Fans have tagged along after iconic detective Sherlock Holmes for 125 years, since he debuted in A Study in Scarlet. With his matchless intellect and razor-sharp observational powers, he can be annoyingly superior, antisocial and even self-destructive. Yet the character charms us, whether he stalks Victorian London or the modern capital, smokes his pipe quietly or kickboxes, or is transformed into a Nazi hunter or a mouse.
Few Sherlock Holmes fans can hear the name Basil and not think of Basil Rathbone, the English actor who made 14 Holmes feature films between 1939 and 1946. Also an accomplished, Tony-winning stage performer, Rathbone was never able to extricate himself from the detective character. As late as the 1960s he was donning a deerstalker cap and an inverness cape in advertisements for Getz Exterminators, exclaiming in his suave voice, “Getz gets ’em, since 1888.” So it’s no accident that the rodent hero of The Great Mouse Detective, a Disney animated film, is a Holmes-style sleuth named Basil. Rathbone himself, 19 years after his death, provides Holmes’s voice, taken from his 1966 recording of Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.” Shadows of Holmes and Watson, Basil’s upstairs neighbors, fill the screen as the debonair detective intones, “German music…is quite introspective, and I want to introspect.” The reference to Sir Basil may be lost on the young moviegoers to whom the film is geared, but the scene magically transports their grandparents back to the great screen detective’s black-and-white heyday.
As Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone dashes about Victorian London in his deerstalker cap, declaring, “Elementary, my dear Watson” (a phrase that never appears in the stories). But before he picked up a pipe and settled into his comfy chair at 221B Baker Street, he was one of Hollywood’s favorite bad boys, playing the abusive Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield (1935) and the villainous Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Almost 70 years after Rathbone’s famous portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, reformed real-life bad boy Robert Downey Jr. plays the detective as Sir Basil may well have preferred. While Rathbone is often enshrouded in a voluminous cape, Downey gets to appear shirtless; Rathbone has to contend with a doddering sidekick (Nigel Bruce, equally iconic in his role), but Downey’s Watson is the handsome, mischievous Jude Law—and the homoerotic sparks between them seem close to erupting into full flame at any moment. Downey boxes, head butts and kicks, showing off as Rathbone did (albeit more elegantly) for a legendary sword fight with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935). But Rathbone—maybe Downey too—will always be remembered for his antics on the right side of the law.
Robert Downey Jr. had many shoes to fill when he moved into 221B Baker Street for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009). As many as 75 actors have played Sherlock in 211 films since 1900, when the Arthur Conan Doyle oeuvre was first adapted for the screen. Few Sherlocks, however, have received as many enthusiastic kudos as Jeremy Brett, who portrayed Holmes in more than 40 episodes of the Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series in the 1980s and ’90s. Brett’s Sherlock is sharp-edged, complex, neurotic and so uncannily perceptive that we must agree with the satisfied client of “Silver Blaze,” who proclaims, “Good heavens, you take my breath away, Mr. Holmes!” Downey, another breathtaking Holmes, transforms the detective into an action hero—at one point even diving into the Thames from the Houses of Parliament—and Basil Rathbone propels Holmes into the 20th century to chase Nazis in such films as Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). But Brett plays Holmes as Doyle created him—brooding in his study, playing the violin, shooting cocaine and making the rest of us feel quite inadequate as he shows off his remarkable powers of observation and deduction.
Victorian London, as meticulously re-created by director Guy Ritchie for Sherlock Holmes (2009) and its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), is a feast for the eyes. Robert Downey Jr. scrambles to unravel diabolical conspiracies, but the dark alleys, echoing warehouses and forlorn docks of the late-19th-century capital steal the show. During the overwrought fights and chases, viewers can be forgiven for wanting the actors to step out of the way so they can better see St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Old Royal Naval College, Brompton Cemetery and other beautiful London landmarks. Much of the gritty, smoky Victorian city, damaged by German bombs during the Blitz of World War II and heavily modernized in subsequent decades, was digitally re-created from archival photographs, treating us to a rare look at a vanished London. The final scene of Sherlock Holmes is set on Tower Bridge, still under construction in 1891 when the film’s action takes place. Girders, towers and beams rise majestically in skeletal form over the Thames. Holmes fights for his life high above the water, but we’re not concerned. We know our detective won’t succumb to his foe, and besides, he’s upstaged by this marvel of Victorian engineering.
Arthur Conan Doyle, who chronicled the cases of Sherlock Holmes in four novels and 56 short stories, was a product of his Victorian times. A physician when medicine was still a gentlemanly pursuit, Doyle found plenty of time to write. He published his first Holmes tale, the novel A Study in Scarlet, in 1887 and soon discovered the emerging middle classes, the great reading public, were hungry for more Holmes adventures. He began contributing regularly to The Strand Magazine, writing stories that could be read in a single sitting and that carried over characters from one narrative to the next. Londoners, especially, enjoyed following the sleuth around their familiar streets and into the expanding Underground railway. The British Empire was at its height, and its culture—as American pop culture does today—influenced the world. Holmes was an international hit: Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson passed his time in Samoa reading the stories, and by 1900 they had been translated into French, Italian, German, Norwegian and Japanese. So devoted were these early fans that they compelled Doyle to miraculously revive the detective in 1894, one year after killing him off with the misnamed “Final Problem.”
Arthur Conan Doyle learned deduction at the University of Edinburgh Medical School while watching his celebrated professor Joseph Bell diagnose patients by observing details of their condition. Doyle made deductive reasoning—reaching conclusions by applying general principles to particular information—his detective hero’s stock-in-trade. Portraying ratiocination poses filmmaking challenges, however. In Sherlock Holmes (2009), director Guy Ritchie illustrates Holmesian logic with slow-motion pre-enactments showing Sherlock anticipating how a fight will unfold. In the 2010 BBC series Sherlock, numbers flash across the face of Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a smartphone-wielding contemporary Holmes, when he cracks a code. Doyle uses only well-crafted prose to show deduction in action. In The Sign of Four, Holmes notices Watson’s dirty shoes and deduces he has sent a telegram: “Just opposite the Wigmore Street Office they have taken up the pavement and thrown up some earth…of this peculiar reddish tint…. I knew that you had not written a letter, since I sat opposite to you all morning. I see also in your open desk there that you have a sheet of stamps and a thick bundle of postcards. What could you go into the post office for, then, but to send a wire?” Elementary—and still fascinating.
Mysterious Sherlock Holmes. He perfected the arts of observation and deduction but has been an object of speculation—about his sexuality—ever since he and his roommate, chronicler and only friend, Dr. Watson, started spending foggy nights together on Baker Street. Arthur Conan Doyle gives few clues to his detective’s orientation, aside from his unease around women and a decided preference for solitude. Actor Jeremy Brett, who brilliantly portrayed Holmes, was himself bisexual and intensely private; the homoerotic nuances in his performance could be dismissed with “He’s not gay; he’s just British,” but fans who splice together videos of his most tender moments with Watson have “deduced” much more. Robert Downey Jr., a more physical Holmes, added further innuendo when, on the talk-show circuit, he suggested the character is a “butch homosexual.” Sherlock, the 21st-century BBC update of the stories, surrounds Holmes with contemporary attitudes, including gay acceptance. Holmes and Watson’s landlady, Mrs. Hudson, implies they won’t be using the second bedroom, and a restaurant owner refers to Watson as Holmes’s date. Holmes compounds the obfuscation by explaining his singleness with “Girlfriend—no. Not really my area.” One thing we can deduce: Doyle is probably turning over in his grave.