He is the Napoleon of Crime; the arch-foe of the greatest detective Victorian London - and perhaps the world - has ever seen. A possibly-mad genius of crime, his origins and identity remain a mystery...at least, to the original readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Yes, Professor Moriarty has become one of the most famous villains of all time. He is considered by some to be one of the first “supervillains” to be introduced to literature, if not the first - a jumping-off-point for such characters noted throughout our modern pop culture as the Joker from “Batman,” Carmen Sandiego from the “Where is Carmen Sandiego?” franchise, or The Master from “Doctor Who.” But in the original Conan Doyle canon, Moriarty only appears in two stories, for a flash in each, and is merely mentioned in a handful of others. Over time, however, his infamy and intrigue has only grown, allowing a vast collection of portrayals of this most sterling villain to be found throughout mass media. And it’s high time this Father of Modern Villainy got some recognition, for were it not for his existence, so many great stories and characters today might not exist. “Every fairy-tale needs a good old-fashioned villain,” so let’s give the Devil his due with this list of my Favorite Portrayals of Professor Moriarty!
12. Gustav von Seyffertitz, from Sherlock Holmes (1922).
I often get the feeling this film was an inspiration for many great Sherlock Holmes films and series to come; certain plot points and creative decisions seem to lend credence to this. Starring The Great Profile himself, John Barrymore (most famous, perhaps, for his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde...or Hamlet, take your pick), this silent movie features a deliciously depraved Moriarty, depicted by German actor Gustav von Seyffertitz. (His makeup in this role, perhaps not by accident, actually reminds me a bit of Barrymore’s Hyde, which appeared two years prior on the silver screen...but I digress.) Warped, bitter, and as twisted physically as he is mentally, Seyffertitz’s almost perpetually-scowling version of the character is dismissive of and disgusted by the young, uppity Holmes in the first half of the movie, as a college student Sherlock rather accidentally gets caught up in Moriarty’s affairs. He warns him off with one of the best lines to ever come out of a silent movie, in my opinion (“You have seen me for the first and last time - now be a good little boy and go back to your books.”), and - believe it or not - actually manages to WIN on their first encounter, and the defeat of the great detective leads to a friend of his committing suicide. Thus, for the second part of the movie, Holmes makes it his ultimate mission in life to find a way to get revenge, and stop Moriarty at last.
11. Vincent D’Onofrio, from Sherlock: Case of Evil.
I’m pretty sure D’Onofrio and/or the creators of this film watched “The Great Mouse Detective” in their youth quite a bit. I won’t speak too much of that issue, but suffice it to say a dandified Moriarty who is as playful as he is vicious, and who is defeated in a battle at the top of Big Ben itself, certainly seems to bear particular similarities to another take on the character. But I digress: this Moriarty seems not as unknown as other versions of the character, nor as untouchable. The police already know of his existence, and have been trying to catch him, for years at the start of the film. It is an upstart Sherlock Holmes, though, who manages to not only seemingly stop the Professor, but kills him, ending his reign of terror at last. However, time passes, and events involving the systematic murders of various drug lords across England lead to the discovery that the persistent Professor is still alive and kicking, and has a whole new plot prepared to stump his rivals. It is that persistence that keeps this portrayal interesting, perhaps most of all; several times Moriarty seems beaten, or even killed...but even at the end of the film, it’s unclear if the Big Ben battle is the last Holmes & Watson have seen of their greatest nemesis...
10. Paul Freeman, from Without a Clue.
I’ve talked about Without a Clue several times, so please have patience as I reiterate the basic summary: in this version, Watson is the real detective, and Holmes is essentially his cover, as well as his sidekick. Moriarty, however, is very much the same villain we all know and love. Gifted with a sense of deduction almost on par with Watson’s (if not on par), Freeman’s Moriarty is a sadistically pleasant gentleman who can turn cold and dicing in a second. Smug and decadently dressed, he cares nothing for the imbecilic Holmes, seeing him as little more than a bemusing annoyance, if even that. His relationship with Watson, however, is a perfect match for the eternal arch-nemesis relationship he’s known for. He finds Watson interesting and amusing, but has nothing for contempt for the duo’s constant barging-in on his plans. He’s also not above doing his dirty work himself, although he does have his fair share of henchpeople, and is good with a gun.
