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Sherlock Holmes at the Movies

Updated on June 6, 2015
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Sherlock Holmes at the Movies
Sherlock Holmes at the Movies

As with any good yarn, many of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories have made it onto the big screen, with some titles, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, notching up several different productions. From the first silent-screen efforts to the latest blockbusters, Sherlock Holmes has been the basis for a great many dramatic, and some not-so-dramatic movies.

The development of Sherlock Holmes’ character through his many on-screen portrayals, has led to countless different interpretations. One of the most famous pairings of Holmes and Watson was that of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who starred in a series of 14 films together. Bruce’s depiction of Watson is sometimes considered to be a rather bumbling version, and could be seen as taking away the qualities that Watson has in the original stories (though from Conan Doyle's description of the character, Bruce's portrayal could also be viewed as pretty accurate - in a filmed interview in 1927, Doyle referred to Watson as his hero's “rather stupid friend”).

Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone as Watson and Holmes
Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone as Watson and Holmes

This trait of depicting Watson as a fool can be observed in other film and TV versions. It might also account for the more recent characterisation of Watson as an almost equal partner to Holmes (this is obvious, for instance, in the BBC series Sherlock).

While there have been a number of series of films starring particular actors in the role of Sherlock Holmes (such as Basil Rathbone, Arthur Wontner and Jeremy Brett), there are many others who played the role only once. From the actor's point of view, there may be many reasons for this, such as fear of being typecast, or being landed with a role they're not particularly interested in repeating. However for some, it may simply be that the movie in question was just really, really bad.

Watson Ratings

Watson ratings
Watson ratings | Source

Here is my own completely unbiased (of course!) choice of 10 - the best and worst depictions of Sherlock Holmes on film, with my special 'Dr Watson' ratings for each one:

1 Watson = Rubbish

5 Watsons = Great

The Hound of the Baskervilles 2002

Ian Hart as Watson and Richard Roxburgh as Holmes in the BBC's The Hound of the Baskervilles
Ian Hart as Watson and Richard Roxburgh as Holmes in the BBC's The Hound of the Baskervilles | Source

Directed by David Attwood

Starring Richard Roxburgh, Ian Hart, Richard E Grant and John Nettles

The lovely Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge, Van Helsing etc) plays a rather dashing Holmes alongside the eminently watchable Ian Hart as Watson, in this atmospheric production of the classic tale of terror from the BBC. The dénouement is particularly exciting as writer Allan Cubitt allows Holmes to lay out his case for the benefit of Richard E Grant's Stapleton, while Watson tries to save the life of Sir Henry after a savage attack by the ferocious hound. There are nice turns from Bergerac's John Nettles as Dr Mortimer and Geraldine James as his wife, while Danny Webb (who also appeared as DI Carter in an episode of the BBC's Sherlock) pops up as Lestrade.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

Hound of the Baskervilles, The (DVD)
Hound of the Baskervilles, The (DVD)

Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart are well matched in this adaptation of the Conan Doyle classic. Richard E Grant and John (Bergerac) Nettles add to the fun in this atmospheric thriller.


Sherlock Holmes (2010)

Ben Syder - a completely unbelievable Holmes
Ben Syder - a completely unbelievable Holmes
Watson Rating 1
Watson Rating 1 | Source

(also known as 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes' and 'Sherlock V Monsters')

Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg

Starring Ben Syder, Gareth David-Lloyd, Dominic Keating and Elizabeth Arends

With two alternative titles on the go, I can think of at least one more which, while it might be a more accurate description of this movie, certainly wouldn't be very flattering. Ben Syder may well be perfectly cast in other roles, but he struggles to gain the least bit of ground as a rather inadequate and completely unbelievable Holmes. Alongside him, the much taller and marginally less implausible Gareth David-Lloyd plays Dr Watson.

The plot of this film is, let's face it, pretty easy to guess from the alternative title of Sherlock V Monsters. The whole thing is ridiculous, farcical and as un-Sherlock Holmes as you can get, and even if you take Holmes and Watson out of the equation, it's still pretty dire. How the producers had the gall to add Conan Doyle's name to the title is quite beyond belief. However, if accuracy and originality is not your thing, and you enjoy explosions, annoying musical scores and bad haircuts, then this might be just the movie for you.

