The man who first gave Holmes the line, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson!”, not to mention the now-obligatory Meerschaum pipe, Connecticut-born actor-managor Gillette wrote his four-act stage script Sherlock Holmes (1899) after Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle confirmed that he might “marry the detective, or murder him, or do anything he pleased with him.” Gillette’s play ran in the USA and in Europe throughout the first decade of the 20th century — but it wasn’t until 1916 that Essanay hired Gillette to feature in a silent film adaptation of his work, leading one British reviewer to complain that much of it seemed “a little old-fashioned at the present time.” True, the 63-year-old Gillette was probably past his (widow’s) peak when the film version came around, but the fact that the Essanay film has long been lost has robbed us of a proper glimpse of the great-great-grandfather of every on-screen Sherlock since.
The first known Sherlock Holmes film was Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a 35-second Mutoscope trick-shot novelty piece; but the first Holmes film to have a proper narrative was the Vitagraph Company’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held to ransom (1905), a 17-scene effort in which the detective tangles with kidnappers of a kidnapped child… and ends up tied up beside a powder keg of explosive, whose fuse has already been lit. But the identity of the actor who played the detective remains uncertain, so it seems unlikely that we’ll never know for sure exactly who played the first all-action Holmes – every bit as tasty with his fists, it seems, as Robert Downey Jr’s incarnation of 104 years later!
Seemingly on the strength of his performance as Holmes in Milliontestamentet (‘The million [kroner] testament’, 1911), one of a series of Sherlockian shorts punted out all over Europe by Norway’s Nordisk Film Kompagni, the solid-looking Neuß was hired to play the lead in Germany’s Der Hund von Baskerville (1914) – the first film retelling of Doyle’s story of a “gigantic hound” who terrorises the ancient Baskerville clan. Such was the popularity of this blood-and-thunder Hund that it begat a series of ever-more extravagant sequels, all concerning the Hund and the Baskervilles: in Das Einsame Haus (‘The isolated house’, 1914), Neuß’s Holmes found himself trapped in a submersible castle; and in 16th century prequel Die Sage vom Hund von Baskerville (‘The legend of…’, 1915), Neuß played Holmes’ ancestor, unmasking thefts perpetrated by the villainous Stapleton’s antecdent in the guise of the fabulous Hund. Long a footnote in Sherlockian film history, the recent rediscovery of the original Hund in a Soviet film archive raises hopes that Neuß’s Holmes might, one day, be seen by audiences in the UK – who were denied that pleasure when the Great War broke out.
Eille Norwood’s record still stands: between 1921 and 1923, his master-of-disguise detective appeared in 47 moving picture adaptations of Doyle’s Holmes adventures for Stoll Picture Productions, more than anyone else before or since. Born Anthony Edward Brett, Norwood would, like his namesake Jeremy, make a fetish of Sidney Paget’s Strand Magazine illustrations, which he studied for clues to not just costume but even posture. Having filmed many of his adventures on location in the streets of 20s London – making the Stoll series fascinating for students of the capital’s history – Norwood made his last bow in a surprisingly pacy, full-length version of The Sign of Four (1923). Doyle himself was delighted by Norwood’s portrayal, toasting the actor at a dinner given in 1921. Bizarrely, Norwood replied by giving his own epitaph: “Lies Sherlock Holmes beneath the soil/His still remains disarmed, destroyed/But thanks to Stoll and Conan Doyle/He still remains in celluloid.” Indeed, the majority do still remain – locked away in film archives, and in desperate need of restoration and reappraisal.
Englishman Clive Brook was the first actor to give voice to the on-screen Holmes, in Paramount’s modern-day The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), produced in both silent and sound versions. Brook’s charmless Sherlock went on to make the entirely daft Conan Doyle’s Master Detective Sherlock Holmes (1932), quite possibly the worst Sherlockian effort ever to emerge from Hollywood. Seven years later, Basil Rathbone picked up the baton fumbled so badly by Brook… but in between came Arthur Wontner, a brainy, patrician Holmes in five British-made features of the early 30s, beginning with The Sleeping Cardinal (aka Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, 1931). Wontner’s fourth go, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) remains arguably the best screen version of Doyle’s hard-to-adapt The Valley of Fear – with Wontner’s Holmes once again facing Lyn Harding’s Moriarty in its smart successor, Silver Blaze (aka Murder at the Baskervilles, 1936).
