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Sherlock Holmes on Screen

posted by Nell Minow

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters of all time.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician who also write science fiction, romance, and poetry, but he is best remembered for his creation of the detective with the prodigious powers of observation and deductive reasoning.  The most famous resident of 221B Baker Street has been portrayed in movies more than any other character, sometimes old, sometimes young, sometimes in Conan Doyle’s Victorian era, sometimes in modern times, in movies from Disney to Billy Wilder, portrayed by Oscar-winners and unknowns.  He inspired many other hyper-rational, hyper-observant characters like Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, House, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo herself, Lisbeth Salander.  Reverend Desmond Tutu recently told Vanity Fair that Sherlock Holmes was his favorite fictional character.

As we prepare for the second film with Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role and Jude Law as his partner in crime-solving, Dr. Watson, it’s a good time to look at some of the best — and some of the strangest portrayers of the detective in the deerstalker hat and his doctor sidekick.  And let’s not forget O. Henry’s parody, Shamrock Jolnes and “Sesame Street’s” Sherlock Hemlock.

1. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce portrayed Holmes and Watson in 14 films released between 1939-46.  The early films are true to the books but the later ones update the characters to the 1940’s, with plots related to WWII.

2. Nicolas Rowe and Alan Cox appeared in “Young Sherlock Holmes,” an underrated origin story film that has our heroes solving their first mystery together while they are still in boarding school.

3. George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward In “They Might be Giants” a mental patient who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and his doctor (she’s a woman, but she is named Watson) investigate the mystery of reality and what we call sanity.

4. Barrie Ingham and Val Bettin Disney’s animated “The Great Mouse Detective” is the story of mice who live on Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes (voiced by Basil Rathbone).  Inspired by their flatmate, they solve the mystery of a clockwork creation that was substituted for the Queen of the Mice.  The villain is portrayed by the silky-voiced Vincent Price.

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5. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman A British miniseries updates the setting to the 21st century, with Holmes and Watson solving mysteries in the era of laptops and cell phones.

6. Nicol Williamson and Robert Duvall One of the most fascinating versions of the Holmes stories is “The Seven Percent Solution,” which has Watson doing an intervention and taking Holmes to consult with Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) about his use of cocaine.  Of course once he is there he gets involved in another mystery, the kidnapping of another of Freud’s patients.

7. Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke The popular British minseries is a perennial favorite on PBS.

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8. Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely Legendary writer-director Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” with a story inspired in part by Conan Doyle’s “The Bruce-Partington Plans.”  There is an excellent score by Miklos Rozsa.

9. Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman Douglas Wilmer and Thorley Walters play Holmes and Watson but the stars of “Young Frankenstein” have the lead roles in “Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” a wild comedy about “Sigerson Holmes” and his efforts to surpass his famous older sibling.

10. Christopher Lee and Patrick Macnee Made-for-British-television movies show us an older Holmes and Watson in “Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady” and “Sherlock Holmes and the Incident at Victoria Falls.”

Special bonus radio version: Sir John Gielgud as Holmes, Sir Ralph Richardson as Watson and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Toby Clark

    There’s also a pretty good TV movie called “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking,” with Rupert Everett as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson. There’s also an earlier one by the same people, an adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes, but I haven’t seen it yet.

    Of the ones you’ve mentioned my favourite is probably Sherlock, partly because of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, but mostly because of writer/producer Steven Moffat.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Barry

    My vote would go to Basil Rathbone. He captured the mercurial, secretive and moody nature of Holmes, particularly in the earlier films.
    Downey Jr. does a disservice to the character with his mugging, wise cracking Holmes – it is pure steampunk. They would have been better casting Putney Swope – woops maybe they did.
    I haven’t seen the Christopher Lee/Patrick Macnee ones, thanks for the lead.

    • Nell Minow

      I like Basil Rathbone, too, Barry, and he looks most like my idea of Sherlock, but didn’t like the later films set in WWII. Love your Putney Swope reference!

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