Incident at Victoria Falls (1992)

Patrick Macnee and Christopher Lee as the ill-matched Holmes and Watson
Patrick Macnee and Christopher Lee as the ill-matched Holmes and Watson
Watson Rating 1
Watson Rating 1 | Source

Directed by Bill Corcoran

Starring Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee, Joss Ackland, Jenny Seagrove, Claude Akins and Richard Todd

Billed as a TV movie, this is actually a two-part mini-series which, given its quite impressive cast list, might have been expected to fare considerably better than it actually does. Sherlock Holmes is asked by King Edward VII to go to South Africa to bring back the precious diamond The Star of Africa, but as usual, devious villains are on hand to thwart his mission. Christopher Lee has had several outings in the Holmesian franchise, but his pairings with Macnee didn't do him any favours. Macnee's Watson seems to be fashioned on Nigel Bruce's portrayal, with a bumbling and rather am-dram approach to the character.

It has to be said, though, that Bob Shayne's script doesn't help, lacking as it does in everything but mediocrity. Shayne (or more likely, the producers of the movie), clearly thinks the audience are a bit thick, as throughout the movie he employs that ever-popular technique of stating-the-bloody-obvious. He also employs that other excellent technique of throwing in a load of famous characters (real and fictional) to give the story a rather Agatha Christie feel to it, so we are treated to appearances from President Roosevelt, Marconi and Lillie Langtry. Having said that, Jenny Seagrove is lovely as the infamous music-hall star and Sunitha Singh is good as the seductive Maharani. Not one for the archives.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Jude Law and Robert Downey Jnr in Sherlock Holmes
Jude Law and Robert Downey Jnr in Sherlock Holmes | Source
Watson Rating 5
Watson Rating 5 | Source

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, William Hope

It's difficult to write anything remotely critical of the lovely Robert Downey Jnr, as he is of course simply the best actor of his generation. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps not one of his better decisions though, as RDJ does tend to bring a certain something to each role he takes on, and the fictional detective has always seemed to require a modicum of common sense, which RD, as usual, casts aside with ease.

As an action movie Sherlock Holmes is lots of fun and the dénouement is rather nice, though Jude Law is perhaps somewhat miscast as the romantic Watson (though in the sequel to this one - A Game of Shadows - I think he redeems himself).

As the intrepid pair race off in ever-more sinister and somewhat fantastical directions in pursuit of the suitably evil and very watchable Mark Strong (as Lord Blackwood), we do end up with a very Holmesian explanation of this particular adventure. Eddie Marsan too, is wonderful as the dogged Lestrade, and there are good turns from Rachel McAdams, James Fox and Geraldine James. I suspect Conan Doyle may well have been spinning in his grave, but all in all, this a jolly good romp.

The Last Vampyre (1993) (TV movie)

Jeremy Brett and Roy Marsden
Jeremy Brett and Roy Marsden
Watson Rating 3
Watson Rating 3 | Source

Directed by Tim Sullivan

Starring Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, Keith Barron, Roy Marsden, Yolanda Vazquez, Maurice Denham

Based on Arthur Conan Doyle's story The Sussex Vampire, Jeremy Paul's screenplay brings in a handful of new characters to liven up the plot and gives Brett and Hardwicke a chance to shed a little rational observation on a village haunted by superstition and invention. The plot does veer away from the original story, but nevertheless manages to sit quite nicely within ITV's Sherlock Holmes canon.

Roy Marsden (best known as PD James' Adam Dalgliesh) is suitably sinister as the vampire-obsessed Stockton, who finds himself blamed for the death of Bob Ferguson's young child, while casting an evil influence over the man's older son, Jack (Richard Dempsey). Keith Barron plays the distraught husband, caught between reality and vampiric rituals, while Yolanda Vazquez is wonderfully exotic as his Peruvian wife. Maurice Denham is delightful as the concerned Reverend Merridew and Freddie Jones pops up as charm-seller.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Watson Rating 5
Watson Rating 5 | Source

Directed and produced by Billy Wilder

Starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely and Christopher Lee

It's a pity Robert Stephens didn't repeat his stint as Holmes, since he puts in an interesting and witty performance. Colin Blakely is good too, as Watson, and there are nice turns from Tamara Toumanova as Madame Petrova, Irene Handl as the suitably unpretentious Mrs Hudson, Clive Revill as Rogohzin and Christopher Lee as Sherlock's brother Mycroft.

While the plots (there are several), occasionally seem a little contrived (featuring as they do: a woman fished out of the River Thames, a secret submarine and a 'sighting' of the Loch Ness monster), the film is never less than fascinating. In some quarters it is considered to be a highly important contribution to the Holmesian catalogue - British movie critic Kim Newman has said this is "the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made".