9. Anthony Andrews, from Hands of a Murderer.
“Hands of a Murderer” is not a very well-thought-of film. The plot is essentially a remake of one of the Rathbone films, “The Woman in Green,” but with more emphasis placed on Moriarty himself, and set back in the Victorian period. Edward Woodward makes a very unlikely Holmes, while John Hillerman proves a tragically dull Watson. HOWEVER, the shining star of this production is Anthony Andrews’ Moriarty. I often get the feeling this portrayal inspired the version seen in “Sherlock;” Andrew Scott and Anthony Andrews actually look somewhat similar, in my opinion, for starters. His performance in this film is wonderfully melodramatic, featuring a youthful and theatrical Professor Moriarty who almost feels like he stepped out of a 60’s Batman episode...only slightly darker. Clearly teetering on the edge of sanity, this Moriarty nearly gets offed in the first few minutes of the film, but manages to orchestrate a daring escape. The rest of the film serves largely as a revenge plot; this Moriarty is in a state of desperation. “Everything changed when that noose went ‘round my neck,” he hisses to Holmes in one scene, seeming on the verge of tears; this is perhaps one of the first versions of the character to show just how dependent Moriarty is on Holmes, and - while his portrayal is hardly one of my favorites - Woodward’s Holmes manages to play that relationship off just as splendidly. It is the two titanic egos of this film clashing that makes up so much of the fun in this film, and Andrews steals the film from top to bottom. It may not be the most brilliant take on Sherlock Holmes, but if you want to see one of the most underrated villains ever put to the screen, Anthony Andrews’ Professor Moriarty makes “Hands of a Murderer” worth checking out.
8. Anthony Higgins, from Young Sherlock Holmes.
This may sound like a random analogy, but I’m pretty sure the movie “Young Sherlock Holmes” - or, at least, its take on Moriarty - might have inspired a completely different story...that being the SyFy miniseries “Neverland.” What do Peter Pan and the Professor have in common? Nothing, but Captain Hook and Higgins’ take on the character is a whole other issue. Let me explain as briefly as I can: in “Neverland,” Captain Hook and Peter Pan are depicted as having a father/son relationship that grows more and more twisted as the story progresses. The Professor and our titular character are shown to have a similar relationship: called Professor Rathe (he changes his name to Moriarty later on), he is a mentor to the young Sherlock, and a gifted fencing instructor. (Another similarity with the story of Hook and Peter in “Neverland” being that Hook is a gifted fencing instructor, too.) It is Rathe who helps teach and hone Sherlock’s skills, not only showing him the art of swordsmanship, but also hand-to-hand combat, and duelling wits with his favorite student in games of chess and other mental exercises. Rathe always wins, but his student is never far behind. HOWEVER, as the film goes on, Holmes learns some dark secrets about his beloved mentor (again, similar to Hook & Peter in “Neverland”), and by the end of the story, the two are the bitterest of enemies and rivals. AND, just like with “Neverland,” it is through the betrayals of the father/teacher that the son/student learns a valuable lesson they will take with them into their later years: in Neverland, it is because of Captain Hook that Peter Pan vows to never grow up. And in “Young Sherlock Holmes,” it is because of Professor Moriarty that Holmes learns the value of controlling his emotions. Perhaps never before has/had the tempestuous relationship between the World’s Greatest Detective and the Napoleon of Crime been so deliciously elaborated on and explored.
