Making Records
Better Holmes



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 mantle.

EW and John Hillerman 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.

EW, Anthony Andrews, and John Hillerman An amusing twist to Woodward's Holmes story is to cast the stars of Brideshead Revisited (a haggard Anthony Andrews and an under-utilized 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.





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.

EW and Hillerman 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.





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 Christopher Plummer, Larry Hagman, Stewart Granger, 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.

cast of Hands of a Murderer 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.

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This site was last updated 02/03/07