The Top Ten Sherlock Holmes Films

The Top Ten Sherlock Holmes Films

The Top Ten Sherlock Holmes Films


This article is going to ignite strife, controversy, and debate. Just what I like. I didn’t limit this to films on the big screen because that would exclude Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch and then I’d really get some attitude!


The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
I know this is going to be an upset; please feel free to start casting stones my way, but come on, Peter Cushing was a fantastic Sherlock Holmes and this was, after all, a full-screen film—it wasn’t made for TV—and André Morell was a great Watson. Who can forget that wonderful tarantula scene with Christopher Lee who made a great Henry Baskerville. So before you get outraged, here are a couple of things you should know, Peter Cushing with those hollowed cheeks and hook nose looked like Holmes, he didn’t just take on these roles for the cash, he was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes stories but oddly he knew that portraying the Great Detective was risky, saying “…Not the pleasantest of characters….It’s a very difficult part to play…he goes up and down like a yo-yo. You’ve got to be awfully careful when you play a part like that that it doesn’t become annoying to the audience.”


The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988)
I know, I have a thing for hounds, so we have The Hound of The Baskervilles getting first and second place, but come on, this was a great production worthy of the big screen. As always, solid performances from Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke. But for some of his dramatic histrionics, Brett should have been king of all Sherlocks. Fortunately in this film, they did seem to rein him in!

The Top Ten Sherlock Holmes Films

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

We had to toss Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce into the mix! And sadly, this one does not feature one of my favorite Moriartys—Henry Daniel. Instead, we had the charismatic George Zucco portray the deliciously evil villain. Though the novel bears little resemblance to anything Doyle wrote, it more than makes up for any deficiencies with atmosphere, plus screen legend Ida Lupino had a supporting role in the film.


The Reichenbach Fall (2012)

I know, nobody will ever replace Jeremy Brett, and it’s odd to have Sherlock Holmes portrayed as this big heartthrob who lives in modern London and isn’t walking around with a pipe—but hey, let’s embrace the modern. Benedict Cumberbatch has brought Sherlock Holmes into the mainstream—nice not to have a Sherlock Holmes club meeting full of people of all ages—sure beats those times when I was the youngest guy at every meeting, which reminded me of Grandma’s bingo club! In this very loose—very, very loose—adaptation of “The Final Problem,” we have Holmes felled by Moriarty, played by Andrew Scott, and the season ends with us asking if Holmes will be back. Nice that we had a cameo by Holmes screen legend Douglas Wilmer who was acting like a member of the Diogenes Club.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

This one ends up ticking off Holmes fans since it questions his sexuality, but to me this film has everything that you want in a pastiche. It’s serious, bittersweet, yet at times funny and satirical. Robert Stephens made a wonderful Sherlock Holmes and Colin Blakely was a Watson more in the vein of Nigel Bruce! Great cameos by Clive Revill and Christopher Lee. I know we all love to see Holmes as this great mind immune to vulnerability, but in this film you see some cracks but he never fully breaks as he does in The Seven-Percent Solution.


Sherlock Holmes (2009)

I know Robert Downey doesn’t spring to mind when you think of the Great Detective, and if there were any justice in this naughty old world, we’d have Jude Law play the lead and Downey playing Watson. But the films are energetic, fun, and you can tell that Guy Ritchie loves the canon. Also, it boasts a wonderful score from Hans Zimmer.


Mr. Holmes (2015)

You often hear people raving about what a great actor Ian McKellen is and with his excellent performance as a very old Sherlock Holmes, you know why. In this wonderful film with a great supporting role from Laura Linney, Holmes has retired the country to pursue his hobby of beekeeping and is struggling with his memory and trying to find the key to an old case while looking at his old papers. A great film, but if the mystery at the heart of the film was as solid as the acting, production, and psychological depth of the film, it would have been a masterpiece.


Murder by Decree (1979)

What I love about this one is that you have Holmes taking on the Jack the Ripper case and it’s done convincingly. Also, Christopher Plummer and James Mason were a fantastic team. The sets and production made you feel that you were transported by to the Whitechapel district of London; with a supporting cast that included John Gielgud, Frank Finlay, and Donald Sutherland, what’s not to like?


Without a Clue (1988)

Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine have a good strike rate on their own and, combining them together, turn this into a comedy and you have screen nirvana. In this wonderful spoof, Sherlock Holmes is not really intelligent—instead, Watson has all the brains. Love the scene on the train where a lady approaches Holmes asking if he indeed is Sherlock and he replies, “… Would you like my autograph?”


They Might be Giants (1971)

Okay, this isn’t strictly a Holmes film, but you have George C. Scott playing a man who is convinced that he’s Sherlock Holmes in modern-day New York. He sees a therapist played by Joanne Woodward, aptly named Dr. Watson. Not everyone’s cup of tea (after-all very few films made during the 70s hold up—I guess it’s all that polyester!) but still a great performance by Scott.