7. Viktor Yevgrafov, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson (Russian).
There has never been a Moriarty as creepy, for lack of a better word, as Viktor Yevgrafov. There has also, perhaps, never been a Moriarty as physically interesting to watch. Eerily pale and somewhat gaunt, it is Yevgrafov’s physicality in the role that makes his portrayal such a delight, overall: long moments of *complete* stillness, -never blinking, never twitching - mixed with movements that range from the slow and stylized to the fast and fierce. He doesn’t seem to move like a normal human being at all, when he does move; he slithers and slinks, like a cat or a snake, his hands often forming claw like shapes, his neck thrust out and his posture either stiff as a board or predatorily hunched and bunched. He speaks fairly little, and when he does, it is either in a low, dark rasp, or an absolute shriek-and-a-cackle. Few Professors have provided as much of a physical match for Holmes, too; the battle atop Reichenbach Falls is a masterpiece of action and choreography you don’t usually find in portrayals of its events, or even in somewhat similar duels between the two opponents. This is a performance about extremes; there’s really no in-between for this take on the character. At times this stylization can be a bit TOO much, and there are certainly moments where Yevgrafov’s Nosferatu-like theatrics go a little too over-the-top to take...but for the most part, it’s a highly effective, and very threatening, performance.
6. Eric Porter, from the Granada T.V. series.
Many say that Eric Porter is the most accurate-to-Doyle depiction of Moriarty ever put to the screen. And I’m inclined to agree; from a physical standpoint, for example, Eric Porter is a spitting image to the original Sidney Paget illustration of the character: 24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lm2….
However, “most accurate” doesn’t always mean “the best.” It is important to note, again, that not much is known about Moriarty in the original stories, and we almost never see him. In fact, it could be argued that we DON’T see him at all, since Doyle’s accounts are all from Dr. Watson’s memoirs, and Watson never gets to encounter Moriarty. All we know about him comes from Holmes’ words, delivered secondhand by Watson. This isn’t to sell Porter’s performance short, simply to elaborate on why such a famous portrayal did not manage to make the top five. WITH THAT SAID: Porter’s Moriarty is a very well-done take on the character. By all accounts, Jeremy Brett - his opponent - was actually a major fan of Porter’s work, and (according to rumors, which, of course, could be untrue, but are still interesting to relate) the identity of his villainous equal’s performer was kept a mystery from him until the time came to film their first scene together in “The Final Problem.” The take used of Brett’s reaction to Moriarty/Porter stepping through the door is the first, and the reaction of surprise, awe, and perhaps a hint of fear is made all the more incredible for it. “Fear” is, perhaps, the thing that makes Porter’s portrayal so memorable: most versions of Holmes NEVER seem to be afraid of Moriarty. Even the physically freakish Viktor Yevgrafov could barely get a twitching eyebrow from his opponent. But when Moriarty isn’t looking, Holmes actually shivers and his voice wavers slightly, towards the end of Brett & Porter’s first meeting. Never was the subtlety of Doyle’s choices in the original stories so masterfully depicted: it isn’t that Moriarty, himself, scares us that makes him so interesting and so menacing. It is the fact that he scares Holmes. Any Moriarty who can elicit the horror Brett shudders through in his nemesis is certainly worth recognition.
5. Daniel Davis, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This is a very different Moriarty, and one who - in a way - doesn’t really have a real Holmes to bounce off of. It may seem strange putting this version of the character here, especially for those who aren’t aware of it, but it is yet another of those cases where I would consider it heresy to place him anywhere lower. Davis’ Moriarty features in two episodes of the TNG series, and in the first (“Elementary, Dear Data”), things don’t go the way you would expect: it turns out that Data is a major fan of Doyle’s stories, and he and his fellow shipmates, Geordi LaForge and Dr. Pulaski decide to play a game on the holodeck of the ship: they recreate Victorian London, and cast Data as Holmes and Geordi as Dr. Watson, in what I guess is the Star Trek equivalent to a murder mystery dinner party. HOWEVER, Data - being a supercomputerized android - is perhaps even smarter than the “real” Holmes might have been, and solves the cases too easily for the game to be any fun. So, Geordi asks the holodeck program to create a fitting arch-enemy for him.
