The Modern Sherlock Holmes

JAN / FEB 2016: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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Few literary figures are better known or loved than Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting sleuth, occupant of 221B Baker Street. Since his first literary appearance in 1889, he continues to capture the devotion of millions through short stories, novels, radio plays, television series, and films. And during WWII, he inspired people by shedding his deerstalker to enter the modern age and deliver much needed hope worldwide.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce film adaptations have a mixed reception among Sherlockians; some object to removing Holmes from his natural setting and placing him in the modern age. However, the original Holmes is a modern man for his time. He conducts his affairs in Victorian London… in the Victorian age, written by a Victorian author. He was a contemporary hero, so his removal from that setting for a modern one is within canon.

Not all the films are modern. Two, Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, are Victorian, with foggy London streets, gaslight, hansom cabs, and diabolical villains. The latter pits Holmes against his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty newly acquitted of murder, and delighted at putting a new game afoot for Holmes. With glee, he informs his henchman that he intends to present Holmes with two crimes, one so common as to bore him, the other so unusual as to draw his attention from the first… wherein lies a crime so clever it will shock the empire.

The script is dark and witty, with a particularly memorable line by Holmes: “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”

His preoccupation with the case, beginning with a young woman certain of a death sentence over her brother’s head, nearly causes him to let Moriarty get away unscathed, while humor intrudes in lesser moments. Holmes is so bored one day he tries to find a note to dispense with flies, but Watson solves the problem by simply swatting it.

This adaptation of Hound carries over the themes from the book, along with a few new ones, and is faithful in many of its twists, though to pass the censors of the period it alters certain details. Even so, an allusion to Holmes’ drug habit slips in at the end, with Holmes calling out, as he strides from the room, “Watson… the needle!” much to his friend’s annoyance. It also delves into the spiritualism that preoccupied Doyle in the later years of his life, with a séance that unnerves everyone present. It has more suspense than most of the other fourteen films in the series.

Further cases range in interest and strength, Holmes tackling espionage for the government, stepping in to halt an ominous voice bringing terror to the airwaves, and rescuing damsels in distress. Some films end with a stirring speech to remind viewers that England’s greatest years are yet to come, for when the darkness breaks the light shines all the stronger. It is a sobering reminder that while we watch these films from the comforts of our living room, the British saw them in darkened theaters during the Blitz. Holmes became, in their darkest hour, not only a symbol of their literary heritage, but a national emblem of courage. He fought and defeated the Nazis for them. He was able to transcend his own time to enter into the modern era and inspire hope to a generation. That is part of the timelessness of Holmes… his enduring legacy in how every few years he is born anew for younger viewers.

Rathbone is a perfect Holmes in terms of appearance and bearing, a passionate but dismissive man of awkward kindness. He is a loyal friend to Watson, despite his frequent frustration at his mental limitations (“Watson,” he says sadly at one point, “I’m afraid you’re an incorrigible bungler,” but softens it with a smile and the touch of a hand on his shoulder). Tragically, Watson is utilized for comedic relief rather than given intelligence. It is to highlight Holmes’ genius but is unnecessary. That is the greatest fault of this film series. This Watson is not blessed with the brains God gave a mole rat, though Nigel Bruce does have a likability that transcends it.

Though only one of many pairs of talented actors to portray these legends, they are certainly the longest big screen cinematic film franchise duo where the leads stay the same. James Bond gets a new face every decade, but Holmes and Watson, for many years, and for many fans, were always Rathbone and Bruce. ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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