The Cinematic Life & Times of Professor James Moriarty

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed — the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught — never so much as suspected.”

Thus does Sherlock Holmes, the Great Detective, a man rarely given to fanciful language, describe his opposite, his arch-nemesis, his worthiest adversary: Professor James Moriarty. Outwardly an accomplished mathematician, author of the respected abstract The Dynamics of an Asteroid; in reality, a feared mastermind using his peerless intellect to create and control a criminal organization that controls London and stretches across all England.

Sidney Paget's illustration of Professor Moriarty

Sidney Paget’s illustration of Professor Moriarty

Moriarty as a concept first appears in the novel The Valley of Fear. Inspector MacAdams of Scotland Yard tut-tuts Holmes’ seeming obsession with the man, until Holmes points out that a professor earning barely £700 a year has a painting worth £4000 in his study, and moreover has no fewer than twelve bank accounts. Moriarty himself does not put in an appearance, though the machinations of his organization are present at the beginning and end of the novel.

Moriarty presents himself in the story for which he was truly created – “The Final Problem” – in which Holmes has proceeded with his investigation of the organization promised at the end of The Valley of Fear (while Watson is occupied with his marriage to Mary Morstan and a return to private medical practice). In fact, Holmes has uncovered enough information and evidence that Scotland Yard, in three days time, stands poised to arrest the Professor and his entire gang in one fell swoop, prompting a visit from Moriarty himself to 221-B Baker Street, a last warning to a respected adversary. Holmes proposes to Watson – whose wife is gone for the week – to come with him to the Continent, there to lose themselves until Moriarty is run to ground.

ChofkohUUAEJ_q_The raid is a success save for two things – Moriarty and his second in command, Col. Sebastian Moran, escaped. And thus does Moriarty confront his bete noire at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, where the two men apparently struggle and fall to their death. Moriarty thus fulfills the destiny for which he was created, to put an end to the Great Detective, whose creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had long chafed under the burden of his most successful character. As Doyle said, writing to his mother, “He takes my mind from better things.”

Possibly the best known of the Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is in fact a flashback, a memory of a case recalled by Watson, and written by Doyle only because of the public outcry against Holmes’ death. Ten years after “The Final Problem” came “The Adventure of the Empty House”, in which Doyle gives up and claims Holmes faked his death at the Falls and has been working to bring down Sebastian Moran.

Jeremy Brett and Eric Porter

Jeremy Brett and Eric Porter

But if the Great Detective can be brought back to life, so, too, must the Great Adversary. Professor Moriarty has had an impressive afterlife, reappearing again and again, no matter how many times he meets his doom. An entire book could be written about his many appearances in diverse media (if one has not been written already), but for the sake of time and my sanity, I will be concentrating on movies alone, which is a bit of a pity. It is in the realm of television that we not only have the most faithful rendition of the character ever – by Eric Porter, in the justly-lauded Grenada series featuring Jeremy Brett; it is also in the contemporary reworkings of Sherlock and Elementary that the Great Adversary has undergone the most remarkable changes, equal parts intriguing and annoying.

Moreover, as this blog is my hobby and time is limited, I had to similarly limit the number of movies for this article; I will try to get into the whys and wherefores as we go along.

"Really now, Professor - don't be a dick."

“Really now, Professor – don’t be a dick.”

It was recently announced that the previously lost silent movie version of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes had been found, and is currently being restored. For that reason, it won’t be considered here. Another reason is that it’s a film version of Gillette’s famous play, which did much to further popularize the character, solidifying the deerstalker cap and calabash pipe as iconic – but it’s an odd version of Holmes at best. Watson is a bland cipher, and Holmes even gets married at the end! As we will see, though, Moriarty (of necessity) becomes more pro-active in his schemes- after all, an antagonist who merely sits in the center of a web is not very interesting. This, too, can be credited to Gillette.

Bypassing another filmed version of this play starring John Barrymore, and several other attempts to put Holmes on the silver screen, we’ll start in a much more familiar place, with a pair of faces that came to be unshakably identified as Holmes and Watson – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Such a terrible poster. Who are these people?

Such a terrible poster. Who are these people?

For years I had thought this was the first of the 20th Century Fox Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock movies, but no, that would be the redoubtable (and more marketable) Hound of the Baskervilles, which was so successful this sequel was rushed out.