And THAT was his mistake: Geordi asked the ship to create an arch-foe for DATA, not SHERLOCK HOLMES. As a result, the ship brings the fictional villain of Professor Moriarty to life, but the program glitches as a result of Geordi’s command, and Moriarty is born self-aware, fully knowing he is a holographic recreation of a fictional character. Moriarty wastes no time in using his sudden, newfound knowledge to build a machine that causes the ship to shake and systems to malfunction, and abducts Dr. Pulaski. He quickly realizes the “Holmes” he thought he knew isn’t Holmes at all, but someone else. “We have moved beyond that, Mr. Data,” he growls when he is confronted for the final time, “And you will note that I no longer call you ‘Holmes.’” As it turns out, what Moriarty wants is, in his own words to Captain Picard: “The same thing you want for yourself: to continue to exist.” The ever-clever captain manages to negotiate with Moriarty, and promises to find a way to make him truly real, since if Moriarty tries to leave the holodeck, he will terminated by the computer.
This is where the second episode, “Ship in a Bottle” comes in: Moriarty does, in fact, find a way to come back, and to leave the holodeck. Feeling that Picard has wasted too much time in trying to find ways to ensure his existence, Moriarty shows his more nefarious side, and quickly goes on a rampage, finding new ways to control the ship and wreak havoc. Though more sympathetic than perhaps any other incarnation of the character, largely due to his literal existential crisis, it seems that the apple still doesn’t fall too far from the fiendish tree of evil.
4. George Zucco, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).
The first and best of the Professors to pester Basil Rathbone, Zucco is another Moriarty who I, personally, feel is rather close to Conan Doyle’s original intent. (He shaves the beard you see above later in the film, and without it, he once again bears a striking resemblance to the Paget illustrations, though perhaps somewhat younger, so he at least has a physical resemblance going for him.) Zucco’s Moriarty is terrifyingly real sociopath: he lacks the intensity of madness that other versions love to play with, but that is only because the madness is repressed. It’s still very much there. Much of what we learn of the Professor’s inner evil comes through his interactions with his assistants, most especially his butler, Dawes. For me, the most memorable moment for this Moriarty comes early on in the film: depicted as an avid botanist, he returns home after being released from jail through his own devices, and finds that perhaps his favorite flower has died. He summons his butler, who tries to explain and apologize for his mistake, but Moriarty will hear none of it. “Through your neglect, this flower has died. You’ve murdered a flower!” he coldly sneers, then goes on: “To think for merely murdering a man, I spent six weeks in that filthy prison cell! A travesty of justice. But for this crime, Dawes,” he continues, growing more and more passionate and excited, “You should be flogged, broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered...AND BOILED IN OIL.” I think all of that should tell you what’s needed to understand this criminal mastermind.
3. Vincent Price, as Professor Ratigan, from The Great Mouse Detective.
Yeah, yeah, I know that I didn’t include Basil of Baker Street (voiced by Barrie Ingham) or Dr. Dawson (voiced by Val Bettin) on the Holmes & Watson lists, because I felt it was cheating...but in this case, it is IMPOSSIBLE to resist. Besides, while we can infer Moriarty is or was around at some point in the universe of this film, we never see or hear him...so HA!
Few takes on the World’s Greatest Criminal Mind have been as gleefully wicked as Professor Ratigan. Voiced to perfection by a man whose infamous resume looks more like a rogues gallery, the incomparable Vincent Price himself claimed this was one of his favorite roles, if not his favorite. And it shows. Price, and by extension Ratigan, is having a BLAST throughout the whole picture. He prances and giggles his way throughout the movie as he plots to take over the kingdom of mice in England. However, there’s another side to this facade of devilry: Ratigan hates to be called a rat (which he is). Call him one, and you will most certainly die...probably by being fed to his giant pet cat, Felicia. (How a rat has a pet cat, I don’t know, but it just makes him all the more delightful.) It can be inferred that this is due to the stereotype of rats being “slimy and contemptible,” so Ratigan decides to fight this by dressing in succulent fashion and displaying all the airs and manners of a gentleman, as well as flaunting his mental capacities. The irony, of course, is that his evil deeds only seem to CONFIRM these prejudices, and by the end of the film, Ratigan is so incensed by Basil’s interference that he loses all semblance of control. If you weren’t afraid of rats before this film...trust me, the battle at Big Ben in this movie will fix that for good…
