The 100 Best, Worst, and Strangest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked

From Crime Reads:

We’re ranking Sherlock Holmes performances. One hundred of them. Not Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but the representations within them of Sherlock Holmes himself. Now, you might think that you know the best Sherlock Holmes, but as the man himself has said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” 

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What are the criteria we’re using to rank these portrayals? Fidelity to the source text? Creativeness of the interpretations? Resemblance to Sidney Paget’s illustrations? Quality of acting? Kind of. Simply put, portrayals are ranked in their ability to present a Holmes who makes sense as a derivation of the original character while exploring, interrogating, and expanding the character’s qualities in a thoughtful and meaningful way. And of course, yes, the quality of the performance itself matters.

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Please note that we’re ranking Sherlock Holmes portrayals (characters who are literally supposed to be Sherlock Holmes), not portrayals of characters who are based on or inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Gregory House is not on this list. Repeat. Gregory House is not on this list. Neither is Owen Wilson’s “Sherlock Holmes” in Shanghai Knights. And neither is Douglas Fairbanks’s spoofy Sherlock character “Coke Ennyday.”

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96. Hans Albers, Der Mann, Der Sherlock Holmes War (1937)

The Germans made a lot of Sherlock Holmes movies in 1937, and a bunch of them involve guys with stereotypically English names who turn out to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise. This film is no different; the German (and eventually kind of Nazi) movie star Hans Albers plays “Morris Flynn,” a guy who turns out to really be… Holmes. Albers has a very spooky, bright gaze, as if if his irises are somehow clear, and I don’t like it. The good news about the film, on the whole, is that Watson’s alter-ego is named “Macky McMacpherson” and I really enjoy that the Germans thought this would be a believable name for an Englishman. The bad news is, again, that Hans Albers was kind of a Nazi. Or, he didn’t not benefit from the rise of Nazis, let’s put it that way.

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86. Charlton Heston, The Crucifer of Blood (1991)

You know who’s a weird Sherlock Holmes? Charlton Heston. Maybe it’s just hard for me, personally, to reconcile the late NRA president with the most rational character in literary history, but Heston’s Holmes is squinty and gravely and his officious English accent makes him sound like he thinks he’s playing a Roman senator or a British general supervising a bridge construction in Colonial India in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, and I’m not having it.

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82. Joaquim de Almeida, O Xangô de Baker Street (2001)

Joaquim de Almeida plays a Holmes who suffers from lots of gastrointestinal distress while solving a string of gruesome murders in 1886 Rio de Janero in this bilingual film which is based on Jô Soares’ 1995 novel of the same name (published as A Samba for Sherlock in English). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Holmes portrayal that is so focused on the body of the great detective, as opposed to the mind. He gets high, has sex, eats a lot, and frequently has to run to the bathroom. And he also can’t solve the current case well! He’s distracted by the weather, women, and his frequent, panicked trips to the restroom. I’m stressing the bathroom thing because it’s just so nutty. De Almeida offers an incongruously dignified detective at the start, who has to retrograde in many ways over the course of the film. The movie isn’t amazing, but I appreciate something about de Almeida’s whole deal.

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66. Alex Vanderpor/Fan Ai Li, Sherlock Holmes in China (1994)

Please allow me to present the most complicated Sherlock Holmes performance on this list! Alex Vanderpor, also known as “Fan Ai Li”, is a young, white, and very operatic (he sings a lot) Sherlock Holmes in this Chinese film directed by Wang Chi, Liu Yun-Zhou, and Ma Yi, also called Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Heroine. Holmes and Watson (the latter of whom is Chinese, unlike his partner) travel to Qing Dynasty China, and there is a mystery that eventually involves Holmes facing off in an epic Kung-Fu battle against a skilled martial artist, using his violin as a surprising but effective weapon. Although he speaks Chinese fluently (well, the actor is dubbed), Holmes is pretty out of his element in this new location, and there is a scene where he disguises himself as a Chinese man and this is kind of a disaster in many ways. There are so many things at work here that need to be teased out in a longer evaluation, especially Vanderpor’s playing a Sherlock Holmes who speaks Chinese but also literally doesn’t!

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61. David Mitchell, “Old Holmes,” That Mitchell and Webb Look (2010)

I’m only including one Sherlock performance per actor, even if that actor played Sherlock a few times in different productions, so, yes David Mitchell also played Holmes in the above sketch. But his Holmes performance that I’d rather spotlight in this ranking is a strange, heartbreaking representation of an elderly Holmes, with dementia and no longer in possession of his faculties. David Mitchell’s senile Holmes is kind of, maybe, possibly played for laughs, but this too is in service of the tragic thesis undergirding it: the sad irony of the deterioration of the greatest mind of the age. This isn’t the first “old Holmes” take I’ve seen, but it’s the one that kicks me in the tear ducts the hardest.

