Guy Ritchie’s flick, the new TV series Sherlock, a supposed Holmes comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen, and Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack The Ripper: is it just me, or is everyone’s favorite crime-solving Victorian coke addict seeing a resurgence? Maybe it’s just adaptation fever, maybe people are finally getting tired of David Caruso taking off his sunglasses passing for mystery. Whatever it is, it is undeniably good to see one of the greatest fictional characters ever getting a bit more attention, even if he is, you know, the most portrayed role in all of media. And while we will need time to tell how these newer versions hold up in comparison, now seems as good an opportunity as ever to review some of the great Holmeses of the past.
Oh yes, there have been many, many, many, many Sherlock Holmes adaptations, from the straight dramas to the deconstructions to that cartoon about him in the future where Watson was a robot. There have also been Sherlockian nerds for a long, long time, and as a result, debate constantly rages as to which portrayals have been “the best”. Of course, there will always be room for all sorts of interpretations, even those that play loose with the source material. Regardless, though, there are certain Holmes’ that remain the most definitive, the most essential, and the most memorable versions of the character. This is by no means a comprehensive list (seriously, you don’t have any idea how many Holmes adaptations there are), but if you have somehow never heard of Mr. Conan Doyle and his little detective stories, these would be the guys to check out.
10) Clive Brook/Arthur Wontner (tie)
Probably best to start here, with two of the early Holmes’. Brook starred in just two Sherlock films but they came at a critical time, transitioning from the rather simplified, romantic John Barrymore silent version to the complicated, drier character we’re more familiar with. He is the earliest talkie Holmes that survives and without him, we wouldn’t even have “Elementary, my dear Watson,” a phrase that never actually appeared in Doyle in full. The first of his films, Sherlock Holmes, also links Brook to the pre-sound Sherlocks, as it was (very loosely) based on William Gillette’s well-known play from 1900.
The somewhat overlooked Sherlock of the ’30s, Wontner may not be as well remembered as some of the others here, but he held the title for five films, one of which is lost, as well as a radio series. His Holmes is perhaps a little too calm but definitely gives off that sort of isolated vibe, skipping his meals and obsessing over his cases to a formidable degree. Neither of these performances are as forceful and characteristic as some of the others on this list (Brook’s version is too overtly romantic, Wontner’s too laid back), but they were important for the time.
9) Douglas Wilmer
An undervalued Holmes, Wilmer nevertheless was the TV detective of the 60’s, saturated in old-school “veddy good” Englishness and more than a little aristocratic. Back in the day, he was a character actor who appeared in several very famous films (Patton! El Cid! Octopussy, for God’s sake!). His debut Holmes story, a solo TV-movie of The Speckled Band, introduced him as an aware, distantly gentile man who was at the same time fleshy and anchored in the world around him, eyes darting about for clues. It’s sort of nice to see a Holmes capable of showing enthusiasm without going all Jim Carrey on us (are you listening, Matt Frewer?), and Wilmer makes him a true gentleman, to boot.
8) Nicol Williamson
Though Williamson has gotten steady work for decades, he’s probably most well-known to ’70s film fans for two roles: Merlin in John Boorman’s hilariously shiny Excalibur and this one from The Seven Per Cent Solution. A movie lousy with famous people (Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall, Lawrence Olivier, Alan Arkin, for example) it shows us a Holmes overcome by addiction and battling a nervous breakdown. In order to silence his demons, Duvall’s Watson takes his friend to visit a young Sigmund Freud (Arkin), who puts the detective on the couch and comes up with some alarming revelations. Naturally, a kidnapping plot, an evil baron, and a swordfight on a train all follow suit.
If nothing else, Williamson is good at giving us different levels of Holmes, all clipped and controlled on the surface but harboring serious issues. Of course, there are details here that may upset the purists, particularly Holmes’ borderline-ladies’ man antics and his (gasp!) light brown hair, but overall it’s a welcome interpretation that certainly feels Holmesian enough.
7) Ian Richardson
Richardson is so skilled at playing the villain that it’s a little jarring to see him running around and solving murders rather than masterminding them. But his Holmes is sincere: driven, dry and absolutely serious. He appears as Holmes in two TV movies, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four. They’re kind of hard to find but are worth your time based on visual panache alone. Interestingly enough, Richardson also went on to play Joseph Bell, the real-life inspiration for Holmes, in the series Murder Rooms.
6) Rupert Everett
He’s a little too quippy for my taste, but this Holmes certainly got the sullen skulking right, kind of like a short-haired Oscar Wilde if he stayed inside and listened to the Smiths all day. The look on his face when a woman calls him by his first name says it all: this is a man who dwells in formality, who can charm and make witty conversation but always keeps his emotional distance for fear of being hurt. Rupert took on Holmes’ great mantle for just one TV movie, the silly, wannabe kinky Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, but his impressively low belchy voice and general emo-ness matched the darkness of that story perfectly and puts him well into the ranks. His relationship with Watson is, as always, a focal point, both subtly and not-so-subtly hinting at the simmering homosexual jealousy that many often see as the root of Holmes’ loneliness. Also, he’s a bit of a mumbler: you wonder why the Duchess doesn’t just smack him across the jaw and tell him to speak up.