2. Andrew Scott, from Sherlock.
Called “Jim Moriarty” (if he IS a professor, that fact is never mentioned, unless you count his appearance as a more period-styled take on the character in “The Abominable Bride”), I think it would be hard to find a Moriarty as delightfully INSANE as this one. (Except for maybe Ratigan.) Prone to mood swings and poetic dialogue, Andrew Scott’s more modern Moriarty is a lovingly melodramatic psychopath, depicted not so much as a gang boss so much as a “consulting criminal”: while Holmes helps and consults the police, along with private clients, Moriarty finds crimes for other criminals to pull off, and helps them in their endeavors, while doing a few dirty deeds of his own on the side. As childish and cold as Holmes himself, what sets the two apart is that Holmes - despite all his antisocial behaviors and his own gray code of conduct - ultimately fights for what he feels is right and good, while Moriarty revels in doing what everyone in the world sees as wrong, wrong, WRONG. He cares nothing for his own life, or the lives of others, and will willingly allow himself to be caught or killed if it means getting the upper hand on Sherlock, and proving just who is the best. With a relationship to his enemy that borders between passionate love and the most intense loathing, Jim Moriarty’s demented antics prove that you don’t need a professor’s degree to bedevil the World’s Greatest Detective.
But there is still one version of the World’s Greatest Criminal Mind who, in my opinion, tops them all...
1. Jared Harris, from the Game of Shadows series.
In a pair of movies as overblown as these - they are, at the end of the day, major action-adventure steampunk extravaganzas, let’s all be honest - it was great to have a villain as surprisingly understated as Harris’ Moriarty. He has all of the great qualities of many other takes on the character, but without as much heavy-handed delivery. Just about every line he speaks sounds almost like small talk, but the subtext underneath sells it beautifully. Like Ratigan and Anthony Higgins, he is two-faced, hiding his inner monster underneath a veneer of sophistication. Like Zucco, he manages to be a cool-tempered sadist and sociopath, but certainly has some theatrical moments I’m sure Andrew Scott, Anthony Andrews, and Vincent D’Onofrio would appreciate. He has the untouchability and experienced disdain of Gustav von Seyffertitz. His mind menaces his Holmes as much as Eric Porter’s menaced his, and he manages to match him physically, too, if not OUTMATCH him, a trait Viktor Yevgrafov would be proud to find. In short: he’s just about everything you want out of Moriarty, but without it being in your face most of the time. THAT is a HUGE accomplishment. It is for all of these reasons that I gleefully award Jared Harris with the meaningless title of My Favorite Portrayal of the diabolical Professor Moriarty. ALL HAIL THE WORLD’S GREATEST CRIMINAL MIND!
Honorable Mentions Include…
Laurence Olivier, from The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
I’ve talked about this movie more than once, and for those who haven’t looked at my other Holmes lists...the other entries basically describe what’s so interesting about this version of Moriarty, and will also help you realize why someone like Olivier (who is undeniably interesting in this portrayal) only makes an Honorable Mention spot.
Yep. I just used self-advertisement to fill out a description. So sue me. Trust me, either look at those lists or watch the film...or both, for that matter; I won’t give away the fun HERE.
Orson Welles, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Radio Program).
Orson Welles has that lovely sense of understatement that Jared Harris has, but perhaps he’s a little TOO understated. His Moriarty seems to take things in his stride just a little too easily, causing the seeming small talk to come across as...well...small talk. Then again, this only makes scenes like the discussion between Holmes and Moriarty atop the falls a little more tense; in your mind’s eye, you can see them smiling pleasantly into one another’s faces...while each of them grips a weapon in a steel-grip behind their backs. It’s a surprising turn, but just a little too placid to make the top twelve.