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  1. The one Basic / Nigel movie you chose was one of my least favorite. Hound of the Baskervilles with that team was exceptionally dark and evocative. I loved most of their movies, but also thoroughly enjoyed Jeremy Brett, RDJ and BC. Just can’t get enough Holmes!

  2. Interesting choices, mostly very good ones! Glad you didn’t go for ‘ Sherlock Holmes in New York’, jaw droppingly bad. I think ‘A Study in Pink’ just edges it for the Cumberbatch one. I would also place ‘A Study in Terror’ slightly ahead of ‘Murder by Decree’ in the Ripper stakes, solely for John Neville’s performance

  3. THANK YOU for including Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes — I enjoy those movies, and even though they are action-adventures, they are ADVENTURES in the true Conan Doyle mode (he wasn’t writing mysteries, after all — he was writing adventures!). They are sumptuously realized and beautiful evocations of Victorian London/Europe, and Downey — one of our finest actors — may not be the physical embodiment of Doyle’s Holmes, but why should he be? He was the first romantic, handsome, younger Holmes of the modern era, with Cumberbatch following in his footsteps, and the first to blow the dust off the character, get rid of the old movie-induced stereotypes (the deerstalker, the Inverness cape, etc.) and give us a Sherlock Holmes for modern global audiences. Under all the comic shenanigans and explosions (remember, Doyle had explosions, too, and fisticuffs, and martial arts – Doyle’s Holmes was no stranger to any of those…) the RDJ movies are really heartfelt and loving tributes to the canon, with perhaps the best modern relationship between Holmes and Watson. I contend the second movie, “Game of Shadows,” is better than the first; the first one had to deal with the silly faux-occult storyline, which granted was made better by the presence of Mark Strong as the villain. But Jared Harris’s Moriarty in “Game of Shadows” was a Moriarty for the ages, truly cold and frightening. Downey is always an interesting Holmes: his affectations (disheveled Bohemian, insecure man-child, etc.) are clearly covers for his serious devotion to his friends and to justice. There are moments — as when he faces Moriarty over the chessboard at Reichenbach — where Downey’s Holmes takes on an air of melancholy yet true magnificence, in a way maybe only Brett has ever done, almost drawing in an electrical charge around himself as he gathers his mental forces and prepares to reveal his deduction. Amazing to watch onscreen. Now there’s talk of a third RDJ Holmes movie, which I hope is true — it’s good to have a series of big-screen Holmes adventures that are new and action-packed (and seriously, there’s NOTHING wrong with a Holmes universe set in an action environment, and actually a lot right with it…), created with love and and affection for the source material. Good choices all, but it always warms my heart to see RDJ’s evocation of Holmes included; it’s so good.

  4. The problem with Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing is that they were TOO neurotic. They are playing a Holmes that critics have invented. The Holmes of the stories is idiosyncratic, but human. I thought Christopher Plummer was great, certainly more successful than most, in creating a 3-dimensional Holmes.

  5. 1) Glad you included a Jeremy Brett film…but I thought Granada’s ‘Sign of Four’ was far superior to it’s ‘Hounds’.

    2) While I liked Cushing’s take on Holmes, the Hammer version of ‘Hounds’ is simply too melodramatic and lurid to be considered in a ‘best of’ list.

    3) Robert Downey? WORST HOLMES EVER..

  6. ” I know this is going to be an upset; please feel free to start casting stones my way, but come on, Peter Cushing was a fantastic Sherlock Holmes and this was, after all, a full-screen film—it wasn’t made for TV—and André Morell was a great Watson.”

    Who would be upset? I haven’t ever come across anyone who doesn’t think Morell was a great Watson; and Cushing’s Holmes has long been popular (almost all lists of best Holmes seem to put him at least in the top three with Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett). As for the film itself some (but not all) purists may grumble but again it seems popular with critics and audiences.

    Some films I’d consider are ‘The Master Blackmailer’ (my favourite of the tv-movies starring Jeremy Brett; and probably overall favourite), the maybe slightly cheesy but entertaining Hammer-clone ‘A Study In Terror’ which features great performances by John Neville and Donald Houston as two of the best Holmes and Watsons; the animated Burbank films with the great Peter O’Toole; Rathbone and Bruce’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and ‘The Scarlett Claw’ and if we count it Christopher Plummer’s ‘Silver Blaze’ 9it is only 30-minutes but was stand alone as a Holme’s adaptation) which has the ever fantastic Thorley Walters as Watson. And the two Ian Richardson films, which take liberties here and there but are great none-the-less.

    I wouldn’t include the BBC ‘Sherlock’ series as I despise those abominations (as soon as I saw ‘A Study In Pink’ which is nonetheless the least terrible).

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