Before Batman ever donned cape and cowl, the World’s Greatest Detective was - and perhaps still is - the indomitable Sherlock Holmes. A genius in the art of crime fighting, this complex figure of fiction was so interestingly crafted by the famed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through a series of novels and short stories, that some believe he actually existed. His stories have been adapted countless times, and some think he may be the single most often-portrayed character in literary history. A manic-depressive, drug-addicted, aristocrat of crime scene investigation, he’s the hero we all need, though perhaps not the hero anyone deserves.
...That’s two Batman references in one go, go figure…
ANYWAY: the Holmes stories have always fascinated me, so I have decided to make a few lists - as I so often do - to celebrate some of the key characters in the canon. And there’s no one better to start with than the master sleuth himself. Now, please keep in mind, with a character and stories so widely adapted and pastiched, this list can only cover the tiniest fraction of them. Some very important and famous names are bound to be left out, so if a favorite of yours doesn’t appear here, please, do not assume it is because I don’t think that version is good. More likely it is simply because either a.) I haven’t seen it yet, or b.) I just like the ones mentioned here a bit better. (A couple of noteworthy names you find mentioned here...aside from this aside, obviously...are Tom Baker and Ian Richardson. I like them both. You also won’t find the anime “Sherlock Hound” here, simply because I’ve not seen it.) This is all opinion based, as always. Now, THE GAME’S AFOOT! So let’s not waste any more time; here are my Top 12 Portrayals of Sherlock Holmes!
12. James D’Arcy, from Sherlock: Case of Evil.
If you had a triple-cross between “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Young Sherlock Holmes,” and the “Game of Shadows” films, I’m pretty sure that “Case of Evil” is the movie you would get. A decent film with a not-so-decent soundtrack, this reimagining of Holmes depicts Sherlock as a young detective still trying to make a name for himself in London. He seems to succeed in that endeavor after killing the nefarious Professor Moriarty in a duel, which gains him the attention of the police, as well as the public at large. However, when drug lords across England start being killed off, it soon seems that perhaps the rumors of the evil professor’s death were greatly exaggerated, and Holmes must figure out what his old enemy is up to once more, and stop him before it’s too late. This Holmes, apart from being younger than many other adaptations, was nevertheless the relatively cold, chilling aristocratic character we know and love, and as brilliant a swordsman and crack-shot as he was a detective. As opposed to a cocaine or morphine addiction, this Holmes seemed to instead have a major drinking problem, as shown in one scene where he drinks himself nearly into a stupor while trying to puzzle out a curious clue. His battle against Moriarty is more personal than ever: in this version, his brother, Mycroft, prior to the story of the movie, was left a cripple after an encounter with the professor, and though his mind is as sharp as ever, his body in dire straits as a result. Holmes has to grapple with finding a friend in a new ally, Dr. Watson, while at the same time dealing with steeling his emotions as Moriarty continues to make the game more and more dangerous…
...Say...haven’t we heard all this before…?
11. Nicholas Rowe, from Young Sherlock Holmes.
Ah, yes, we have! Here! “Young Sherlock Holmes” is a Spielberg movie that essentially works as an antithesis to another cult film of his, “Hook.” While Hook took a look at what happened after Peter Pan & Wendy’s adventures, this film takes a look at what happened before the journals of Dr. Watson were printed. Once again, this Holmes is a younger man, still in his university years, just starting and trying to make a name for himself. His journey involves him trying to manage his emotions, as well as his mind, as people he cares about are torn away from him or stab him in the back, all at the same time new friends are made and allies acquainted with. While “Case of Evil” showed a young Sherlock already in the field, this shows a Sherlock who is not quite as battle-savvy yet, so to speak, which makes the changes in it perhaps a bit more meaningful. Rowe’s performance is almost universally acclaimed, and for good reason; he’s all the things Holmes will become, but also everything he never was, and it’s all in perfect balance. Perhaps as a testament to his masterful portrayal of the young super-sleuth, Rowe got the honor much later on (and more recently) of playing an adult Holmes in a series of flashbacks for the film “Mr. Holmes”...but that’s another story...