Following an acclaimed try-out version of The Speckled Band broadcast as part of the anthology series Detective, the BBC’s 12-part Sherlock Holmes (1965) was the first television series to faithfully adapt adventures from the Doyle canon – a significant step, blazing the same trail as Jeremy Brett in the 80s and 90s. Douglas Wilmer’s dogged, slightly haughty Holmes was a big part of its appeal. Wilmer went on to play a dragged-up Sherlock in the Gene Wilder comedy The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) – and, delightfully, the now 92-year-old Wilmer could be glimpsed as a Diogenes Club member in The Reichenbach Fall (2012), last in the latest series of the BBC’s 21st century Sherlock.
Probably the finest Sherlock to come from beyond the English-speaking world, Vasili Livanov’s sophisticated Holmes featured in a sequence of lengthy, lavishly-realised TV movies broadcast in Soviet Russia between 1979 and 1986. Assisted by a pleasingly youthful Watson (the red-headed Vitaly Solomin, 1941-2002), most of the Livanov-Holmes’ exploits conflated two or more Doyle stories to produce thrilling variations on the original: the second series of Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa I doktora Vatsona (‘The adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson’), for example, segues from Charles Augustus Milverton into The Final Problem, then gives us The Empty House – the latter noteworthy for the fact that Livanov’s Holmes weeps real tears when he reveals to the betrayed Watson how he’d faked his own death. A Russian company is currently producing, at great expense, a new, 16-part Holmes series starring Igor Petrenko and Andrey Panin – who have big shoes to fill!
In the early 80s, producer Sy Weintraub’s ambitious, £20 million-valued plans to “turn between 20 and 30” of the Doyle stories into “feature-length films” were derailed by the simultaneous production of the Jeremy Brett-headlining Granada TV series – and just two films were produced, rumbustious adaptations of The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles aired on HBO in the autumn of 1983. Royal Shakespeare Company actor Ian Richardson’s pleasure in portraying Holmes is tangible – mannered, yes, but never quite as arch as Brett. Some 20 years later, Richardson played Holmes’ real-life inspiration – proto-forensic scientist Dr Joseph Bell, mentor to Robin Laing’s medical student Arthur Conan Doyle – in the compellingly barmy BBC mini-series Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000) and its four-instalment follow-on (2001).
Many have tried, and many have failed, to parody Sherlock Holmes convincingly – among them talents of the magnitude of Peter Cook (as a Jewish Holmes in a lavatorially unfunny Hound of the Baskervilles, 1977), John Cleese (twice, including as Holmes’ grandson in the embarrassingly racist The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It, 1977) and Gene Wilder (in the strangely uneven The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, 1975). Two actors have bucked the trend: Robert Stephens, dazzling in Billy Wilder’s rightly feted The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970); and Michael Caine in Without a Clue (1988), playing an actor hired by Ben Kingsley’s Dr Watson to impersonate Watson’s own creation, Sherlock Holmes. Yes, Caine’s about as far from an ideal Holmes as it’s possible to get, but that’s the point; as a ‘miscast’ Cock-er-nee actor failing to convince as Holmes, he’s sort-of playing himself, and is therefore perfect. Did no one get the joke?
The twin titans of Robert Downey Jr in cinemas and Benedict Cumberbatch on TV have cast a deep shadow over every other 21st century Sherlock (Matt Frewer, James D’Arcy, Jonathan Pryce…) It’d be the greatest shame, however, to overlook Rupert Everett’s louche, thrillingly disdainful Holmes, as seen in the BBC’s TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004). No spoilers! — but whereas the film itself, a serial killer thriller seemingly seeking to reposition Holmes as an Edwardian-era Cracker, foundered on a rather un-Doylean resolution, Everett broke new ground with a ruthless, criminal-profiling Holmes unafraid to apply his intellect to the murkier depths of post-Freudian fetishism and sexual perversion. He’s almost as quotable as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, too — telling Ian Hart’s Watson, fresh from the mortuary: “You reek of the slaughterhouse. Eau de morgue…”
Copyright © 2011 Alan Barnes. All rights reserved.