EW Is No Equivocator: A Better Holmes
Dr. William Russo
Member of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes Societ, Boston, MA. Chapter
In the video-movie
Hands of a Murderer, Edward Woodward takes the next logical
step in a career of playing insightful agents against crime: he essays
the part of
Sherlock Holmes. In dark-haired wig and eschewing the deerstalker
cap (correctly so), Woodward's 1990 portrayal of the
A. Conan Doyle sleuth needs to be reassessed in the aftermath of the
tragic death of Jeremy Brett whose dynamic portrayal in forty-two
adaptations of the short stories (regularly playing on "A&E Mysteries")
has made it difficult for another actor to tackle the role. Woodward's
sharp depiction is equal to the task. With a dozen tales yet to be put
on film, the Granada producers have to look no further than Edward
Woodward. If Hands of a Murderer serves as a screen test, then
Woodward demands the A+ grade and the right to carry on the Holmes
Though the film Hands of a Murderer has several glaring
weaknesses, Edward Woodward is the titan core of efficacy. His Holmes is
cold, hard, with an unmistakable ability to size up people and their
motivations. Woodward's Sherlock is particularly effective in his
confrontation scene with Moriarty (Anthony
Andrews), but Woodward is a master of these chilling brinkmanship
challenges. The exchange over a chessboard at 221b Baker Street with
these two actors is sparkling in its drama. Woodward maintains those
sharp movements and abrupt physical turns that we expect from the coolly
logical Holmes. The story has no connection to the original stories, and
thankfully Woodward does not say "Elementary, my dear Watson," a
completely false quotation attributed to Holmes.
Why anyone would have thought this less than a definitive
characterization is to put blame for other film problems on Mr.
Woodward. The film's Mycroft is unconvincing and inaccurate; the actor
hasn't a chance to limn the part. The film casts Sherlock's brother as
the head of a secret agency of government (centered at the Diogenes
Club) whose inaccurate judgments lead to all kinds of complications.
This is not Mycroft: it's more like Control at the Company. Of course,
Woodward is right at Holmes with this concept.
In addition, the film does not understand the role of Watson and he
serves, less as foil or comic relief, than as an obstacle to be removed.
In the literature Watson is a useful, vigorous, and intelligent partner,
not the throwaway as depicted in this film. In Hands of a Murderer,
Watson is an appendage who must be shuffled off-the-set now and then,
offering nothing to the plot. Clearly they could have told their story
without a Watson.
Those who had some trouble with Woodward as Sherlock probably are
unfamiliar with the literary version. Holmes never wore a deerstalker
cap in the city; Holmes starts the story in a foul mood, angry and
dyspeptic, also keeping within the personality of the sleuth. Most
shocking of all is to see Woodward in a brown wig, rather than his
trademark silver locks, though it is easy to adjust to the youthful look
of Callan, not the Equalizer. If Holmes is supposed to be razor thin,
then the highly-lauded
Jeremy Brett persona has also undone the literary version. It's a
specious criticism then for Woodward. His Holmes is, quite frankly, the
gaslight version of the Equalizer. And, it's juicy.
An amusing twist to Woodward's Holmes story is to cast the stars of
Brideshead Revisited (a haggard Anthony Andrews and an
Nickolas Grace) as villains. Unfortunately, Andrews' character of
Moriarty is hardly the Napoleon of crime, as described by Conan Doyle.
This Moriarty is actively involved in crime, not as its agent, and has
the bad taste to be caught and on the gallows as the story opens. The
literary villain would never allow this to happen.
McCALL AND HOLMES: TWIN CONSULTANTS
Early in the Sherlock role, Woodward cries out about the ineptitude
of the police, who disparage him. And he resists being drafted for
secret government work by the controlling Mycroft. This is familiar turf
for the Equalizer.
Indeed, two independent crime-fighters, a century apart, living in
the classic urban jungle of their times, making it a point to assist
those in need, eschewing monetary gain: what better way to describe
Robert McCall and Sherlock Holmes? And, there can be no doubt that their
shared interpretation by Edward Woodward is no accident.
