Was it wise to cast Sherlock Holmes with an actor so well known for playing suave spy James Bond in the movies? Was it wise to cast Dr. John Watson with an actor so well known for playing suave agent John Steed on TV’s The Avengers? Do Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic yet hardly suave characters stand a chance of being seen when played by actors famous for other roles almost as iconic? These are questions likely to arise when sitting down to watch Sherlock Holmes in New York, a made-for-TV movie first broadcast in 1976.
There certainly are wince-inducing missteps in this film. Several of them. Still, the casting of Roger Moore as Holmes and Patrick Macnee as Watson — along with the mystery written by Alvin Sapinsley — are fun enough to compensate. Overall, Sherlock Holmes in New York is an enjoyable, if decidedly minor, addition to the post-Rathbone parade of Holmes films.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
It’s probably safe to assume that Roger Moore doesn’t invest the time and thought into his characterizations that, say, Daniel Day-Lewis does. There’s nothing to see in Moore’s performance here that evokes a new take on Holmes — or even a Holmes struggling to temper his intellect to coexist with those around him. In a way, though, Moore’s barely-below-the-surface style of acting actually works, given the script.
Instead of being socially challenged or aloof or eccentric, this script calls for Holmes to be, well — reasonably suave. He needs to be, since he has a romantic past with Irene Adler (played by the elegant Charlotte Rampling) — an interlude in Montenegro presumably following the events of “A Scandal in Bohemia” — and this becomes a key bit of motivation for Holmes. It’s why he travels all the way to New York, and it’s related to why he refrains from involving himself in an especially intriguing crime once he arrives.
So Moore must sidestep the asocial and asexual qualities that we often find fascinating in the great detective. This Holmes isn’t quite the Handsome Hero, the role in which Moore was routinely typecast, but he comes dangerously close. While Moore’s Holmes might be capable of temporary romantic attachment, he’s at least anxious about other forms of human connection. Luckily, Moore gets to better transcend his typecasting when Holmes dons a disguise, which happens quite a lot. His portrayal of a pre-Houdini escape artist especially lets us see Moore stretch.
While the script pushes Moore to be a less misogynistic Holmes, it also pulls Patrick Macnee back toward playing the bumbling Watson found in earlier movies. It’s less a matter of character motivation and more of cinema tradition, in other words. Though he’s allowed one or two flashes of valor, this depiction of Watson is largely the Comic-Relief Sidekick role. The good doctor gets laughs mostly by being repeatedly confounded by the cultural differences between England and the U.S. Surely, a man with a medical degree could master the concept of time zones! But, no, not here.
Now, why the scratchy voice? Why the inconsistent limp? And are those knickers he’s wearing under his coat upon arriving in New York — or is he simply wearing stockings with no pants? Unfortunately, many of the film’s wince-inducing missteps seem attached to Macnee.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
Seriously? The nanny’s name is Fraulein Reichenbach? Mein Gott, nein! Another wince born of Sapinsley’s script.
And yet it’s a script that otherwise offers a very good interweaving of two crimes. One is a kidnapping, which has personal ramifications for Holmes. The other is a robbery, which has global repercussions if Holmes doesn’t solve it. It’s not a spoiler to mention that, behind both, lurks Moriarty. In the role of “the Napoleon of crime” is John Huston, who’s good enough to have gotten away with some melodramatic mustache-twirling if the film had asked for it (and it almost does).
Holmes makes short work of solving the kidnapping — and comparatively long work of effecting a rescue. Regarding the robbery, well, some might think it’s a bit far-fetched. And it is. But so are many of the crimes in Doyle’s tales. In this regard, the movie is in harmony with the canon.
I suspect that the film’s suave Sherlock and its wacky Watson will irk Holmes purists more than the crime plot does. It’s advisable, therefore, to watch this movie with that in mind. Doing so might let the finer attributes of Sherlock Holmes in New York stand out a bit more.