Friday, December 4, 2009

My Friend Sherlock

Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes? I do. My mother did. Hers was Basil Rathbone, who starred in over a dozen films about the famous sleuth -- few if any of them remotely accurate to the original stories. For one thing, Dr. Watson is not a buffoon. He's a very intelligent professional man who eventually begins to pick up on Holmes' methods and can make very good deductions of his own.

But I digress.

My Sherlock Holmes is the late Jeremy Brett, who appeared in adaptations of nearly all the Holmes mysteries for (in the USA) Mystery on PBS. His portrayal captured what to me was the essence of Holmes -- that fierce intelligence, the eccentricity that went along with, the way he examined people as if they were interesting insect colonies, and his relaxed air around his (only) friend Watson. It seemed to me a nice touch that Brett's Holmes actually laughed. He does in Conan Doyles' stories. On film, one doesn't see it so much. And at the core, Holmes is a man with a strong moral sense -- a ethos actually much more advanced that the culture around him. Not for Holmes is the forgiveness of the rich and powerful simply because that is what they are. Yet neither is he so supremely judgmental of others as one would assume. Holmes sometimes let people go, partially out of simple compassion. He did not devalue women (although for the most part he was uninterested in romance in any way) nor those who happened to be other than Anglo Saxon. We sometimes forget that aspect of his personality, allowing his sense of justice to be obscured by his awesome intelligence.

When my family moved into a two-story house in Florida (I think this was around 1972), a birthday or Christmas present about that time was The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes. Starting right off with A Study in Scarlet and through to the very last short-story, I read them all. I can even recall using a red pen to draw the word "Rache" on the wall of my new bedroom.

Hey, I was a kid.

Since then I've seen many versions and adaptation. Frank Langella twice -- once on Broadway with a stunningly nasty turn about Holmes and Watson in a dysfunctional relationship and the latter's revenge. The Hound of the Bastervilles was the first filmed version I saw, a made-for-television adaptation with Stewart Granger as The Great Detective. Curiously, Brett's own take on that film wasn't nearly as impressive for some reason. Tom Baker, Ron Roxbrough, Peter Cushing and even Peter Cook have all been Holmes in other versions of the Hound.

Many a newly "discovered" Holmes case has emerged of course. Arguably, the most famous was The Seven Percent Solution (a neat pun that). Some, such a Saberhagen's The Holmes Dracula File have pitted him against the master vampire, with whom he would in theory be contemporaneous (as well as having a rather odd resemblance to one another). Neil Gaiman wrote a wonderful pastiche, A Study In Emerald, that placed Holmes in the Cthulhu Mythos! The film Murder by Decree (with Christopher Plummer) pitted Holmes against Jack the Ripper, as did A Study in Terror with John Neville donning the deerstalker. For my money, the best such version was the one (I think it was The Last Sherlock Holmes Story) wherein we learn Jack the Ripper is none other than Professor Moriarty! And Moriarty himself is none other than Sherlock Holmes! The ending has always remained with me -- at the Reichenbach Falls, as Holmes says to his only friend "Don't worry, Watson. I won't let him get you." Then plunges to his death, killing Moriarty/Jack once and for all.

One reason Holmes seems to have become such an icon is that there are so many unanswered questions about him. Yet at the same time what he is seems so vastly, absolutely what he is -- this perfect thinking machine, walking and talking proof of the brain's raw power. That trick he had of glancing at others and telling a thousand things about them was and is awesome (even if it sometimes made little or no sense). Not too surprisingly two popular characters on American t.v. are pretty much direct inspirations of Sherlock.

The first is Monk, a detective who make more vivid one essential truth that isn't quite so obvious in Doyle's canon -- namely, that he's missing a few marbles. Whereas Adrian Monk is germaphobic, obsessive compulsive and intensely shy, Holmes is a claustrophile cocaine addict with seemingly zero sex drive and bizarre personal habits (like target practice inside his apartment). Likewise the title character of House, a universally respected physician for his diagnostic skills and all-but-universally reviled for his treatment of all those less brilliant than himself (i.e. the human race).

Meanwhile, a new film highlighting the character opens soon. Robert Downey Jr. is playing the drug-addicted genius. Jude Law is playing the multi-married womanizer Watson.

Further comment hardly seems necessary.

But do any of us doubt that Holmes will remain with us? Somebody somewhere will start a new series of successful films or t.v. shows or webisodes or virtual reality stories -- and sooner or later some of those will be successful enough to become iconic. Just like Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett (or before either of them, William Gillette). Who knows, maybe Downey's version will the latest to achieve that status. We can hope.


Anonymous said...

I have my doubts about the portrayals of Holmes and Watson in Guy Ritchie's new take on the two, despite the fact that Downey Jr. and Law are both fine actors -- I think it's going to be a bit rough, not quaint as previous adaptations. But it's all a matter of taste, and mine runs like yours -- Jeremy Brett was and always shall be Holmes for me.

Have you seen the BBC film Reichenbach Falls, starring Alec Newman? It's a neat detective story revolving around Holmesian lore, writers, and how attached the public can become to protagonist detectives.

One of the neatest things is that people do actually write to Sherlock Holmes, thinking that he is indeed a real character. Though 221B Baker street does not exist as a real address, the building that occupies 220-222 Baker Street does indeed have a plaque on it bearing a Holmes likeness and stating that if 221B did exist, it would lie on that spot.

Carole Nelson Douglas mixed Holmes and Bram Stoker in her Castle Rouge novel, which featured The Woman, the only female to have earned Holmes's respect, Irene Adler.

Zahir Blue said...

No, I've not seen that film! Thanks for the head's up!

Myself I have hopes about the new movie, but we'll see. Kelly Reilly as Mary Morstan seems like a very promising bit of casting, but it bothers me that both male leads are so much older than their romantic interests. It might be fine, but as a formulaic detail it doesn't bode well. On the other hand, the trailer looks loads of fun!

Anonymous said...

I agree that it will be fun, and the performances are likely to be good -- I just don't think it will match with what I think of as Holmes and Watson. But it should be good in its own right as a new interpretation, I think. And seeing Roberts 6-pack abs and Jude's sparkling blue eyes are never a bad thing ;)

Emily Veinglory: said...

I am so looking forard to the new movie. But I have never really bonded with an onsceen SH. Jeremey Brett was the closest.