Both men live in a brownstone flat with double windows (broad windows,
not bay) overlooking the street, Baker for Holmes, nameless for McCall,
at which both tend to muse about the human situation. Both live on the
second floor in what Conan Doyle called "large and airy" rooms. Each
also has a centerpiece of a warm fireplace, before which they conduct
analysis, entertain argument, and often conduct client business. The
main room for each man is about thirty by twenty-five feet. A couch or
settee is the focus of many visitors where they sit and pour out their
problems to the hero. Each main room is noteworthy for its stained wood
floors, covered in carpet runners. In Hands Of a Murderer, scenes
at Baker Street are minimal and the decor seems more akin to an art
gallery than a detective's messy quarters. The Baker Street walls are
covered in lithographs: one almost expects to see browsers and
price-tags. The Equalizer's digs are art-centered too.
Let's face it: Holmes and McCall are brethren. They are of the same
mentality and probably suffer from similar pleasures and demons. Both
detectives are partial to music: Holmes keeps a violin in his main room
for occasional use, and McCall has a piano that he will play once in a
while. As everyone knows, it's McCall's son who has the penchant for the
violin. Each is up to date on the latest technology to fight crime and
both keep records and photos of known enemies at hand in the apartment.
Each maintains a small crime lab off the main room for special
equipment. Holmes installed a telephone in 1898 to better conduct
business. He also used newspaper ads with frequency: both are endemic to
McCall. Each has a housekeeper who complains and is intrusive. McCall's
makes only a few appearances, but those set the tone. McCall's Hispanic
helper even inflicts her two children on him. Like Holmes, McCall is
fond of cryptography, as his coded dictionary left for his son during
one absence proves.
Holmes does not share the interest in Pre-Colombian art that has
McCall's digs decorated tastefully with a half dozen statuettes. Off and
on, McCall also displays a chess set, but seldom seems to use it for
anything but a furnishing. Both apartments place artwork in the main
room. Holmes has a notable picture of Charles Gordon of Khartoum
disaster, whereas McCall seems to have a matted sketch of George Bernard
Shaw hanging prominently. Also on the wall of McCall's apartment is a
picture of an elephant, perhaps depicting Thailand.
EDWARD WOODWARD AND OTHER SHERLOCK ACTORS
Many actors have limned the part of Sherlock. Among them are a few
surprises and shocks:
Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett are the most celebrated. During
their youngest years in the role they resembled the famous Paget
illustrations of Holmes. Our image of the detective derives from these
drawings. Yet, the part has also been acted by
Leonard Nimoy, among others, each offering a variation. Mr. Woodward
has stated in interviews that he remembered the Doyle stories "boring,"
but in retrospect believes he was too young when he first read them. His
re-reading of the stories surprised him which often happens when classic
literature is read at a later age. Perhaps, too, Woodward is being a bit
coy about not seeing any parallel to the Equalizer.
Compared to these, Woodward's performance is rock solid. His Sherlock is
less effete than most, more self-possessed, at home in any strata of
society, ready and inclined to physical action when needed, strong and
unyielding when necessary. Woodward's Holmes is self-contained, really a
volcano of ideas and power ready to erupt. Woodward's Holmes contains
equal parts of intelligence and masculinity. Not surprising, these are
the same qualities he brings to Robert McCall. And they are in short
supply in most performances of the hero nowadays.
One yearns to see Woodward in a Granada-quality production, with
top-notch writing, impressive sets, working with creative directors.
Yes, those who are fond of Sherlock Holmes ought to treat themselves to
Woodward's stylish and savory performance in this movie; those who are
purists will be disappointed by the less-than-stellar script. This
television movie lamely derives its points from bits and pieces of other
versions of the original short stories. Neither true to the Doyle
stories, nor offering any fresh reworkings of the formula, the producers
of Hands of a Murderer would have better served Edward Woodward
by playing off the actor's abilities and image.
With nearly a dozen stories from the Holmes canon yet to be filmed by
the Granada producers, that series ought to continue with Woodward as
the consulting detective extraordinaire. The superb Granada series has
changed Watsons with no effect on quality. Woodward could well make the
leap to replace the late, wonderful Jeremy Brett. The Holmes given us by
Edward Woodward is no equivocator.