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47. John Barrymore, Sherlock Holmes (1922)

When we first see John Barrymore as Sherlock Holmes in this contemporary-set adaptation, he is sitting on the ground outdoors in a pastoral cobblestone alleyway, leaning up against a wall, smoking copiously and meditatively. From this vantage, he observes life around him and makes notes in his diary, writing down things such as “what is love?” Does all of this present a very surprising take on Sherlock Holmes? You bet. But it’s a fascinating concept… Sherlock Holmes’s positioned as a romantic Socrates of sorts, sitting on the ground, watching everybody, figuring them out. He’s also pretty awkward; he meets a beautiful woman and shyly follows her around until she hops in a cart and rides away. She is the sister of the woman due to marry Watson’s friend Prince Alexis (??), who has been framed for stealing money from the Athletic Club (??). And this tall, skinny, lovelorn Holmes is England’s (or some country’s, where is Prince Alexis from anyway) last hope.

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42. Valentīns Skulme, Šerloks Holms (1979-1982)

This Latvian Sherlock Holmes play (filmed, so it’s on this list) features a Sherlock performance that I can’t understand but also kind of enjoy. Valentīns Skulme’s Holmes has the affect of someone’s pissed-off but learned Eastern-European grandfather. I feel like if I saw him at a friend’s house for dinner, he’d tell me an anecdote from his career as a bookbinder or watchmaker and warn me about walking home alone at night and tell me it’s bad luck to whistle indoors.

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24. George C. Scott, They Might Be Giants (1971)

George C. Scott is powerful in this comedy? rom-com? about a psychiatrist, Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), who becomes fascinated by a man who believes he is Sherlock Holmes (complicating this further is that he is very *good* at being Sherlock Holmes). A bit like Larry Hagman’s performance in The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, Scott’s version is something of a caricature, though in a movie in which someone thinks they are a famous fictional character, how can you really avoid this? Scott’s rendition owes much to the “harumph” conception of Britishness, but in such a way that we can tell that it is his real character, the non-actor Justin, who is interpreting Holmes in this manner.

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12. Ian Richardson, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) etc.

One of the shorter Holmeses on our list (at 5’9″), the great Shakespearean actor Ian Richardson is the only man to ever play Sherlock Holmes AS WELL AS Dr. Joseph Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical school professor who provided the inspiration for the great detective. He’s a first-class Holmes: gentle, analytical, and maybe the tiny bit self-satisfied, but only when he gets the better of Dr. Watson, with whom he has a very genial friendship. But I’m especially impressed with how totally relaxed he is… there’s nothing frenetic, or even too excitable there. He actually is so chill that he veritably has gags and inside jokes with Dr. Watson… such as the time when Watson pulls out his pistol to assure Holmes that he’ll be careful out in Dartmoor, and Holmes throws his hands up, and they burst out laughing. And then he dons a French accent to say goodbye to him, and they crack up again. So chummy! So cute!

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7. Yūko Takeuchi, Miss Sherlock (2018)

HBO Asia’s Miss Sherlock, which is one of the best Holmesian adaptations I’ve ever seen, is a modern, female, Japanese reboot of the famous detective partnership. But those more obvious reasons don’t solely account for why the show is so vanguard and engaging. It’s star, Yûko Takeuchi, is riveting as “Sherlock,” an elegant, if aloof and snide, young woman who uses her brilliant observational powers to solve crimes, mostly for her own amusement. She is bossy, self-directed, cranky, and whiny. But she is also glamorous! She loves designer clothes and always looks eminently cool hiking over to a crime scene in her long dusters and stilettos. It’s nice to see a Holmes who clearly loves being the center of attention, so much. Her relationship with Shihori Kanjiya’s Wato (the Watson character) is also compelling; Sherlock acts like the spoiled, rich-girl roommate archetype we’ve seen so often, a catty older sister-figure to the shy and sensitive Wato. Though a friendship does grow out of their incidental situationship, Sherlock still gives Wato an extremely hard time. The whole vibe just totally works, and you’ll be thinking about Yūko Takeuchi’s performance long after you’re done with the eight episodes.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

3 thoughts on “The 100 Best, Worst, and Strangest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked”

  1. PG, Thanks for an enjoyable post (good excerpting!) and the link to an entertaining article.
    Good reading, this Sunday morning.

  2. An amusingly complete list and very good read.
    Hard to argue with the broad rankings.

    I think he is way too kind to RDJ (at least he ignores the forgettable Jude Law Watson) and doesn’t give Cavill enough leeway considering he is playing a younger, undamaged Sherlock meant to serve as a foil for the teen star of tbe story. Given a couple decades to age into the role, Cavill might be a good Sherlock some day. One thought that came to mind was that his “too human” pre-Watson Sherlock might evolve into the traditional moody drug addict of the canon should the perky younger sister come to a bad end. 🙂

    (Enola Holmes is a fun romp tbat should have gotten at least a footnote since Enola is more Classic Holmes than Sherlock.)

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