At this point, rather than allow it to become the elephant in the room, I should address the problem of Nigel Bruce.

If there is anything most Holmes fans can agree on, it is a near-unanimous hatred of this version of Watson as doddering, bumbling old man. There are two reasons to temper this hatred; one, as mentioned before, previous versions of the character had been as interesting as wallpaper. Then again, studio heads likely felt there needed to be some way to inject a bit of lightness into a series about grisly murders, and Bruce, a seasoned music hall performer, could do this sort of thing in his sleep. Watch the aforementioned Hound, in which – by Doyle’s intention, I am sure – Holmes vanishes for half the story, during which Watson is shown to be quite capable on his own – then Holmes shows up, and his IQ drops fifty points. Poor Watson. He has no idea he is rooming with a psychic vampire.

I’ve made my peace with Nigel Bruce’s portrayal. That doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy watching it. It is simply the price one pays to watch Basil Rathbone, who truly is one of the great Holmes.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

adventuresofsh_moriartyholmesThough supposedly based on William Gillette’s play, there is very little of it evident. The movie opens with Professor Moriarty (reliable screen villain George Zucco) on trial for murder, or rather being declared Not Guilty for lack of evidence, though everyone, jury and judges included, don’t like it very much. Enter Sherlock Holmes with new evidence, only seconds too late.

As it is raining, Moriarty genteely offers Holmes a ride home in his cab. Holmes accepts, so we can have one of the best parts of these Holmes/Moriarty match-ups: a brief conversation, civil but heavily laden with menace.

HOLMES: You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.

MORIARTY: (cheerfully) That would make an interesting exhibit.

Then after a bit more back and forth –

MORIARTY: I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you, then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.

Moriarty, after terrorizing his manservant for letting an orchid die while he was in prison, sets in motion an appropriately byzantine plot. First, writing with his left hand, he sends the Constable of the Tower of London (Henry Stephenson) a letter threatening to steal the Star of India emerald, to be delivered in a few days in tribute to Her Majesty. Then, with Holmes suitably warned, comes another mystery that the Professor knows will be more likely to snare the Detective’s interest than an improbable heist of a jewel too large to fence: the Brandons, a young brother and sister (Peter Willes and Ida Lupino, no less!) have received a bewildering message. It is a drawing of a man with a sea bird tied around his neck, and a date: that very day. The kicker is their father was killed ten years ago, after receiving just such a note.

0912-advholmes3The brother is, in fact, murdered in the London fog by some devilish means that strangles him and crushes his head simultaneously. Of course, the next day, Miss Brandon receives another drawing, with another date, one which coincides with the night the emerald is to be delivered to the Tower. No problem, says Holmes, Watson will on hand to guard the emerald (the Constable receives this information with as much confidence as the audience).

While Holmes unravels this puzzle, Moriarty effects a disguise by the simple expedient of shaving his beard, then appears as one of three London policemen sent to augment the Tower’s guards. In a brilliant piece of misdirection, the fake policemen run off with the emerald, but drop it. Satisfied the emerald is safe, the room is locked once more – with Moriarty, hidden within, now able to purloin the Crown Jewels at his leisure.

Of course, after saving Miss Brandon’s life – at the last minute, equally of course – Holmes figures out what Moriarty is up to, and after a running gunfight up the Tower and a fist fight atop it, Moriarty – for the first time, and certainly not for the last – falls to his doom.

vlcsnap-2016-05-12-21h24m21s070Adventures doesn’t draw literally from any of Doyles’ stories, though the puzzle dangled in front of Holmes, having something to do with mining interests and ancient wrongs in Argentina years before, feels a lot like Doyle’s novels. A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Valley of Fear all leave London about three-quarters of the way through, journeying to America or Injah for a complete re-telling of the mystery’s backstory. The problem is, Adventures never bothers with that bit of exposition; Holmes catches the killer, and that’s enough of that. Zucco, though, provides a nicely brainy Moriarty, with a nasty wit and a sense of drama to rival Holmes’. The double-blind scheme to discredit Holmes and steal the Crown Jewels is suitably twisted and ingenious, worthy indeed of the name Moriarty.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

secret weapon.kpgThere is a gap of three years between Adventures and the next Rathbone/Bruce team-up, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. The most likely reason is Doyle’s heirs seeking more money for the rights to the characters, and the bean counters at Fox doing the math and figuring out that the cost of producing such period pieces was bad enough. In any case, Universal finally picked up the rights (at a much lower price, one would assume), and brought the characters into the present day, allowing them to make a series of 12 more movies on basically B-movie budgets. Bringing them into the 40s also meant that Holmes could use his powers against those damned Nazis.

