“No Sherlockian library is complete without at least one book on the films of Sherlock Holmes,” Steven Doyle writes in Sherlock Holmes for Dummies.
Well, I had at least one. Now I have three more. I bought them from Don Curtis at a mini-auction during the most recent meeting of the Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis.
I decided to work my way through the trio starting with Sherlock Holmes on the Screen, by Alan Barnes. It’s “a real cracker,” as my British friend Roger Johnson might say.
The book covers both movies and TV shows – English-speaking and otherwise. It presents them in alphabetical order rather than chronological, with a chronology at the end. This approach has a lot of merit, but Barnes’s pedantic approach to titles does not. The first Basil Rathbone – Nigel Bruce movie shows up under the “S’s” because it’s official full title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Therefore, all the many Hounds covered in the book aren’t considered together. Too bad, that.
In most cases, Barnes considers the plots in three sections: “The Mystery,” “The Investigation,” and “The Solution.” That’s a neat idea in theory, but rather arbitrary in practice.
The great strength of this book is the author’s strong opinions, which are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Here he is on Patrick Macnee as Holmes in 1993’s The Hound of London:
“Macnee was merely bad as Roger Moore’s Watson in Sherlock Holmes in New York, and only terrible as Christopher Lee’s sidekick in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Incident at Victoria Falls – but he makes a truly dreadful Holmes, wheezing out every line while resembling nothing less than an unshelled tortoise poured into a monkey suit.”
Many of his comments are more balanced, as when he differentiates the best episodes of the 1950’s Ronald Howard TV series from the worst.
Surprisingly, Barnes finds “a certain gauche charm” in Sherlock Holmes in New York. He also defends Nigel Bruce as the perfect Watson for Rathbone. Their Hound, he says, “would be blissful even without such a fine detective/doctor team. The fact of that team’s presence makes it quite probably the only Sherlock Holmes film that can hold its head among the true classics of the cinema.”
That sounds about right to me.