Holmes where the ’art is
There are two dominant strands in detective fiction: the English and the American. In the traditional English mystery story, the crime is a jigsaw puzzle that the sleuth pieces together through keen observation, forensic science, and shrewd (often subtle) cross-examination. If Agatha Christie is the queen of this kind of literature, Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, remains the archetypal English detective.
His American counterpart would be Philip Marlow, or perhaps his predecessor Sam Spade. Where Holmes, Miss Marple, Poirot, and others of the English school apply logic and reason to problem solving, Spade’s technique is to get stuck in and stir things up. He’ll get heavy if he has to, and get his hands dirty. American detectives aren’t aristocrats, they’re underdogs and outsiders. They may apply scientific methods, but the crimes they investigate don’t present themselves as arcane puzzles, they’re usually more mundane, even tawdry: crimes of passion, extortion and blackmail, the kinds of cases Holmes wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole. (Sam Spade wouldn’t know a barge pole unless you hit him with it, hard, on the back of the head.)
But Sherlock Holmes…? That’s not exactly elementary casting. The 44-year-old Iron Man star isn’t tall and thin, the way Holmes was illustrated in the Strand magazine in the early 1890s, and he’s hardly the type you would imagine pulling on a deerstalker, or self-injecting a seven percent cocaine solution… Well, okay, scratch that, Holmes’ self-destructive side is certainly in Downey’s repertoire. He can suck on a Meerschaum with the best of them. But dash it all, he’s American. Doesn’t Holmes need to be played by a Brit?
Apparently not: in fact the first “official” stage Sherlock was an American actor, William Gillette, who played the part on and off for nearly forty years, from 1899 to his death in 1937. It was Gillette, in fact, who affected the famous Meerschaum, finding it a more flexible prop than the straight clay pipes Arthur Conan Doyle described in his stories. (Gillette also gave the teenage Charlie Chaplin his West End break as a page boy in one of his Sherlock Holmes productions.)
Over the years many Americans have tackled the part on stage and screen, including John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather), Raymond Massey, Charlton Heston, and Leonard Nimoy. Basil Rathbone – who played him in 12 entertaining films in the 1940s – was born in South Africa… Still, Rathbone was raised and educated in England, he really looked the part, and it was Rathbone who found the sardonic, playful side of the great detective, as well as his open affection for the bumbling comic sidekick, Dr Watson, played by Nigel Bruce. (If you want one recommendation from the series, start with The Scarlet Claw, an authentically moody, atmospheric thriller, no matter that it’s set in Quebec in the 1940s.)
If Rathbone has a rival for the mantle “the definitive Holmes” it would have to be Jeremy Brett (a true Brit at last!) who tackled some 40 of the Doyle stories for Granada TV. Brett stripped away the standard Holmesiana for a darker, brusque, sometimes downright rude persona. Looking like “a damaged penguin”, in Brett’s own description, his sleuth is cerebral and cold, but again, humanized by his friendship with Watson.
There have been a few more Sherlocks worthy of further investigation. Christopher Plummer made an excellent Holmes (opposite James Mason as a very distinguished Watson) chasing Jack the Ripper in Murder by Decree (1979). Nicol Williamson visited Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976; Robert Duvall was Watson). Best of all, look at Billy Wilder’s underrated The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970) with Robert Stephens and Genevieve Page as the woman who makes his head spin.
So where does Robert Downey Jr fit in? Check out my review of Guy Ritchie’s big budget blockbuster to find out…
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