10. Michael Caine, from Without a Clue.
This is one of my favorite Holmes-based films, largely due to its premise, and the witty execution thereof: what if WATSON was the real detective, and HOLMES was his sidekick? This films explores that possibility with passion: in it, Dr. Watson is the real detective, with a cunning and clever mind allowing him to solve cases. However, Watson doesn’t wish to have his side-job as a sleuth interfere with his work as a medical man, so he creates a fictional detective to help him tell his stories. When the public demands to meet this “Sherlock Holmes,” he hires a dull-witted actor (named Reginald Kincaid) to play the part when they are in public, and to act as a figurehead when cases come. This film essentially pastiches the old Rathbone-Bruce films, depicting Watson as the intelligent gentleman, while Holmes is an (often drunk) absent-minded buffoon. Over time, inevitably, Watson gets tired of this dimwit getting all the credit, and the two men end up having a falling out...but when Professor Moriarty (who else?) presents the duo with a challenge where two heads are better than one, it ultimately forces them back together. Michael Caine presents a rather childish, bumbling Sherlock Holmes who is really nothing like the character from the stories, but that is also the point; a large part of the fun is seeing this Holmes try to be someone he simply is not, while Watson has to act essentially like an owner tugging his leash, while at the same time tugging his own, so the truth of their relationship won’t be discovered. If you ever wanted to see the roles of Watson and Holmes reversed, this film paints an amusing picture of exactly that scenario!
9. Jonny Lee Miller, from Elementary.
“Elementary” may not be as lauded as its English cousin, “Sherlock,” but it’s still a well-done take on the Holmesian canon, in my opinion. In this modern take on the story, a 21st Century Holmes migrates to New York City after his drug-addiction and mental instabilities force him away from his home in England. With the help of Dr. Joan Watson - his “sober companion” and former surgeon - he continues his work as a private detective and consultant in America. Jonny Lee Miller creates a comically dry Sherlock, though his serious moments are passionate and profound, especially when his tragic past, or his relationship with the mysterious “Moriarty” come into play. Taking all the procedures of your typical crime drama, but throwing Conan Doyle’s characters and behaviors into the mix, Elementary was - and still is - a successful update on the world of Sherlock Holmes, and Jonny Lee Miller takes center-stage in that endeavor.
8. Ian McKellan, from Mr. Holmes.
A young Holmes is nothing new. A modern Holmes is nothing new. Nor is an old Holmes; many versions of the character have depicted the great detective as getting on in years, often because the actor desired was in a similar state. HOWEVER, this film takes it a step further: while other Sherlocks were nearing retirement, Ian McKellan’s purposely stiff, cantankerous interpretation already has. Aging nearly a hundred, and with his once-powerful memory severely failing him, Holmes seeks to rewrite history: when his old friend and colleague, Watson, writes an account of his final case that he feels is missing some important facts, he experiments with special herbs and plants and chemicals to try and improve his memory. All the while, he develops a curious relationship with a boy named Roger, the son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro. The story is interesting in that it focuses less on the crime-solving Holmes, and more on the emotional impact of his age: the story isn’t so much one about Holmes catching a criminal, so much as he learning to love again, and to show that he still has the mind he once had, being able to prove these things to both himself and to others. It’s a surprisingly heartwarming and dramatic story, one which makes the crime-solving sections seem to almost pale in comparison, and McKellan’s brilliantly tailored performance is a major reason as to why.
