Reimagining Sherlock Holmes

It took four seasons of Sherlock, the BBC’s re-imagining of the world’s greatest detective for the modern digital world, for creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to turn their “high-functioning sociopath” into a human being, not just a great man but a good one. But in the process they turned Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-ordered world of logic and deduction into a surreal universe of comic book supervillains and absurdly complex schemes in the realm of scriptwriter fantasy. As much fun as it is to watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the flamboyant misanthrope as a performance artist who holds his audience in contempt, this Holmes became a cartoon of Doyle’s consulting detective, only fitfully grounded by Martin Freeman’s warm, witty, and highly observant Dr. John Watson.

It’s wasn’t the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won’t be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle’s motto: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

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Resurrecting ‘Sherlock Holmes’: An interview with Rob Byrne

“I’ve always been, since my early, early days, a silent film fanatic, or aficionado, or whatever you call it.”

After a successful career in the tech world, lifelong silent movie fan and President of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Rob Byrne decided what he really wanted to do with his life: restore movies. So in 2006, at a point when, in his own words, “I could go after and do what I wanted to do,” he moved to Amsterdam for two years to attend the master’s program in film preservation at the University of Amsterdam. After internships at several different archives, he received an award from the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now the EYE Film Institute) and Haghefilm to restore the 1923 Pola Negri film The Spanish Dancer. He’s now back in San Francisco and building a legacy as an independent film restorer and preservationist. His restorations of the Douglas Fairbanks features The Half-Breed (1916) and The Good Bad Man (1916), the three-reel When the Earth Trembled (1913) and the San Francisco-shot The Last Edition (1925) all premiered at SFSFF over the past few years.

William Gillette and his team in the 1916 ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Byrne’s most recent project is one of the most important restorations of the last decade: the long-assumed-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the stage.

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Blu-ray: William Gillette is the original ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Flicker Alley

Sherlock Holmes (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.

We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation not only informed the performances that followed but the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).

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Blu-ray: John Barrymore is ‘Sherlock Holmes’

John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes was not the first screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the most well-known fictional character in English literature, and certainly not the definitive. This production, directed by Albert Parker as a mix of dime novel adventure and pulp crime thriller, is ostensibly based on Doyle’s stories but more directly on the play by William Gillette, a stage actor who made a career playing Holmes. It offers an origin story to the detective and his battle with criminal mastermind Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) that begins at college, where Holmes’ friend and fellow student Watson (Roland Young) introduces him to a mystery that leads Holmes into the criminal empire of Moriarty. Jump ahead a few years and Holmes is now the brilliant (and publicly modest) detective of 221 Baker Street, dedicated to dismantling Moriarty’s underworld web and still carrying a torch for a beautiful young woman (Carol Dempster) he met once in his college days.

John Barrymore's Holmes versus Gustav von Seyffertitz's Prof. Moriarty

That young woman is Alice Faulkner and her plight — she’s held prisoner by Moriarty, who is after letters in her possession that he can use to blackmail a Crown Prince — brings Holmes’ battle with Moriarty to a head. That’s the simplified version of the story, which is overly convoluted and tangled and, for a Holmes mystery, often quite sloppy. Or is simply that Holmes is so smitten with Alice that he’s not thinking clearly when he leaves her in the clutches of her captors, convinced she’ll be safe for the time being? Not the most logical of deductions, to this untrained mind.

The confused motivations and complications are simply discarded when the film shifts from mystery to elaborate battle of wits between Moriarty, determined to finally kill the meddling detective, and Holmes, who plots to end Moriarty’s reign of terror. It’s also one of the wordiest silent films I’ve ever seen, filled with pages of intertitles explicating the overly convoluted plot and providing Holmes’ commentary of clues, deductions and schemes.

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The Game is On: Holmes and Watson in the New Millenium

Sherlock: Season One (BBC)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson hit the 21st Century in the new revival developed by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattis for the BBC. Snappy and stylish, it remains remarkably true to the original characters and friendship between the two while accommodating cell phones, text messages, laptops and nicotine patches (in lieu of Holmes’ pipe—all that pesky new age prejudice against smoking in confined quarters).

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as Watson and Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, the “consulting detective” called upon for challenging police cases, is a tetchy, borderline Asperger syndrome genius more interested in a challenge than dispensing justice while Martin Freeman’s Watson, an army surgeon home from Afghanistan, is a warm, loyal and often critical assistant to his eccentric roommate as he slips into his role as assistant. The psychological profiles of Holmes and Watson are a little overplayed in the pilot telefilm, “A Study in Pink” (a reworking of “A Study in Scarlet”) and the running joke that everyone assumes these roommates and partners in detection are a gay couple (is it all that bickering?) gets tired, but technology and 21st Century culture aside, the update is a natural fit. In a landscape of TV detectives full of socially awkward geniuses, Holmes is the original.

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DVDs for 03/30/10 – An Education for Pedro Costa and Sherlock Holmes

The highly acclaimed and sparsely seen trilogy of films made by Pedro Costa in the impoverished Fontainhas neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon debuts on DVD in Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Criterion), a generous box set from Criterion featuring Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006). Costa is an acquired taste and while I respect the artist and his vision, I’m not enthralled by his films. That’s no reason for anyone else to avoid these films, however, which have been embraced and celebrated by critics around the world. I review the set for MSN here, but you should really check out these pieces by Sam Adams (in the Los Angeles Times) and Dave Kehr (in the New York Times) to get a more in-depth and appreciative overview of his films.

Hard-learned lessons in "An Education"

The education of An Education (Sony), based on the memoir by Lynn Barber, comes to a smart and mature sixteen-year-old girl who, eager to escape her petite bourgeois life in early 1960s London, is swept off her feet by a confident, charming and worldly man with a lot of secrets. Carey Mulligan earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as a sophisticated girl intoxicated by the affair and Peter Sarsgaard is so deft that he staves off the creepy reality of a grown man seducing a high-school girl—until the reality of the situation becomes clear of everyone, including the complicit parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). Beautifully directed and acted from a memoir deftly adapted to the screen by Nick Hornby. Features relaxed commentary by director Lone Scherfig and actors Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard (who spend as much time reminiscing over the shoot and appreciating key moments as discussing the production and the characters), a nine-minute making of featurette (which also includes interviews with screenwriter Nick Hornby and author Lynn Barber) and 11 deleted scenes among the supplements on both DVD and Blu-ray.

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TV on DVD for 12/22/09 – Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and the last Taxi ride

The Sherlock Holmes Collection (1968) (A&E) – Peter Cushing first played Sherlock Holmes in the Hammer Films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a gothic take on the classic Holmes novel directed by Terence Fisher. It was dream casting, not just visually (his gaunt face and hawklike profile made him the heir apparent to Basil Rathbone) but temperamentally; he seems to be the very embodiment of science and reason (attributes that made him such a great Van Helsing in the Dracula series).

Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock

Which makes this discovery such a find. Cushing returned to the role of the greatest detective in the late sixties BBC series Sherlock Holmes. Only six episodes survive and they have been collected in this three-disc set, which is headlined by the two-part adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Cushing’s second take on the famous tale) and includes faithful adaptations of Conan Doyle classics The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet among the episodes. Cushing is a hearty Holmes and his friendship with the observant and intelligent (if not nearly so brilliant) Watson (Nigel Stock) grounds the show. This show is produced in the familiar BBC manner, with studio scenes shot on video and location footage on film, but it’s a convention that fans of vintage British TV have become accustomed to and the shows look quite good on the A&E discs. Six episodes on three discs, plus the featurette “Sherlock Holmes: The Great Detective.”

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