Holmes.
It is reported that the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” was never actually uttered in any of the original Conan Doyle stories. However, I use elementary in my effort to describe my misgivings of the several shorts I read. While the stories are imaginative, I don’t find the mysteries to be any more complicated than the tidy wrap-up of a Scooby Doo episode. While Sherlock Holmes was not the first literary detective, the character is undoubtedly the Rosetta Stone of the detective genre, including probably the elementary level mysteries of Scooby Doo. To me the character of Holmes is solidly drawn as witty but businesslike, pedantic but excitable, arrogant but not credit seeking. However, I find his detectiving oversimplified, implausible, and dated.
Am I the first one to draw this irreverent conclusion? Perhaps not. After many adaptations of the Holmes character and crime solving method, one of the most regarded Holmes characterizations was in a series of 1940s movies featuring actor Basil Rathbone. For these movies it was felt necessary to bring
Holmes, Watson, et al. into the contemporary England of World War II. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) credits itself as being adapted from “The Dancing Men” although actual comparisons are few. Sherlock Holmes is hired by the British government to go to Austria in disguise and retrieve a defecting German physicist along with designs to a secret Nazi weapon. Although safely in British hands, the scientist ends up being kidnapped by Holmes’s arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Moriarty plans to uncover the key to the secret weapon and sell the technology back to the Germans. This key lies in a message coded in the form of little dancing men characters. The original dancing men code was solved by ingeniously substituting characters for an alphabetical counterpart. I suspect by the time 1943 rolled around this level of code writing in spy fiction was well worn. Instead the films walks us through a code cracking scene that is so complicated, I challenge you to watch once through and explain back what they did . Suffice to say 50 years after “The Dancing Men” was first published, its core plot device required a much more sophisticated update to convince audiences of its complexity. Overall I like Secret Weapon for its suspense, original story, and excellent cast. Rathbone, despite a lot of obligatory Union Jack waving, is an excellent personification of the Holmes character.
For comparison I screened several other Holmes character movies. I found one episode The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a 1950’s series produced for international television. The sample “The Case of the Neurotic Detective” was focused on the comedic bungling of Dr. Watson. Holmes was too detached to draw an educated comparison. Then there was the 1976 feature film Murder By Decree. Holmes is foppishly portrayed by Christopher Plummer attempting to capture Jack the Ripper in a non-canonical story. Ironically, this Holmes performed almost no detective work, not even an off-subject lesson in deductive reasoning sequence which always seems essential to the drama. Although, as if to remind us what character Plummer is supposed to playing, he is frequently costumed in the deerstalker hat and tweed cape all the while surrounded by normally dressed Londoners of the era. I don’t recommend this movie unless you too have ax to grind with secret Masonic orders. I also screened the Steven Spielberg produced Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) featuring a teenage Holmes and Watson stumbling over a plot of cultish murders. Young Sherlock does suppose the origin of the famous deer stalker, tweed cape and ridiculous calabash pipe. Regarding this, now emblematic, detective attire, the hunter’s cap, the cape, and the specific style of pipe are all never mentioned specifically in the Holmes canonical stories. The hat and cape are believed to come from a magazine illustration published with the stories, perhaps in reference to a tale that took Holmes out into the countryside. Holmes is frequently written about and depicted with a pipe, but the oversized Calabash seems more like comic-book alteration. Young Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, isn’t bad although his detective prowess seems more implied than demonstrated or explained. I think the filmmakers were more interested in making an Indiana Jones imitation than then reviving Sherlock Holmes.
While Basil Rathbone is highly regarded for his interpretation of the character,
more recent praise is held for Jeremy Brett who became famous in for his interpretations shown on American public television. So, I made a point to watch Brett in his version of “The Dancing Men.” This hour-long dramatization follows the short story almost scene for scene and word for word and one can really observe what a brilliantly conceived piece of writing it is. Also, I think Brett’s personification of Holmes comes off the page better than any other I watched. His Holmes is both equally pensive and animated. Brett is less humorless than Rathbone, less wild than Downey, and less gay than Christopher Plummer.
I recommend visiting the original stories if you never did. They’re not as fabricatedly thrilling, but I was surprised at how much the new Sherlock Holmes captured intended character of the first Sherlock Homes.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon (1943)
Murder By Decree (1976)
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)