Who’s the Best Sherlock?

Every now and then my wife and I like to gobble up a bunch of Jeremy Brett “Sherlock Holmes” episodes. Most of them were made in the 1980s, and they kept on making them until Brett’s health failed, and he died soon afterward.

These really are superb, and a lot of them are available on youtube. But are they the best? Since the invention of movies, countless actors have played Sherlock Holmes in countless movies about him. It would be impossible to name them all here; but here are a few which I think deserve mention.

*Not the best, but possibly the worst. Raymond Massey, best known for playing Abraham Lincoln, played Holmes in 1931, in The Speckled Band. Years later, Massey insisted this was the worst Sherlock Holmes movie ever. We are inclined to agree with him. In fact, it’s so weird, you really ought to track it down and see it yourself.

*Character actor Reginald Owen, best known for playing Scrooge in one of the many film incarnations of A Christmas Carol, played an uncharacteristically overweight Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. Not a critical success.

*Ronald Howard–not Opie, but the son of British actor Leslie Howard–played Holmes in a weekly TV series in 1954. You’d be surprised how good these were! Howard’s Sherlock seems to have a lot of fun being Sherlock Holmes. These are well worth your while, if you can find them.

*Critics loved Murder by Decree (1979), with Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson, up against Jack the Ripper. The supporting cast is phenomenal, and Plummer’s Holmes is lively and eccentric. Unlike so many others, this is such a strong film that the Sherlock Holmes star does not have to carry it. Which makes Plummer’s achievement look not quite as fine as it really is.

*For radio drama buffs, there’s John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes in Imagination Theater‘s long-running series. We love Lowrie because he does a perfect imitation of…

*Basil Rathbone! He played Holmes on stage, screen, and radio, and for many of us, he is the Sherlock Holmes. The only fault I find with Rathbone’s many Sherlock Holmes movies–and really it’s not his fault at all–is the setting. The producers insisted on updating Holmes. What a dumb idea! Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, his Watson, both wanted to set the stories where they belonged, in Victorian times–the gaslight era. Their brilliance makes the movies still worth watching today; but the true Holmes fan can only sigh. If only they’d listened to Rathbone! What masterpieces would we have today…

*Finally, the Jeremy Brett series has it all–the right actors, beautifully staged sets, and pretty faithful treatment of the stories. Brett looks like Sherlock Holmes; and the way he plays him, you’re never quite sure what Holmes is going to do. He treats his cases very seriously–and then suddenly he’ll startle you by jumping over a couch or something. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke took turns playing Watson, and their performances blend seamlessly into one other–easy to lose track of which Watson is in which episode.

I’m not terribly interested in “modern” treatments of Holmes, which have him and Watson text-messaging each other. In fact, I have no interest in it whatsoever.


8 comments on “Who’s the Best Sherlock?

  1. Rathbone and Bruce..WERE..ARE..Sherlock and Watson! Their British accent and vocal inflection could not, was not and cannot be compared to the “modern” clones. No one could render the comical expressions on Bruces’ face whenever Rathbone perplexed or astonished him. I thought or recollect that most of the scenes were shot imore or less in the Victorian era? Wouldn’t it be great if “Hollywood” would return to the quality of movie productions that we enjoyed in our youth? (Have you ever noted that there is never an “f” word..which seems to be the total vocabulary of todays screen writers…and not one scene of T&A..and yet we followed the plot, enjoyed the performances and left the theater with a satifisfied and wholesome impression about what we had just enjoyed?

    1. You’ve got to catch John Patrick Lowrie sometime–you won’t be able to tell his Rathbone from the real thing.

      If memory serves, The Hound of the Baskervilles was the only Rathbone/Bruce movie set in Victorian times. In all the others they had cars and radios and got involved with Nazi spies, etc.

  2. Great, I’m going to do that..and now that you mention it Lee, there were Nazi’s, cars,ect..arghhhhhh!

  3. I love Basil Rathbone 😀 I’ve seen one or two of the other 40’s and 50’s actors, but he’s my favorite of those I’ve seen. I need to check out Jeremy Brett, but I’m not sure I have the courage to watch the one with Raymond Massey. By the way, did you ever see Arsenic and Old Lace, where Massey plays the villain? Hilarious movie.

    1. In the Massey movie, they took the rooms at 221B Baker Street and tacked them on to what was supposed to be some kind of cutting-edge office with lots of new technology and a great big office staff. It’s difficult to imagine anything that would have been more repugnant to Holmes as Conan Doyle wrote him.

      I’ve never seen “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Must put it on my list.

  4. Rathbone and Brett do it for me and I’m sure Plummer is good at anything he does–I’ll skip Raymond Massey though.

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