5) Vasilly Livanov
Who would have thought that one of the most celebrated Sherlocks wouldn’t come from England at all but instead this Soviet TV miniseries from the late ’70s/early ’80s? Considered extremely faithful to the texts, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (and later, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson) gave us some very tense and atmospheric stories, all done with a moody visual flair and some fittingly stately theme music (apparently based on a promo used by the BBC world service). The raspy Holmes at the center is super-cool and calculating, fixated on his pipe to a disturbing degree and rarely betraying an iota of emotion. This makes his more active moments all the more exciting; believe me, just because a guy can sit and talk for scene after scene doesn’t mean he won’t suddenly jump up and karate chop Russian John Malkovich in the neck. I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t end up in Ritchie’s upcoming sequel, but even if it does it won’t be half as strange and surprising as it is here.
4) Christopher Plummer
Believe it or not, long before the computer game (or the Celebrity Deathmatch episode) there was actually a Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper movie! Herr Von Trapp himself stars as a contemplative, more restrained Holmes, hot on the bloody trail of Saucy Jack. As the plot thickens Holmes has to deal with freemasonry, conspiracy, and ridiculous fake beards to uncover the truth, and Plummer delivers the goods as a righteous and ultimately more involved sleuth. Unlike so many Sherlocks, you actually feel like that his one cares about Watson and the people involved in his cases, and that his mystery-solving is an attempt to help society at large. If you’re interested, you can check out the earlier A Study in Terror, which followed the same basic premise but wasn’t quite as distinctive. Plummer would later take on the role again in the 1977 TV movie Silver Blaze.
3) Peter Cushing
No surprise here, really, as Cush has played some of the most iconic characters in fiction, including Baron von Frankenstein, Doctor Who, and Van Helsing, not to mention the Moff and his character in Horror Express which is totally worth digging through gas station DVD bins to find. He took on Holmes in just two theatrical films, The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959 and The Masks of Death in 1984, but he also starred in a sixteen-episode TV series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Aside from looking great in the deerstalker, Cushing brought his distinct poise and energy to the role, suggesting Holmes’ erratic nature while still portraying him as excited and full of warm, if somewhat odd, zest. He’s kind of like your uncle, if your uncle sat around and obsessed over people’s hats all day.
2) Basil Rathbone
Legendary British actor and Gene Siskel doppelganger Rathbone is by far the most prolific film Holmes, having played the part in 14 movies from 1939 to 1946 (as well as several radio plays afterwards). Interestingly enough, only two of these were set in Victorian London: the rest were updated to the time of their release, and some featured Holmes fighting the Nazis. It’s still a little weird for me to see Sherlock in a mid-20th century suit and tie, so for my money the most entertaining is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It may not be based on any actual Holmes stories, but it involves Moriarty, murder, and the awesomely named Star of Delhi, and even finds room for a completely ridiculous musical number, which may be a little out of character, but who cares?
Rathbone makes probably the most purely heroic Holmes we have: strong, assured, and quick to act, with his eccentricities still present (there’s his experiment with the violin and the flies, a scene recycled for the 2009 film). As a side-note, Rathbone also had the most hilarious pseudo-drunk Watson ever, Nigel Bruce.
1) Jeremy Brett
It may be an obvious choice, but just look at it this way: while others portrayed or embodied Holmes, Brett became Holmes. For starters, he played the character for ten years in four different TV series, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1984, a long time for anyone and certainly longer than anyone else. Without a doubt he involved himself in the role more than any other actor, to the point where it began to tragically invade his life (he joked on a talk-show interview that Holmes had begun changing his physical appearance). An intense work schedule led to his being diagnosed with manic-depression: this was followed by more illness, heart trouble and Brett’s eventual death in 1995.
The sadness of his fate is perhaps tempered by the fact that he was completely transcendent as Holmes, brilliantly cunning and yet almost unbearably lonely and withdrawn, fine-tuned and deeply haunted. Determined to give the part his all, Brett dove in headfirst, creating a special compilation of notes (the famous “Baker Street File”), scrutinizing every script for accuracy and inventing a backstory. In the same way that Holmes transformed him, he also transformed Holmes to suit his interpretation. Somehow, when Brett is onscreen, it doesn’t matter that he seems a little older or larger than the Sherlocks we’re used to: he fits. Brett called Holmes “the dark side of the moon” but made him a three-dimensional character, a restless, closed-off soul nevertheless capable of compassion and vivacity. His “stagnation” speech, delivered straight into the camera in closeup, is electric acting dynamite on fire and enough to cement his reputation. The staggering amount of Youtube fan montages devoted to this wonderful actor is just one testament to how great he was, and how much he is missed.
It’s unfortunately impossible to know for sure, but stage actor William Gillette is such an important figure in Holmes lore that it would be deeply remiss for me not to mention him. Eille Norwood is another early Holmes that gained much acclaim while leaving precious little behind. And then there’s this:
I know it’s a one-gag skit, but at least Serafinowicz’s Holmes finally resolves all of that pesky tension.