Other Honorable Mentions Include…
Lionel Atwill, from Sherlock Holmes & the Secret Weapon. (Not as good as George Zucco, but for the most part still a worthy opponent.)
Natalie Dormer, from Elementary. (This one is actually a combination of TWO Holmesian villains, Moriarty being one of them, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave the combination up to you to find out.)
Richard Newman, from Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century.
Anonymous, from the Frogwares Games series.
I feel Zucco is the best of this group. No way to avoid that at all. And I like Atwill, especially in his attempt to find a fitting, "scientific" death for his temporarily captured foe, by draining the blood out of his body. But in his book of Memoirs, "In and Out of Character", Rathbone is on record as feeling that Henry Daniell was the best of his Moriarty's! Daniell is fine, but his performance is not as good as his "roundhead" killer sent after Charles Stuart (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) in "The Exile", his "Mr. Brocklehurst" in "Jane Eyre", his "Dr. "Toddy" MacFarlane" in "The Body Snatcher", or "Baron De Varville" in Garbo's "Camille", or "Garbitsch" the chief advisor to "Adenoid Hynkel" in Chaplin's "The Great Dictator". Rathbone. for some reason (I think it was friendship) felt Daniell's interpretation was a good balance to his Holmes. Both men were the same age, and (unlike Atwill or Zucco) Daniell was as coldly intellectual (and aristocratic - a friend of mine calls him, "The Sneer that Walked like a Man") as Rathbone could be. Atwill and Zucco showed more of a sense of humor (note the moment during his planed jewelry heist when a disguised Zucco has to present his identification papers to Henry Stephenson, the official in charge - Zucco is fully prepared disguised as a police sergeant, but suddenly it occurs to him what Stephenson never considered after the latter returns the papers: "Where's your identification? Zucco sharply asks - and Stephenson has to present some I.D.!). In his later career, Rathbone agreed in the early 1950s to appear on stage as Holmes, with Nigel Bruce as Watson, but Moriarty was to be portrayed by Thomas Gomez (who appeared as a Nazi agent and traitor in "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" and gave a good performance in that role). There were rehersals, but Bruce became ill, and died before the production could be shown to the public. It might have been an interesting interpretation.
There are only two others I would mention for the sake of completeness - not because I feel they are among the best performances: 1) John Huston, in the television film, "Sherlock Holmes in New York" from the late 1970s. An interesting performance, but not really among the best. Also one of my favorites: Leo McKern in "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" opposite Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman as the semi-fake characters "Sherrinford Holmes and Sgt. Ormond Sacker" (both of whom were names that Conan Doyle considered using instead of "Sherlock Holmes" and "Dr. John H. (for "Henry" or "Hamish") Watson". McKern, who gained his mystery role immortality as the great barrister "Horace" "Rumpole of the Bailey" on television, showed a lively comic streak. As far as I know he was the only Moriarty who actually reminded us that the Professor was of Anglo-IRISH ancestry, speaking with a thick brogue. He is capable of leading Wilder and Feldman on a series of false trails and side trips away from his main, nefarious goal (stealing a vital state secret, a la "The Adventure of the Second Stain" or "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" or "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans") but he is also aware of an hereditary taint that causes him to have to commit a bloody crime every ten or fifteen minutes. What bugs him is the time it wastes because he has to think up another "corker" to be more impressive than the last. At one point he even uses a variation of his reading of the old short story of Frank Norris, "The Lady, or, the Tiger?" to get rid of one of his pug-uglies. He reduces his conference with is co-villain, opera singer Dom De Louis, to a makeship, questionable wrestling match. And after every one of his evil side deeds, we see him go to his private priest to confess and be forgiven. The priest happens to be a mechanical man, dressed to look like a Roman Catholic priest (another first for a Moriarty - usually he's considered above religions) that when McKern finishes hands out a card that says, "Absolved!".
Not anywhere like the Professor of the series of stories, but certainly a memorable one.