"Brilliant Disguise, Holmes!"

“Brilliant Disguise, Holmes!”

The Secret Weapon in fact opens with Holmes sneaking Dr. Tolbel (William Post, Jr.) out of Switzerland, under the noses of two Gestapo agents ready to kidnap him. This is thanks to Holmes’ Brilliant Disguise™ and double agent-ing. Also smuggled out: Tobel’s advanced and highly accurate bomb sight, which is what the Nazis really want. Once ensconced in England, Tolbel insists on doing things his own way, which involves breaking the sight into four parts and giving each one to a different scientist, and then poo-pooing the idea of guards so that he can be kidnapped by Nazi agents under the guidance of… you guessed it, Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill)!

"Brilliant Disguise, Holmes." "I didn't expect it to fool you, Professor." "Thank you."

“Brilliant Disguise, Holmes.” “I didn’t expect it to fool you, Professor.” “Thank you.”

Tolbel has left behind a message in a code consisting of stick figures (the only element left over from the credited source, “The Dancing Men”), but Moriarty has gotten his hands on that, too, leaving Holmes to use some pre-CSI scientific jiggery-pokery to create a duplicate message using the pad underneath the original (most people would have used powdered graphite or somesuch, but don’t stop the man when he’s on a roll). Holmes will essay two more Brilliant Disguises™, each time being captured by and condemned to death by Moriarty. The last time he manages to badger Moriarty into a particularly slow and fiendish method of execution, so Watson and Lestrade will have time to track him down. This method – bleeding him to death slowly on an operating table – gives Holmesians a nice Easter Egg, as Moriarty smiles and says “The needle to the last, eh, Holmes?”

shandsecretweapon3Secret Weapon is one of the best of the Universal Holmes movies, if only because, in the name of the war effort, Watson and Lestrade may continually be a step behind Holmes, but they’re not total bunglers; Watson recognizes the supposed doodles in Tolbel’s message to be a coded message, and Lestrade engineers the final raid in such a way to make sure the captive Holmes isn’t killed outright – and, in fact, shoots the gun right out of Moriarty’s hand before he can administer the coup de grace.

AtwillLionel Atwill was originally cast as Moriarty in Adventures, but for reasons unknown was replaced by George Zucco. After Zucco’s version, more than willing to get his hands dirty and personally involved, Atwill’s Moriarty is more in keeping with the Professor of the stories: guiding his minions but rarely placing his own person in peril. That he is willing to abandon his crime empire and native land to basically become a war profiteer diminishes the grandeur of the Great Adversary somewhat, but is necessary for the time – and it’s not the last occasion we’ll see the character in that light, either.

Most of the authorities – like Lestrade – consider Moriarty dead (as would anyone who had seen Adventures). At the end, seeking to escape, he falls victim to his own boobytrap, a trapdoor leading to a deadfall. Or so we are told – all the proof we have is a sound effect, not even a quick fade-out on a plummeting dummy. For some reason, I’m not convinced.

The Woman in Green (1945)

The_Woman_in_Green_-_1945_-_PosterThe War is over, and Holmes has to satisfy himself with more mundane crimes, though currently London is in the grip of a series of grotesque murders: four young women, all found with their forefingers cleanly severed, as if by a trained surgeon. As the death toll rises, Holmes perceives the seeming randomness of the murders, linked only by the severed fingers, to be part of some larger, sinister scheme.

