The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes
It may not come as a surprise to you that Sherlock Holmes is the most filmed fictional character in the history of cinema. His universal appeal has been embraced globally and the great detective has been continuously revisited and adapted over the years. You only have to look at the BBC show Sherlock, to see how the character has been seamlessly re-imagined for a new generation. It is this versatile quality that is perhaps Holmes’ greatest strength. We are all familiar with the logical thinking and prodigious intellect of the sleuth, yet the enigma surrounding his personal life and formative years provides endless scope for exploration. It has proven to be fertile ground for film makers over the last century.
I therefore would like to focus on a selection of cinematic adaptations which although technically non-canonical, explore the more esoterical aspects of Conan Doyle’s character. Often these films endeavour to link him to iconic cases, notorious events from history or other famed literary characters. Most of these titles will not be of any surprise to hardcore Holmes fans, but may be of interest to those who are not so familiar with this particular movie sub-genre.
Let us begin with Billy Wilder’s The Private life of Sherlock Holmes released in 1970. This astute, erudite and wry exploration of Holmes most secret case and his personal life is beautifully realised. Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are superbly paired as Holmes and Watson and the dialogue by I. A. L. Diamond is priceless. The narrative explores the distinction between the "real" Holmes and the character portrayed by Watson in his stories for The Strand magazine. The thorny issue of Holmes' sexuality is touched upon with a great deal of wit, sensitivity and wisdom, but there again this is a Billy Wilder film.
When the studio executives took custody of the finished three hour version of the film, they famously decide to excise two subplots and vignettes. Thus the film now only exists in its one hundred and twenty five minute theatrical version. Some of the missing material is available as extras on the current home media releases and is very intriguing. The Private life of Sherlock Holmes is a great achievement and reflects the pedigree of all involved, especially the superb score by Miklós Rózsa. Adapted from his Violin Concerto, Op. 24 it is simply integral to the films success. The music underpinning the film’s bittersweet ending is sublime.
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, directed by Herbert Ross in 1976 is another movie where the complexities of Holmes’ past are explored. This time screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who adapted his own novel) cooks up a clever scheme in which the great detective ends up on the couch of none other than Sigmund Freud, as he struggles to come to terms with his cocaine addiction. The truth turns out to be quite a revelation and may well raise a smile among Holmes aficionados.
Holmes (Nicol Williamson) and Freud (Alan Arkin) spark well of each other, both exhibiting the quirks and foibles of their characters. Robert Duvall, a fine actor, is curiously ill at ease with the role of Dr Watson, focusing mainly on his diction. The plot also conjectures a clever explanation for Holmes’ obsession with Professor Moriarty and also features some robust action scenes during the film’s climax. Again, it is the attention to detail that shows a real love of the source material by all concerned. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is an unusual and creative take on Holmes mythology.
Bob Clark's 1979 movie, Murder by Decree, is an intelligent pastiche of both historical events and apocrypha as the Great Detective tackles the case of Jack the Ripper. This premise was the basis of A Study in Terror in 1965, though Clark’s movie is far more polished in terms of suspenseful storytelling and emotional impact. The plot touches upon several popular theories regarding the Whitechapel murders and hints at an establishment conspiracy. It is also a story that shows a very human side of Sherlock Holmes and flies in the face of the misanthropic depictions that film makers usually favour.
It is this deviation from the source material that often divides fans of this particular adaptation. Holmes, played by Christopher Plummer, in many ways flies in the face of preconceived notions of both the characters appearance and demeanour. Yet a colder more rational Holmes, of the ilk of Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone, would not have worked in this story with its social conscience and political subtext. However the director superbly counter balances his fiery Holmes with the most stoic and traditional portrayals of Doctor Watson, played with effortless ease by James Mason.
Finally let’s consider Disney Studios take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s character, in Basil the Great Mouse Detective. This innovative animated feature film helped steer the studio back on track, after the failure of The Black Cauldron at the box office. Well written, with a great voice cast featuring Vincent Price in one of his last roles, this film boasts handsome art work, along with an even balance of humour and pathos. It is also one of the first movies to boast computer generated imagery as many of the backgrounds were rendered in this fashion.
The plot centres on Basil of Baker Street who with the help of Dr. David Q. Dawson confronts his arch nemesis Rattigan, as he attempts to take control of all “Mousedom”. In this film, the mouse world seems to run in a curious parallel to Victorian England. Basil himself lives under the house of the great Sherlock Holmes and shares his skills in deductive reasoning. Although this is primarily a family feature film from Disney, there is a lot more depth to it than you would expect and there are many homages and nods to the source material.
As you can see, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective inherently lends himself to constant reinvention and dramatic interpretation. Holmes remains a timeless character due to his mental complexity, fish-out-of-water persona and abiding friendship with John Watson. This tempers his brusque nature and acerbic wit. However Conan Doyle’s true genius lies in the gaps he purposely left in his characters back story, affording future generations the chance to fill those spaces with their own thoughts and ideas.