In the Shadow of Rathbone: Reviews of Sherlock Holmes Movies

holmes-basil-rathboneReaders of my Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries will likely find parallels between ghost hunters Vera Van Slyke and Lida Parsell — and crime fighters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Reviewer Nina Zumel mentions the similarities, and in another review, Katherine Nabity  goes so far as to say, “If I were given the opportunity to hang out with Sherlock Holmes or Vera Van Slyke, I’d choose Vera.”

Now, Vera and Lida were American women of the Progressive Era who hunted ghosts, not English men of the Victorian Period who hunted criminals. Still, I’m very much a Sherlock Holmes fan, and I’ve become especially interested in the Holmes films made after the 1939-1946 series featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Since Rathbone established such an enduring depiction of the great detective, all films to follow do so In the Shadow of Rathbone, my title for a series of movie reviews I’m writing.

I plan to post these reviews on an irregular schedule. (Holmes fans will get that dumb joke.) As I complete each one, I’ll update this list of what I’ve discussed and provide a mini-review here. Click on each film’s title to find the full review.

You might start with the introduction to my In the Shadow of Rathbone series.

barrymore-as-sherlock1Sherlock Holmes (1922/2001), starring John Barrymore as Holmes and Roland Young as Watson. The original lost — the surviving footage reassembled — this film might disappoint Holmes fans for taking too many liberties.

Cusing as HolmesThe Hound of the Baskervilles (1958), starring Peter Cushing as Holmes and André Morell as Watson. This film adaptation of the famous novel will keep readers of that novel guessing about whodunit this time. Cushing makes a good Holmes.

neville-as-holmesA Study in Terror (1965), starring John Neville as Holmes and Donald Huston as Watson. Holmes meets Jack the Ripper in this sometimes good, sometimes bad, movie. It’s a bit too “Hollywood,” but it’s fun to spot the stars.

stephens-as-holmesThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), starring Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson. This pastiche is smart and funny. Watson is played too broadly, but it has Christopher Lee and the Loch Ness Monster!

Williamson as HolmesThe Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes and Robert Duvall as Watson. An early appearance of what I call the Compulsive Detective, meaning Holmes plagued by addiction and neurosis.

moore-as-holmesSherlock Holmes in New York (1976), starring Roger Moore as Holmes and Patrick Macnee as Watson. A Holmes capable of romantic attachment and a Watson incapable of grasping American ways tackle an interwoven pair of crimes.

Plummer as HolmesMurder by Decree (1979), starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson. Holmes meets Jack the Ripper in one of the best Holmes films. Plummer and Mason’s rapport is delightful.

richardson-as-holmesThe Sign of the Four (1983), starring Ian Richardson as Holmes and David Healey as Watson. Richardson’s multi-level interpretation of Holmes makes me wish there had been more than two in this series.

ian-richardson-holmes-2The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983), starring Ian Richardson as Holmes and Donald Churchill as Watson. Despite a truly chilling attack scene early on, the ending of this film falls flat. Sadly, Watson is presented as a bumbler.

young-nicholas-roweYoung Sherlock Holmes (1985), starring Nicolas Rowe as Holmes and Alan Cox as Watson. A fun origin story about the meeting of Holmes and Watson with a bit more action and adventure than usual — but the right Sherlockian spirit.

michael-caine-as-holmes-sortaWithout a Clue (1988), starring Micheal Caine as Reginald Kincaid/Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Watson. A funny spoof involving Watson’s invention of a character named Sherlock Holmes and the bumbling actor hired to prove he’s real.

heston-as-holmesThe Crucifer of Blood (1991), starring Charlton Heston as Holmes and Richard Johnson as Watson. Heston’s limited range and other actors’ age differences give this movie the feel of a community theater production.


The Master Blackmailer (1992), starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson. “Charles Augustus Milverton” stretched to movie-length caused some confusion, but this adaptation has many nice moments.

matt-frewer-as-holmesThe Royal Scandal (2001), starring Matt Frewer as Holmes and Kenneth Welsh as Watson. Some of the casting is odd, but the mystery is a good blend of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans.”

richard-roxburghThe Hound of the Baskervilles (2002), starring Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson. The mood is great, but Holmes’s use of drugs serves no purpose beyond continuing the Compulsive Detective interpretation.

james-darcy-as-sherlockSherlock, a.k.a. Sherlock: Case of Evil, (2002), starring James D’Arcy as Holmes and Roger Morlidge as Watson. The 1970s collides with the Victorian period in a street-drug saga that collides with a strained Holmes origin story.

rupert-everettSherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004), starring Rupert Everett as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson. The mystery’s solution is hokey, but putting a dark, disillusioned, hard-boiled spin on Holmes is innovative.

downey-as-holmesSherlock Holmes (2009), starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson. Holmes and Watson are kicked up a few notches in terms of action and adventure, but also in terms of characterization and the mystery.

mckellen as holmesMr. Holmes (2015), starring Ian McKellan as Holmes. (Watson is largely an off-camera character.) An elderly Holmes struggles to recall and truthfully narrate the case that sent him to retirement. A pleasure to watch.