Each generation has its own Sherlock Holmes. I remember my father and uncle introducing me to theirs at an early age. Basil Rathbone embodied the practical side of Holmes: unafraid of physical work and with a booming voice that didn't suffer fools gladly -- and, oh, that profile! That is the one aspect required of an actor playing Holmes: an aquiline profile with a hawkish nose. (One can assume that the previous generation would have recognized William Gillette as their Holmes; the renowned actor and playwright is credited with adding "Elementary, my dear Watson" to the lexicon in his popular play,
But Jeremy Brett is the Sherlock Holmes of the modern generation (at least until the next icon comes along to take his place). With that beak nose and those piercing blue eyes brimming with barely-restrained mania, he is the closest to the troubled detective as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- the man who, when not on a case, was so starved for mental stimulation that he had to inject it intravenously.
Similarly, Edward Hardwicke is closer to the canonical Watson than the bumbling doctor played by Nigel Bruce in films and on radio. Hardwicke gives off a certain level of intelligence through his eyes that not only makes him believable as a doctor, but also lets on that he's often both amused and frustrated by his friend's erratic behavior. This gives the audience its focus of identification as well as adding another layer to the relationship. The two have amazing chemistry onscreen, which belies the great difference in their personalities (as displayed in an interview with the two actors included in this DVD set).
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is a solid continuation of the series of Holmes adaptations with six wonderful hours of Doylean delight. The adaptations retain the tone of the stories while taking necessary liberties with the text towards a more visual means of storytelling. Of course, in some cases, these changes were made simply to stay under budget. "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" is a good example. Although the original setting, Switzerland, was changed to the Lake District to save money, no expense in time was spared in order to make things perfect. On the "Lady Frances" commentary, director John Madden
(Shakespeare in Love) and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies (who also appeared on the Rathbone / Bruce
Hound of the Baskervilles commentary) discuss how it took hours to perfect a shot that comprises mere seconds of screen time. Boasting one of the more complicated plots, Watson tells Holmes much of the story of the title character and her run-in with a mysterious horseman through letters -- very much like
The Hound of the Baskervilles -- before Holmes himself arrives to solve the case. (I have a question: Why does Holmes keep having Watson do all the grunt work and then lambast him when he screws up the investigation?)
"The Problem of Thor Bridge" was almost completely revamped to make it visually entertaining. This tale of a governess framed for the murder of her master's wife (there is some illicit behavior suspected) contains one of Holmes' most satisfying solutions. "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" uses Holmes' proficiency at identifying cigar ashes (fans will remember that Holmes famously wrote a monograph on the subject), combined with the murder victim's dying word, to identify the killer of a young man's father directly following an altercation (of course, he refuses to tell what they were fighting about and comes instantly under suspicion). Although a fairly pedestrian story in setup and execution, the details make this one of my favorites.
The perils of horse racing (from the other side) features in "Shoscombe Old Place," an unnecessarily complex tale saved by good performances and a twist involving a pet dog. (A young Jude Law appears in a pivotal role.) An "Illustrious Client" has requested an intercession into the marriage of a young woman and a suspected murderer. One of Sir Arthur's personal favorites of his stories becomes one of the more darkly exciting episodes in this series. The author tramped into the supernatural a few times in the Holmes canon (most notably in
The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Sussex Vampire"), but always found a way to explain the strange occurrences away rationally. There is no such relief in "The Creeping Man," a lesser effort that is nonetheless compelling for being so different, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in some ways.
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, MPI has done a terrific job in transferring Sherlock Holmes to DVD (see my comments on the
Baskervilles DVD), using the original negative for the first time to achieve clarity in picture and sound far superior to the
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and
Return of Sherlock Holmes sets. (Sometimes the subtitles are necessary to understand some dialogue, but that is most often the fault of the actors.) The extras are minimal but they enhance the experience and are definitely worth the extra time spent. The "Lady Frances" commentary made me wish that every episode had one. The interview, while it mostly focuses on a stage version of Holmes and Watson the two were performing at the time, shows off Brett's manic personality -- his earring looks like that of a pirate! -- and Hardwicke's contrasting low-key manner (he almost looks bored, or, at the very least, tired of Brett's manic personality).
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is an overall solid investment, especially since true fans have already seen these episodes multiple times and will not hesitate to do so again.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on
The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.
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