7. The Version from the Frogwares Games series.
The company Frogwares has practically made a business out of its Sherlock Holmes titles, aside from any other games they’ve created. (Frankly, aside from their Sherlock Holmes series, I can’t think of any other games of note they’ve released...I certainly haven’t played any.) While none of these games are masterpieces, they do have a certain cult following, and for a good reason. I always look forward to them when they come out, as a lover of Holmes, personally. While the voice actors in their titles tend to keep their names anonymous, a few different people (at least two or three) have taken on the mantle of Holmes through their series. My personal favorite, and quite possibly the best, is Kerry Shale, who performed brilliantly in “The Testament of Sherlock Holmes,” as well as “Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments.” Effortlessly calm, one of my favorite moments in the former title comes toward the end: Professor Moriarty - in a rather bad state - points a gun at Holmes, practically foaming at the mouth in anger. Watson wavers unsteadily towards the back, arms raised...while Holmes, as calm and polite as could be, simply folds his hands together and says, very plainly, “It is over, Moriarty. You have failed.” Practically nothing seems to faze him, but not in a way that feels like laziness on anyone’s part (actor, writer, or animator/designer). This Holmes has an intense amount of patience, mixed with the tenacity of a bulldog; he’s still as cold and aloof as could be, but with the facade of crisp English delicacy that creates a rather imposing cut. You can feel the energy bubbling under the surface, but it almost never breaks through beyond the slightest change of intonation. He is amoral, living by his own standards, but pretending to be someone who lives by the standards everyone does...in some ways, that makes this endlessly collected character even more menacing than his maddened Moriarty. And that’s pretty impressive, in my book.
6. Vasily Livanov, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson (Russian).
Who would have guessed one of the Western world’s most famed figures of fiction would get one of his best adaptations from the East? Not long before the more famous television series produced by Granada, in the U.K., then-Soviet Russia gave us this show, one which is still considered one of the most intriguing, and one of the best, takes on Holmes, his stories, and his world. Livanov’s Holmes, much like the one from the Frogwares series, generally seems eternally calm and disconnected; when he meets Moriarty for the first time, he seems more bored than anything, smoking his pipe coolly and only speaking sparingly and shortly. However, this calmness is broken from time to time, and when it does, it’s with extreme energy, making his Holmes probably one of the moodiest and most manic of the bunch, while at the same time one of the quietest and coldest. His constant, quiet, carefully collected state of being only occasionally shattered by the outburst of uproarious laughter, or the sudden spring into physical action. And once those moments end, he quickly returns to his usual, cool demeanor. This, once again, helps make the character more imposing, while at the same time lending a bit more humanity than the Frogwares personification. This incarnation, outside of certain circles, isn’t especially well-known beyond Russia and the U.K., so if you haven’t seen it...look it up, with subtitles, if you want! You won’t regret it. (I especially recommend their adaptations of “The Final Problem” - titled “The Mortal Fight” - and “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”)
5. Robert Downey, Jr., from the Game of Shadows films.
When Guy Ritchie made his Sherlock Holmes films, he decided early on to focus much more on the “action-adventure” aspect of the character and world than on the “posh gentleman” some wrongly associate with the figure of Holmes. Robert Downey, Jr. does not strike you as the first person who would ever be cast in the role of the World’s Greatest Detective, but that’s part of the beauty of it. Manic, snarky, witty, and wavering on the comedic with his various antics, the relationship he has with Watson almost feels flipped from the one we typically imagine...but, again, it’s still the same character. We’re just seeing him through a more scratched lens. Still a genius, definitely a man of action, this Holmes was so quick and clever he could actually predict his opponent’s moves in a fight, a skill which served him well time and time again. He used his seeming buffoonery as another tool in his arsenal, allowing him to hide things from his foes and keep them guessing, before snapping back around with his expected charm, panache, and cutting deductions. A rough-and-tumble detective with the mind of an aristocrat, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Holmes was a new, but not unwelcome interpretation.
