Holmes and Away
In his classic essay The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler drew a fine distinction between the classic European detective and his/her (with due deference to Miss Marple) American counterpart.
An American who grew up in Britain and was educated in the same public school as PG Wodehouse and CS Forester, Chandler was ideally placed to make the comparison, but came down hard on the Brits: “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers,” he opined. The likes of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers were preoccupied with arcane and esoteric puzzles, whereas your American crime writer – Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett, for example – “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse, and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.”
Well, Chandler may have had a point, but his preference for hardboiled crime stories surely blinded him to the very real pleasures of the whodunit. It’s not likely that we will bump into Sherlock Holmes down at the pub, but as a literary creation he’s a fabulous beast, and the library would be a far poorer place without him. Even so, it’s pretty clear that the project behind Guy Ritchie’s big screen Holmes movies is to inject a bit of red-blooded American testosterone into this cerebral Brit. He’s even played by one (Robert Downey Jr, of course). Downey’s Holmes uses his noggin to choreograph bashing people’s skulls in, he treats boxing like a chess match, always calculating at least three or four moves ahead.
Of course there were howls of protest from some quarters, but as a lifelong Holmes (and Basil Rathbone) fan, I have to say I enjoyed that movie’s energy and invention. Purists would have the character stay the same, but atrophy is deadly in any art-form. Conan Doyle was writing popular fiction for his time, and Ritchie is tailoring him for a very different public – hence all those flash-forwards and on-screen diagramatics (tricks which the Beeb were quick to take up in their modern day Holmes episodes, we should point out). And you know what? Conan Doyle can take it! According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed character in films – yes, more than Tarzan, James Bond, and Count Dracula. (And wouldn’t it be fun to get that crew together for a chat some time!)
Consider, he’s been played by actors as different as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing; Buster Keaton and John Barrymore; Michael Caine and George C Scott; Peter O’Toole and Peter Cook; Stewart Granger and Roger Moore (but not Sean Connery); Benedict Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett; Charlton Heston and Robert Stephens; Nicholas Rowe and Nicol Williamson; Tom Baker and even Leonard Nimoy (on stage, at the RSC no less). If Holmes can survive that lot, mystique intact, I think we can be confident he will withstand whatever indignities Messrs Ritchie and Downey have in store.
Average in height and no stranger to the gym, Downey hardly looks the part, at least as he’s usually portrayed (in A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, Sherlock is described as lean and over six foot tall), but Dr Watson did also describe a “bohemian” of “eccentric habits”, an occasional cocaine-user, arrogant and erratic, all of which Downey fits to the teeth. He also gets Holmes’ rather chilly ambivalence towards polite society, his antagonism towards authority in general and Scotland Yard blunderers in particular, and his personal loyalty both to his clients and to Dr Watson (very well played by Jude Law, I have to say). Even the pugilism has its roots in the Conan Doyle stories, even if it’s definitely played up in the movie.
Best of all, I think, is the way Downey conveys the character’s swings between extreme lethargy – the way he physically sags when there’s no mystery to stimulate him – and intellectual excitement when presented with a case that’s worthy of his interest. That’s a pattern familiar to habitual users of hard drugs, and while it’s certainly a recurring trait in most of the best screen Sherlocks, few have nailed it as convincingly as Downey does.
The key, perhaps, is the second half of that equation. “Intellectual excitement” isn’t the easiest thing to play, but for all his ego and snide side, there is still enough of the showboat in Downey, he loves to/needs to shine, to wow the crowd. The last thing he wants is to be dull. When he gets the occasion to show off Sherlock’s razor-sharp acuity, his eyes go bright, his speech speeds up, and you can practically see his mind stepping up a gear or three. It’s then that we know Holmes is really back, and once more the game’s afoot…