It is, of course: a complex plot to blackmail rich men by having them hypnotized by the seductress of the title, Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke). They awaken in a seedy rented room, with no idea where the night has gone, and finding, to their horror, a severed finger in their pocket. They then receive a visit from a man who has one of their personal items – a cigarette case, in the one instance seen – which he claims was dropped while the man was bending over a corpse with a knife. Who could have come up with such a diabolical scheme but the most ruthless intellect to walk the earth, Holmes surmises – Professor Moriarty!

tumblr_inline_mojclbKF6x1qz4rgpPshaw, pshaws Watson, everyone knows that Moriarty was hanged in Montevideo a year ago! (Which is a surprise to anyone who assumed he actually did fall through that trapdoor). Still, when Watson is called away on an emergency case, Moriarty (Henry Daniell, this time) walks through the door of 221-B Baker Street, because no writer can resist the delicious possibilities of a dialogue scene between the two.

HOLMES: And now, Professor Moriarty, what can I do for you?

MORIARTY: Everything that I have to say to you has already crossed your mind.

HOLMES: And my answer has no doubt crossed yours.

MORIARTY: That’s final?

HOLMES: What do you think?

Then, after a bit of cut and thrust, in which it is made clear that Watson will be killed if Moriarty doesn’t leave the room alive and free, Holmes escorts Moriarty to the door.

MORIARTY: We’ve had many encounters in the past. You hope to place me on the gallows. I tell you I will never stand upon the gallows. But, if you are instrumental in any way in bringing about my destruction, you will not be alive to enjoy your satisfaction.

HOLMES: Then we shall walk together through the gates of Eternity hand in hand.

MORIARTY: What a charming picture that would make.

HOLMES: Yes, wouldn’t it. I really think it might be worth it.

walkHolmes will eventually trace the hypnosis to Lydia, but only after a detour to a sort of Hypnotist’s Club where Watson acts quite the Grand Buffoon and gets hypnotized himself, all so the audience will know what is going on when Lydia eventually puts Holmes under. Moriarty uses this opportunity to make Holmes write a suicide note, then has him walk along Lydia’s balcony railing, telling him it is a broad garden path. But ha ha! Holmes is only playing for time – again – while Watson and Scotland Yard take their sweet time arriving – again. There is the usual bit of persiflage regarding Holmes switching out the drug that would make him more susceptible to hypnosis for another that “renders the subject quite insensible to pain” so he could pass the needle test to see if he was truly under (yeah, right). Then Moriarty attempts to escape, and falls to his death. (Again: yeah, right).

Though far removed from any of the actual Doyle stories, Woman in Green does filch an element here and there. The bogus call to Dr. Watson so Moriarty can have a private chat with Holmes is right out of “The Final Problem”, and the subsequent attempt on the Detective’s life by a hypnotized sniper recalls “The Empty House”. I suppose that really, those couldn’t be called stealing, more like… shuffling pages about in a large anthology?

wig514Henry Daniell is one of the great underappreciated screen villains. My immediate association for him was as the Goebbels substitute, Garbitsch, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Daniell’s Moriarty feels younger than Zucco or Atwill’s portrayal (though he’s roughly the same age here as Zucco and only six years younger than Atwill), and he brings a certain reptilian malevolence to the role. His dialogue scenes are not as droll as those of his two predecessors; there is a harder edge here, and his Moriarty does in fact feel like a man on the run who is accustomed to much, much better circumstances.

 Universal would manage to chug out another three movies in the series, but Moriarty would disappear from the silver screen until the late 70s. We’ll be ignoring the deconstructionist take of 1976’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and likewise the previous year’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, mainly because I don’t care for that movie. I and my friends were bitterly disappointed when we saw it on its first release, and I gave it another chance a couple of years ago. I couldn’t make it past the twenty minute mark, remarkable because I enjoy and respect everybody involved in it. I do have fond memories of Leo McKern’s completely insane Moriarty, though.

No, if I am going to have the Great Adversary in a comedic milieu, I prefer a different version.

