Sherlock Holmes: Review
The highlight of the 20th San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a film considered lost for almost 100 years. William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes was warmly received when it was released in 1916. It even got a postwar revival in France as a four part serial in the 1920s. William Gillette, renowned British actor, had based the movie on his enormously successful stage play about the master sleuth. Sherlock Holmes, rediscovered and restored after 90 years, gives modern audiences a chance to discover the roots of the world's most famous detective.
Baker Street Irregulars and "Sherlockians" may be surprised at Sherlock Holmes . The plot, for example, is not a mystery at all, but rather an adventure plot that primarily takes place in people's parlor rooms. When the movie opens, the villains and their motives are quickly established: Moriarty and a gang of ruffians are trying to steal undisclosed letters from a girl in order to blackmail a foreign aristocrat. There are no clues to follow or mysteries to solve, instead each scene is set up so that Holmes may walk in, outsmart the villains, and walk out with the girl saved. There's even a romantic subplot which will look familiar to fans of Irene Adler, though it goes in a direction that may anger many fans of the most recent Sherlock.
This image of Holmes - dashing, romantic, and unruffled by stress or gunfire - is a far cry from the more manic Holmeses of Cumberbatch and Cushing. Still, in his piercing stare and scientific habits, William Gilette's Sherlock Holmes feels startlingly familiar. In fact, when it comes to all things Sherlock, Gillette may have been the largest influence on public perception of the fictional detective, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Gillette wrote Moriarty not as the cold, weird professor of the novels, but as the more recognizable Mad Genius, complete with secret underground lair. Watson, too, is fairly useless, mostly standing in as an audience surrogate to whom Holmes can make explanations.
Even tonally, this is a closer match to later Holmes adaptations, less High Gothic and more melodrama. For "Sherlockians", the most fun will be picking out details and arguing over who is their progenitor, Gillette or Doyle. (Speaking from personal experience, this debate can rage for a while.) Even if you do not count yourself to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes, how often do you get to watch a character evolve over 100 years? The differences and the similarities are sure to be a subject of hot debate as the film is rereleased on DVD. The game is afoot!