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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Elementary, Watson, part 2 (originally published 4/01)

As we saw last week, the Odyssey cable channel’s recent television adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” is only the latest in a long, long line of Sherlock Holmes adaptations for movies and television. Matt Frewer, who plays Holmes in this newest interpretation of the immortal sleuth, follows in the footsteps of an intimidating roster of distinguished predecessors.

We saw, for example, that in the early 1930s a British actor named Arthur Wontner dethroned Ellie Norwood as the screen’s “definitive Holmes.” Wontner so closely resembled Doyle’s descriptions of Holmes that it must have seemed that every actor to follow him would necessarily be doomed to live in his shadow. And yet it was only a few years later that another actor would succeed in eclipsing even the redoubtable Wontner as the public’s favorite Holmes. For some additonal examples of how Holmes has been interpreted through the years, look for these titles on home video.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939). Twentieth Century Fox struck box office gold by casting Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson in Doyle’s creepy tale of death on the moors. They played off one another brilliantly, Bruce as a slightly pompous but bumbling Watson and Rathbone as a high strung, intense Holmes. The film was successful enough to spawn a string of sequels, which finally played out seven years and a dozen films later. By the time “Dressed to Kill” (1946) brought an end to the series, Rathbone’s face, voice, and mannerisms had been burned into the minds of moviegoers as the very embodiment of Holmes.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959). After Rathbone relinquished the role, other actors were understandably wary of it. For over a decade, therefore, Holmes was uncharacteristically absent from the screen. Eventually, however, Hammer Films, a British studio, took on the challenge. Hammer had already had great success in remaking classics of the horror genre, including a Frankenstein film and a Dracula film. Emboldened by these successes, they decided to risk a new Holmes film. They cast Peter Cushing, one of the studio’s most reliable actors, in the lead. Like Wontner, Cushing bore a striking resemblance to Holmes as described by Doyle. That, along with his proven aptitude for carrying creepy thrillers, produced a performance that could stand quite well alongside Rathbone’s.

“A Study in Terror” (1965). Once the Rathbone curse was lifted from the role by Cushing’s success, filmmakers once again began to bring their own interpretations of Holmes to the screen. One notable entry was this atmospheric thriller, pitting Holmes against none other than Jack the Ripper. It was a logical premise, since the fictional Holmes and the historical Ripper were contemporaries. John Neville, a British leading man who had already played Hamlet on the screen, took on the role of Holmes.

“The Seven Percent Solution” (1976). In 1974, Nicholas Meyer hit the best seller list with a revisionist Holmes novel based on Holmes’s use of cocaine, as frankly described by Doyle, to stave off the psychological demons that plagued him when not actively involved in solving a case. Meyer postulated that Holmes’s arch-rival, Dr. Moriarty, was actually a perfectly ordinary gentleman, elevated by Holmes’s cocaine-addled mind into “the Napoleon of crime.” Dr. Watson, seeing his brilliant friend cracking up, contrives to take Holmes to Vienna to be treated by Sigmund Freud. The film version of Meyer’s book, scripted by Meyer himself, boasted a remarkable cast. Nicol Williamson stars as an unsettlingly human Holmes, ably supported by Robert Duvall as Watson and Alan Arkin as Freud.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” (1984). With the premiere of this series of Sherlockian television programs from Granada Television in England, the mantle of “definitive Holmes” at last was transferred from Basil Rathbone to a new actor. The heir apparent was Jeremy Brett. Hailed by both the general public and Holmes afficionados, Brett’s portrayal remains the current benchmark for the role. The Granada series went on to adapt all but 19 of the Doyle stories before Brett’s untimely death cut the series short.

Matt Frewer has now appeared as Holmes twice, and undoubtedly will again if “The Sign of Four” proves successful. With such a distinguished tradition of Holmes portrayals to live up to, however, you don’t need to be a super-sleuth to deduce that establishing himself in the role is going to be anything but elementary.

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