Without A Clue (1988)

clue posterWithout A Clue is the perfect antidote for Watson fans chafing under the weight of too many Nigel Bruce movies – it posits that the actual genius behind the deductions was actually John Watson, M.D.! In order to protect a possible appointment to a prestigious hospital, Watson (Ben Kingsley) created the character of Holmes, and hired a down-on-his-luck alcoholic actor Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play that role. This allowed Watson to continue his investigating career, but when Kincaid starts improvising too much and generally tries to take advantage, Watson runs out of patience and fires him – only to discover that the Strand Magazine is not interested in the adventures of “John Watson – The Crime Doctor”. Moreover, his attempts at investigation are hindered by everyone expecting Holmes to be doing the detecting, and dismissing Watson out of hand. The two men must patch up their differences – “Just this once!” – to investigate a serious case beginning with the substitution of counterfeit five-pound plates at the Royal Exchequer.

without a clueIn the course of the investigation, when Holmes and Watson exchange hotel rooms at the Shakespeare Arms  (Kincaid is given the King Lear room, which brings up bad memories for the actor), Holmes falls into a deathtrap meant for Watson, which leads to another near-breakup of the duo, when Watson reveals the mastermind behind the plot must be… MORIARTY!

HOLMES: You didn’t tell me that bloody homicidal maniac was involved in this!

WATSON: Because I knew you’d behave this way!

HOLMES: It wasn’t YOU he tried to kill!

WATSON: Think man, think… Who was SUPPOSED to be in that room?

HOLMES: That’s right! You were!

WATSON: Moriarty knows… I am the only match for his evil genius.

HOLMES: You sure he’s not trying to kill me?

WATSON: Of course not. He knows you’re an idiot.

HOLMES: Oh, thank God!

Without-A-Clue-michael-caine-5337607-550-370However, when it seems that Moriarty has finally succeeded in killing Watson, Kincaid does rise to the occasion and manages to deduce that the Professor is hiding out in the Orpheum Theater (the site of his last, disastrous play). It then becomes incumbent on Kincaid and Mrs. Hudson to foil Moriarty’s plan to destroy the English economy. In fact, it is Kincaid’s stage training at the last, his fencing skills versus Moriarty’s sword cane, that cuts off the villain’s escape and saves the day. Moriarty apparently perishes in an explosion at the end, but as the faux Holmes reminds us, “Don’t assume. Never assume.”

freemanWithout A Clue is a solid romp, offering a story accessible to an audience even only slightly aware of the Holmes mythos. You have two Oscar winners essaying the leads (and quite obviously having the time of their lives) with good support from Jeffrey Jones (as Lestrade) and Lysette Anthony (as the Damsel in Distress). Moriarty is played by Paul Freeman, who is one of the Great Screen Villains of the modern age. The pity is, his screen time is sadly limited, robbing him of any real chance to make his Great Adversary unique – but he is a damn fine villain, and seems to be having just as much fun as the rest of the cast.

Lack of screen time isn’t going to be a problem for our next stop:

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

sherlock_character_banner5In this Sherlock-glutted age, it is hard to comprehend that Without A Clue  was the last Holmes movie for twenty-one years, until Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes. There were ripples of grumbling about a revisionist take on the character, but that really isn’t the case. Robert Downey Jr. (in another role like Iron Man‘s Tony Stark, allowing him to use his own experiences with addiction to bring depth to the character) is twitchier and more petulant  than most Holmes, while Jude Law’s Watson is very obviously a retired military man, with all the skills and capabilities that implies. All these qualities are in the stories. If one really wishes to bitch about something, it would be the strange decision to turn Irene Adler (Rachel MacAdams) – the only person to win in a battle of wits against Holmes, who would refer to her only as “The Woman” – into Catwoman.

The first movie created a very strong villain in Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, appropriately), a seeming warlock using some fringe science to create destructive magic. His final plot – to release a proto-nerve gas in Parliament – draws the attention of another shadowy figure, who kills a police guard to get the gas compound – Adler’s true employer, and I’m pretty sure we don’t need to tell you who that is. But he won’t show his face until A Game of Shadows.

12658When he does show up – barely ten minutes into the movie, too – he will turn out to be Jared Harris (yes, Richard Harris’ son). In a neat little bit, he meets Irene Adler – having lost her last delivery to the Professor thanks to on-again off-again boyfriend Holmes – in her favorite restaurant, crowded at tea time. But everyone in the restaurant works for Moriarty, and at a signal, gets up and leaves, until she is alone with Moriarty.

MORIARTY:I don’t blame you. I blame myself. It’s been apparent to me for some time that you would succumb to your feelings for him. It isn’t the first occasion that Mr. Holmes inconvenienced me in recent months. The question is: What to do about it? That is my problem to solve now. I no longer require your services.