4. Benedict Cumberbatch, from Sherlock.
I want to say that the top four picks here were the most difficult to order. Benedict Cumberbatch may take the lowest spot of those four, but it is not for any true fault. Indeed, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has essentially become the new Holmes for a new generation; reinventing the character in a more ingenious way than any other modernized telling, while at the same time sticking fast and true to the long-established personification of the famed consulting detective. He is, perhaps, one of the most childish versions of Holmes to appear; prone to tantrums, sulking pouts, and a rather infantile stubbornness and sense of cunning trickery that borders on the prankster-like, he often feels a bit like the Willy Wonka of Sherlocks - a complete child at heart, but with the mind of a very, VERY clever adult. It’s this out-of-time element that, I think, makes us connect to him so keenly. He’s one of the most manic, mischievous, and yet menacing Sherlocks to ever be seen. He’s scary as often as he is funny, his detached emotions and almost psychotic obsession with solving puzzles and picking out clues creating as much humor as serious, tense drama. But as time goes on, the cracks in the armor become more and more clear, and it only endears him to us more and more at the same time. And with the recent film special of “The Abominable Bride,” Cumberbatch proved he could play a more “traditional” Holmes just as spectacularly, refining his wild personality ever so slightly to fit into the Victorian environment, while still being the Sherlock the viewers of this program know and love. And as one of those viewers...I feel I must apologize for the use of “psychotic” earlier. He’s a high-functioning sociopath, really. Sorry, Sherly.
3. Peter Cushing, from various.
On the silver screen, at least, few actors have played Holmes as frequently as Peter Cushing. An avid fan and reader of Conan Doyle’s stories, each time this famous actor slid into the sets for a Holmes foray, he brought an annotated edition of the books, which he would take personal notes in to help him out. He got to play the character in not one, but TWO different adaptations of the most famous (and my favorite) of all the Holmes stories, “The Hound of the Baskervilles;” the first was part of the long line of Hammer Horror’s fright films. The second was made for the 1960’s BBC television show; its first season had featured Douglas Wilmer (an excellent Holmes in his own right), and was filmed in black-and-white. However, when the second season came into play, color television was finally brought to the limelight, and Cushing’s star status only helped sell the new season all the more. Cushing’s final adventure as Holmes was the picture “Masks of Death,” in which an aging Holmes and Watson embark on their final case, encountering old friends and foes (in more ways than one) along the way. Intensely charismatic, with a temperament that made him the most chivalrous of gentlemen one second, and the most loud and rambunctious man-of-action the next, Cushing’s battles against Hounds from Hell may not be as well-remembered as his battles against Count Dracula, but perhaps they should be.
2. Basil Rathbone, from the Universal Films series.
Let’s be honest, you can’t have a list of Sherlock Holmes portrayals WITHOUT Basil Rathbone. It’s somewhat ironic that Rathbone’s most frequent, popular, and prolific role was the Master Detective, considering just about every other character he played tended to lean towards the more villainous. But, in a way, that’s probably part of what made his Holmes so iconic. Many people rat on these classic films nowadays - the portrayal of Watson, played by Nigel Bruce, as a complete dunderhead; the way the films descended into B-movies and propaganda following the first two; the overuse of the phrase “Elementary, My Dear Watson,” a phrase spoken only once or twice throughout Conan Doyle’s original stories; the list goes on - but one thing most people don’t complain about or criticize too harshly is Rathbone’s Holmes. Even today, it’s hard to imagine the character without imagining Rathbone. What made his Holmes special to me was the duality of the part; this Holmes (with the possible exception of the Frogwares incarnation) is the most polite and mannered of the bunch, but so much of it feels like a facade. Though he could be comical and a definite dandy from time to time, there was something decidedly unsettling simmering just beneath those steely eyes. He could be kind and caring, but it often felt more like he was doing so to settle his friends and clients than any real sense of emotion. The case was always most important to him, and he had no time to waste with bunglers...including Watson, frequently. He seemed to care for his partner in a manner like a big brother, as if trying to teach his younger sibling everything he knew and could teach, and seemingly amused - if impatient - with his “incorrigible bungling.” Perhaps the shining moment for this Sherlock - and one of his darkest - came from the film “Sherlock Holmes & the Secret Weapon,” in his encounter with Moriarty (then played by Lionel Atwill, who appeared a couple of times throughout the series in more than one part). I could describe it to you...but perhaps it would be better to simply show you the scene: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAjKD6….
As iconic as Basil Rathbone is, however, there is still one Holmes whom I favor more...