The film was a mite controversial on its release and didn't do terribly well at the box office. Some scenes were cut from the original version (on the studio's insistence), however, more recent DVD versions have restored at least a few of the missing segments. The film undoubtedly doesn't fit with the usual depictions of Sherlock Holmes, but it does show an interesting side to the great detective's character that doesn't actually veer far from Conan Doyle's original description (though there is definitely a bit of exaggeration involved, which some fans might find disagreeable).

Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes
Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes
Watson Rating 2
Watson Rating 2 | Source

Directed by Boris Sagal

Roger Moore, Patrick Macnee and Charlotte Rampling

If John Huston thought his skills as a director would transfer to the other side of the camera, he was seriously misguided - playing the infamous villain Moriarty, he brings only stupidity and a sense of the ridiculous to the role. Thankfully, Roger Moore (in between 'James Bond' commitments) is able to hold the slightly silly plot together, along with Patrick Macnee's croaky-voiced Watson and the gorgeous Charlotte Rampling, as music-hall star Irene Adler.

The story revolves around Moriarty's desire to take revenge on Holmes via a kidnap plot and the theft of gold bullion. Gig Young turns up as banker Mortimer McGraw and Jackie Coogan joins the fun as a hotel proprietor.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)

Stewart Granger in The Hound of the Baskervilles
Stewart Granger in The Hound of the Baskervilles
Watson Rating 2
Watson Rating 2 | Source

Directed by Barry Crane

Starring Stewart Granger, Bernard Fox and William Shatner

Famed for his swashbuckling big-shirt-type roles such as Scaramouche and The Prisoner of Zenda, Stewart Granger puts in a reasonable turn as Holmes, though he is let down a little by the rather bumbling and, dare I say it, Nigel Bruce-like Bernard Fox as Watson. Star Trek's William Shatner plays the naturalist Stapleton.

I first saw this movie when I was a kid and vividly remember the thrill of the adventure and the delightfully murky green fog that seems to hang around every scene. Watching it now, it all seems very different and I can't think why it was so appealing. Like many of the older Sherlock Holmes movies, the film is now available on You Tube.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

Poster for Dressed to Kill, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Poster for Dressed to Kill, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Watson Rating 4
Watson Rating 4 | Source

(Also known as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code)

Directed by Roy William Neill

Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

Final movie in the series of 14, starring the inimitable Basil Rathbone and the not so inimitable Nigel Bruce. The story (with allusions to Conan Doyle's The Six Napoleons), concerns a set of musical boxes made by a convict. Each box contains part of a hidden code that the ruthless Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison) and her gang of ne'er-do-wells are eager to obtain.

Sherlock Holmes gets involved when a friend of Dr Watson's is robbed, but things begin to go askew when people start turning up dead. At one point, Holmes misjudges the situation with the villainous gang and finds himself in a rather tricky Batman-type situation where the possibility of death is, at least for a few minutes, most definitely on the cards. The plot rolls along with a fair degree of tension and is one of the more interesting movies in the series. Frederick Worlock - who starred in several films in this series including Terror by Night and The Woman in Green, plays Colonel Cavanaugh, while Carl Harbord tags along as Inspector Hopkins.

Silver Blaze (1937)

Poster for Silver Blaze, starring Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Fleming as Watson
Poster for Silver Blaze, starring Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Fleming as Watson
Watson Rating 2
Watson Rating 2 | Source

(Also known as Murder at the Baskervilles)

Directed by Thomas Bentley

Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Fleming as Watson

Another mixed bag of plots, this one is loosely based on Conan Doyle's Silver Blaze, with the addition of Baskerville Hall and arch villain Professor Moriarty thrown in for good measure. Twenty years after disposing of the dreadful Baskerville hound, Holmes is invited to visit the baronet for a holiday and gets involved in a double murder. Lawrence Grossmith plays Baskerville, Lyn Harding as Moriarty and a rather irritating John Turnbull as Inspector Lestrade.

Which is your favourite of these Sherlock Holmes movies?

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    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Hi Larry, yeah, I think even if RD Jnr's movies aren't exactly sure-fire Conan Doyle, they're still a lot of fun. Thanks for reading. Much appreciated.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      I have seen many of the Sherlock Holmes films over the years, and have enjoyed most, but personally I'd have to go with the Robert Downey Jr. Version as my favorite.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      4 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks Akriti, you're a star!

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      4 years ago from Shimla, India

      I am such a huge of Sherlock Holmes. Thank you for writing this post. Voted up :)


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