Sherlock Holmes


Been on a Holmes kick. I’d watched a few episodes of the BBC Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes years ago, and liked it, but didn’t grasp its significance. This all started with me trying to buy a copy of the Hammer production of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Peter Cushing as Holmes, and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville. They sent me one of those weird “Zone X” DVDs that won’t play on Western DVD players. I don’t know why they exist. It’s like selling vinyl LPs that won’t play on Western turntables. John Grace cued me in to a workable copy which I ordered. The disc itself was fine but the plastic package was shattered. I put it in a new box.

This Hammer production is long on atmosphere and Cushing makes a superb Holmes, though not always, as we shall see. Lurid lighting, sexual undertones, and that strict class system that marks most Hammer horrors. Class is front and center in all the Holmes movies. The clients live in twenty thousand square foot homes. The underlings bow, scrape, and tip their hats. “Yes, m’lord. No, m’lady.”

Hound is not a great movie. When the hound finally appears, it’s a mastiff in a mask.

I watched the BBC Holmes (Cumberbatch) from the beginning. It’s great. Cumberbatch nails Holmes’ personality in a way no other actor has. He claims to be a high-functioning sociopath, but he behaves as if he has Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s funny and frequently shocking. The dialogue is complex and entertaining. Reinventing Holmes for the modern era pays big dividends. Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) is now an Afghan veteran. The first episode involves a murder mystery. The murderer is fascinating in his motivations and modus operandi. Mrs. Hudson is the widow of a drug dealer. She drives an Aston Martin. Andrew Scott is a monstrously evil Moriarty. While the plotting is sometimes baroque, it works until the fourth and final season when they jump the shark with a ridiculous episode involving Mycroft’s and Sherlock’s evil sister, overwrought and unbelievable. Nevertheless, the first three seasons are superb.

Many consider Jeremy Brett the ultimate Holmes, and he most closely resembles the character Conan Doyle created.

“In the latter part of 1986, Brett exhibited wild mood swings that alarmed his family and friends, who persuaded him to seek diagnosis and treatment for manic depression, also known as

bipolar disorder. Brett was prescribed lithium tablets to fight his manic depression. He suspected that he would never be cured, and would have to live with his condition, look for the signs of his disorder, and then deal with it. He wanted to return to work, to play Holmes again.” –Wiki

Some believe that Brett believed he was Holmes, and that this accounted for his total immersion in the character. The Brett Holmes is a must see.

I looked for Holmes online. Christopher Lee is Holmes and Patrick McNee is Watson in Incident at Victoria Falls. Ho hum. Yawnsville. But always those sharp class distinctions. Peter Cushing plays Holmes again in a BBC series. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” A ho-hum mystery wherein the lower class villain realizes his mistake and begs for forgiveness. “I am deeply sorry!” This is the opposite of the human fiends in the Cumberbatch version.

Peter O’Toole voiced Holmes in the animated Baskerville Curse. Yawnsville.

Finally, there’s a new Holmes-related series on Netflix, The Irregulars, about the street urchins Holmes recruits. Dr. Watson is black. The Irregulars are woke. The first episode goes full Birds and grand guignol. “Her friggin’ eyes were pulled out of her face!” I wonder if the word frig was in use in 1890. One episode was enough.

The Basil Rathbone Holmes are wildly uneven, but the good ones are very good, and Rathbone made a superb Holmes.

A more thorough essay would include Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and the superb 1966 A Study In Terror, which pits Sherlock (John Neville) against Jack the Ripper. Frank Finlay plays Inspector LeStrade.