At which point, her poison tea takes effect. Farewell to “The Woman”.

sherlock-holmes-a-game-of-shadowsA large portion of the first movie involved Holmes selfishly trying to undo Watson’s upcoming marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). This time, Watson refuses to postpone the ceremony to help Holmes finally unravel Moriarty’s master plan. Then Holmes has to force a detour in their honeymoon because Moriarty makes it plain that he intends to have the couple killed.

So once again Holmes and Watson head to the continent while Mary is left in the care of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry). They must seek out a gypsy, Sim (Noomi Rapace) who has the key to the mystery. Now, I expect a certain amount of complexity in a Holmes movie plot, but A Game of Shadows is simply unwieldy.  As it turns out, Moriarty is using anarchist cells to bomb various events, ratcheting up tensions in Europe, because he – through financial means and assassination – has been buying up munitions factories and other concerns so that in the coming war he will “own the bullets and the bandages.” (He’s also apparently caused the submachine gun to be developed a couple of decades early) That’s pretty much the overarching plot in The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. and as a mystery it’s fairly… elementary.

jude-law-as-dr-john-watson-in-sherlock-holmesBut everything in this Holmes canon is perforce bigger, and travel all over the continent in the name of spectacle draws the movie out to over two hours, winding up at a peace conference in a luxury resort overlooking the Reichenbach Falls. A wounded Holmes faces off against Moriarty in a last game of blitz chess while Watson and Sim try to identify the assassin in the gathering who will start World War I.  This is the third scene the two men have together, and the first to really demonstrate the usual heady crackle of a Holmes/Moriarty scene. As Holmes delineates the steps he’s taken to disassemble Moriarty’s empire, they continue playing the chess match in their heads, barking out moves between lines. Holmes wins this match, but also knows that Moriarty will first murder him, and then the Watsons in “a most creative way.” As Watson barges onto the balcony to relay the successful thwarting of the assassination, Holmes grabs the Great Adversary in a two-handed wrestling grapple and hurls them both over the railing, into the Falls.

At least Watson gets to witness it, this time.

Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Jared-Harris-10Jared Harris has the most screen time of any Moriarty to this point, and he gifts us with a believable, human adversary, with none of the studied grandiosity of Paul Freeman or Lionel Atwill, but all of the malice. This Moriarty is an opportunist and a sociopath. Very realistic – yet, sadly, somehow the less for that.

That won’t be much of a problem in our last movie:

They Might Be Giants (1971)

There are worse movie posters. But not many.

There are worse movie posters. But not many.

In my opinion, an unjustly neglected movie. That could be because I saw it at exactly the right time in my life. Or it could be because it is generally only available in a bowdlerized version. We’ll get to that later. In any case, this is the film project that editor-turned-director Anthony Harvey and screenwriter James Goldman created after the marvelous The Lion in Winter. It is based on an unsuccessful play script, and there are times it is so early 70s it hurts.

Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) is a respected jurist whose wife dies; he becomes so bereft with grief that he retreats into madness, believing himself to be Sherlock Holmes. His brother (Lester Rawlins), desperate to pay off gambling debts, seeks to have Playfair committed so he will become executor of his considerable estate; to this end he tries to pressure a psychiatrist (Joanne Woodward) into the diagnosis, only to find that the lady takes her profession quite seriously and her observation will take time. Oh, and the psychiatrist’s name is Dr. Mildred Watson. Holmes, of course, resists her presence until her name is revealed.

HOLMES: Good Lord, I know I’m the underdog, but… are you sure that is your name?

4131274At which point he begins dragging Watson all over 70s New York, because he is, of course, seeking out Moriarty, who he feels is the source of all the evil in the world. In search of his precious clues – which he always finds, often in the most unlikely places – he and Watson intersect several lives, often changing them. This Holmes has the knack of finding the outcasts, the misfits, and making their lives just a little better. Jack Gilford plays Peabody, a law librarian who has known Holmes since his Playfair days, and is the movie’s secret weapon, stealing your heart away while you’re not looking. He, for instance, dreams of being the Scarlet Pimpernel, in a beautiful speech.

DliIXWatson, of course, resists these adventures, and the very existence of Moriarty:

WATSON: You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.