1. Jeremy Brett, from the Granada T.V. series.
Right alongside Rathbone and Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett is easily one of the most beloved and iconic versions of Holmes out there. For many, Jeremy Brett simply IS Sherlock Holmes; it’s honestly hard to analyze or describe him. He simply has all the right elements: a real-life manic-depressive, Brett’s mood swings are the most natural and grounded of perhaps any incarnation. He’s a Holmes that’s all about size: little gestures and attitudes and speech patterns and facial twitches that flicker and slither through his performance, mixed with abrupt and highly dramatic ones. He’s smug and yet insecure; childish yet paternal; cool and collected yet exuberant and energized; detached from the world yet protective of his friends and major allies. He’s just about everything you could want from Sherlock Holmes, and when he takes a seat in the detective’s armchair, it doesn’t feel like a mere man sitting...it feels like the detective and his chair are almost one and the same. It’s a performance that is constantly and contrastingly subtle and yet theatrical, nuanced yet overblown, and it leads to a portrayal that is totally inseparable from the one giving it. And, considering Brett had to hold this together through the long-running Granada series - as well as a play inspired by the series, “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes” - that means he’s one of the most prolific people to play the role as well, and one of the most consistently stellar ones. And to top it all off, he probably looks more like the part than almost anybody else, based on the original illustrations. And for all this and more, it is almost elementary that I dub Jeremy Brett my Favorite Portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
Honorable Mentions Include…
Barrie Ingham, as Basil of Baker Street, from The Great Mouse Detective.
Now, after that showering of praise I gave to Jeremy Brett, what I write here might surprise you: Basil almost made the list. In fact, not only did he almost make this list...he very nearly took the top spot. While Jeremy Brett is, for me and many others, the face of Sherlock Holmes, Ingham’s Basil is - for me - the essential VOICE of the character. Much like Brett, he is just about everything you want from the character. It’s all a matter of give-and-take with this portrayal; given the nature of this animated family film (being that it IS an animated family film), certain aspects of the character had to be toned-down, while others were expanded upon, but the basic persona is more or less the same. He is childish, yet stern; excitable - if not downright maniacal - yet cool. Rude and emotionally detached, yet able to see when he’s gone perhaps a bit too far. And he’s deliciously sarcastic, to boot. His cocksure smugness often belies a sense of doubt and a need to be the best...but unlike his enemy, the villainous Professor Ratigan, he has a moral fiber that’s intensely strong. So, why DIDN’T I put Basil on the list, or even in the number one spot? Well, frankly, because I felt it would be the most supreme form of cheating: you see, Basil actually lives in Sherlock Holmes’ house, and Holmes himself is seen in a few scenes of the film. When there are two Holmes portrayals in the movie, and one actually IS Holmes, it’s hard to defend putting this one so high up. So, an Honorable Mention I make him...but easily one of the most honored of all.
Nicol Williamson, from The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
Much like “Without a Clue,” this film starts with a fun and interesting premise: what if Professor Moriarty never really existed? What if the arch-nemesis of the master detective was really just a figment of his imagination? What if Sherlock Holmes went from genius to madman? That is exactly what happens in this movie: in an alternate universe, Watson finds out that Professor Moriarty - at least as he knows him - isn’t the Napoleon of Crime Holmes considers such a nefarious opponent at all. He is, really, a very ordinary man, and the crimes Holmes equates with him are the detective’s own delusions. Fearing Holmes’ drug habits have driven him off the deep end, Watson teams up with none other than Freud himself to help heal Sherlock, while at the same time the duo (now trio) tries to solve a new case. Williamson’s Holmes is alternatively pathetic and yet incredible; since the film blurs the line of how much of his mental prowess is the detective still working strong and the effects of his near-deranged state, it makes the viewers doubt Sherlock all the more...but it also means that when he triumphs, we feel all the better for it. Williamson’s dour-faced-then-wild-eyed performance helps it through the whole way.
Other Honorable Mentions Include…
Douglas Wilmer, from the 1960’s BBC Series (Season I).
John Neville, from A Study in Terror. (An extremely underrated film; check it out, when you can.)
Jason Gray-Stanford, from Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. (An extremely underrated SERIES; check it out, too.)
Sir John Gielgud, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (BBC/NBC Radio Program).