Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(Ten Of) The Many Faces of Mr. Holmes

We're hot to see Mr. Holmes. Though the change of title (it was previously known as A Slight Trick of the Mind, which would look lovely on a marquee) to the more basic descriptor reeks of the usual Hollywood dumbing down, but we can't deny that we're excited to see it. Bill Condon's tale (adapted from a novel by Mitch Cullin) sees an aged Sherlock Holmes (a beautifully cast Ian McKellen) trying to piece together a mystery from his past even as his mind begins to fail him. It's a more-than-solid premise that's bound to be beautifully realized by Condon and McKellen (who struck gold with their moving and fanciful James Whale movie Gods and Monsters, and will likely take a similar memory play approach to the material here).

McKellen doesn't seem to have played Holmes before, which is a little startling. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, the London-based "consulting detective" with the superhumanly keen deductive mind quickly became a literary sensation, and wound up exploding across different media. The Guinness Book of World Records says that Holmes is the "most-portrayed movie character", and a search for Holmes movies on the Jaman site yields a daunting set of titles.

--The Holmes adaptations began early in the silent era, with Hungarian actor Károly Baumann bringing his stage performance as Holmes to a film adaptation. Actor Eille Norwood played the role in over 40 silent film adaptations of Doyle's stories, a portrayal admired by Doyle himself. (And a recently discovered 1916 Holmes film starring William Gillette has been restored, and just had its European premiere - we're very, very hot to see it at San Francisco's Silent Film Festival in a couple of months.)

--Reginald Owen played Holmes in an early sound adaptation of Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. But for many the definitive Holmes would come later in the 1930s. British actors Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce became popularly identified with the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson, Holmes' faithful sidekick, thanks to a hugely successful run of radio plays. When the time came for a major Hollywood series featuring the popular characters, casting Rathbone and Bruce was inevitable, and they became even more popularly known, and definitively defined the characters for a generation of viewers. The Rathbone/Bruce Holmes adventures are not all easy to find on line, but the late series entry Terror by Night is in the public domain, available all over the place, and is a breezy and engaging mystery, with Rathbone in fine form. (The exciting conclusion of the series, Dressed to Kill, is easily found as well.)

--iTunes seems to be the only place that has the 1959 The Hound of the Baskervilles. Produced by Hammer Films during the start of their famous horror cycle, it stars Hammer regulars Peter Cushing and Andre Morell as Holmes and Watson, with a surprisingly spry Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. It's at least as atmospheric as Hammer's other offerings from that period, and it's a shame that this was Hammer's sole foray into the Holmes corpus.

--The Holmes adaptations continued into the 1970s; Christopher Plummer and James Mason were ideally cast as Holmes and Watson in the moody and fanciful Murder by Decree, a new story pitting the detectives against Jack the Ripper in gaslit London. A few years earlier, Billy Wilder got insanely ambitious with his feature The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, commenting obliquely on 70s society while pitting Holmes (stage great Robert Stephens) against a conspiracy involving the Loch Ness Monster. It's compromised (and cut of an hour of its extensive intended running time), but well worth a look.

--More recently, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law played Holmes and Watson in a colorful pair of movies by Guy Ritchie. With the adaptation emphasizing Holmes' physicality, and happily juicing Watson's role in the proceedings (Law's Watson ain't no one's damn sidekick), Ritchie's movies find a place for an intelligent and shaded hero like Holmes (tough, smart, and nuanced as played by Downey) amid the more blockbuster plotting of the stories, preserving his history and his mystique as they go. Perversely, they might be the streetwise Ritchie's finest movies.

To be sure, the ten actors above are far from the only ones to play Sherlock Holmes - the list of Holmes movies, which includes parodies and documentaries as well as more faithful adaptations and deconstructions, seems endless and ever growing. Ian McKellen is only the latest actor to take on the role, but the character remains so firmly entrenched in the public consciousness that there's no way he'll be the last.

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