Opinion: The Two Sherlocks – Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett

Since I was a kid I’ve had a fascination with Sherlock Holmes. I was probably one of the few 10 year-olds who owned a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. The parts of the stories I’ve always enjoyed the most were the conversations between Holmes and Watson in 221B Baker Street where Sherlock would make a deduction and he and Watson would discuss it. I could read/watch those conversations forever, but I’m getting away from what I wanted to talk about.

My focus is the two most famous actors to play the Great Detective, Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. Both act the part very, very well and they are my two favorite actors to have portrayed the character and, while I like them both, and their performances are similar in certain wars, they each do him a bit differently.

Rathbone’s Holmes is a much warmer, kinder man than Brett’s, who I find to be a bit cold, and even a little uncaring at times (not about Watson but the other people around him). Brett’s interpretation seems more socially awkward and less capable when it comes to dealing with people. Rathbone, on the other hand, is more like a friend or acquaintance you would want to have dinner with. Both men play geniuses but Brett’s shows much more self-importance in his intelligence. He’s smarter than most people and he doesn’t pretend like he isn’t. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was less prone to take his great mind and rub it in.

So whom do I like more? Well, you might think it would be good old Basil, and once upon a time I probably would have said that he was, but I have to say it’s Jeremy Brett. Keep in mind that I still love both actors in the part but Brett plays Holmes better and closer to his literary source. He also shared something in common with the great detective other than his looks. He suffered from manic depression and would go through up and down moods much like Holmes himself.

Basil’s Holmes has a certain nostalgic quality to him (maybe partly due to me watching his movies when I was a kid) and he’s just so fun to watch as the detective that it overshadows the fact that the stories he worked with weren’t all that great. Of course it helps that Brett’s stories were all directly based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, while Rathbone’s were all, with the exception to his first Holmes film The Hound of the Baskervilles, only partially based on Doyle’s works.

It should be noted that they both portrayed him in two different mediums, Brett in TV and Rathbone in movies (and to a lesser known degree he did him on radio, they also both did work on stage as Sherlock). So each are allowed to do different things that the other would not. Brett was probably able to do more experimentation with the part as he was working on TV instead of movies and thus was given more time on screen with the role.

Sadly, both of these men have now passed on, but each has left an indelible mark on the role that many people mention when Holmes and acting is mentioned in the same breath. Rathbone died in 1967 at the age of 75 and Brett in 1995 at 61, just a handful of stories short of doing every Conan Doyle Holmes story.

If you haven’t watched any of Rathbone’s movies or Brett’s television episodes then I highly recommend that you do. They’re both available in box sets, which include everything each actor did in the part, on Amazon.com for pretty good prices. So if you’ve been wanting to check them out then do it. To use a cliché that I almost hate to use, it’s elementary.

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