HOLMES: Well, he had a point. ‘Course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

Yes, this is where the musical duo got their name.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, Joanne Woodward, George C. Scott, 1971The thing is, Holmes and Watson are both damaged human beings, who find in each other something they are looking for, without even knowing it. They begin to fall in love, and Watson even comes round to Holmes way of thinking, or embraces his madness, whichever way you wish to interpret it. So much so that late one fateful night, as Holmes feels the showdown with Moriarty is finally at hand, he gathers a small army of misfits, all of whom seem to feel some distant call to arms. And facing his troops, he addresses them:

HOLMES: I think… if God is dead he laughed himself to death. Because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong. We never left the Garden. Look about you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I’ll grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface, all around us, is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot. We are all fools. Moriarty has made fools of all of us. But together, you and I, tonight… we’ll bring him down.

The problem is, nobody follows him and Watson into the sewer that takes them to the site of the final showdown: a supermarket. “I don’t blame them,” says Holmes. But Moriarty is not in the meat locker, as presumed; as they go back over Holmes’ clues, Watson deduces another location, and Holmes declares her now a detective – and they set out to the new rendezvous.

This is where things can go south on you.

tumblr_mwwnp5uUsV1ruqt0eo1_500In the version I first saw, Holmes and Watson exit the meat locker, and the head of Watson’s sanitarium, under pressure from Playfair’s brother, is there with a full complement of orderlies, butterfly nets and rubber hoses. This is when the army of misfits intervenes, giving Holmes and Watson their chance to escape (and also rescue their friends when the attending police try to arrest them). It is a wonderful scene, a victory for the forces of the disenfranchised, which in this movie are the forces of good. And this scene is cut out of Universal’s original VHS and current offering from their Made on Demand Universal Vault label. Its omission doesn’t necessarily kill the movie, but it certainly cuts out its heart and leaves it to bleed to death. The only version on home video which has this scene was an Anchor Bay DVD from back in the dawn of the medium. Thank God I scarfed it up back in the day, because it now fetches over $200 on Amazon. The butchered version is apparently the official one, as far as Universal is concerned – and honestly, I blame that for the movie’s failure at the box office. That and the fact that Universal’s PR arm had absolutely no idea how to market it (the trailer scrupulously avoids any mention of Holmes at all).

Because in their version, we go directly to the last scene, outside a riding school, where Holmes and Watson await Moriarty. Watson will have a brief moment of doubt about his existence… and then she hears the hoofbeats.

HOMES: There! Riding like a king!

WATSON: He’s everything you said he was…

HOLMES: He makes you proud, doesn’t he?


The hoofbeats grow closer. They hold hands

HOLMES: Let it be said… they found us very close together. In the light.

As the hoofbeats grow closer, and the music builds to a crescendo, they are consumed by bright light. After a quick fade to black, the words appear on screen: The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind cannot begin to understand.

vlcsnap-2010-02-08-14h27m38s103That ending enraged me for years. Then I got older, and realized it was the only possible ending to a magical, fairy tale of a movie. Examining Holmes’ speech, and looking over the events of the movie, there is a Moriarty. That he could make us forget that we live in paradise, he could only be the one thing that drove Playfair into his madness and his crusade: Moriarty is, quite simply, Death. Riding a horse from man to man, the being that stole from him his beloved wife – but that was in another life.

FinalProblemStamp1993Thus do we come to the end of our rumination on Professor James Moriarty – from grandiose villain to unfeeling warmonger, to – finally – a literal apotheosis, an elevation to the rank of Cosmic Force. Moriarty the mathematician would scoff at the very idea, but Moriarty the villain – the concept, the Great Adversary – would no doubt be secretly pleased.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on Amazon

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon on Amazon

The Woman in Green on Amazon

Without A Clue on Amazon

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on Amazon

They Might Be Giants (damaged version) on Amazon

This ridiculously long post is a part of The 2016 Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings, and Shadows and Satin


  1. Truly epic examination of Moriarty in film. Great job. I’ve read a good bit of Holmes, and seen Sherlock, but actually never seen ANY of these films! The Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley one sounds like a lot of fun.
    Have you seen or read the Gillette play? The high school where I teach produced it last year. (I actually contributed some music to the production – a melody for the street urchins to sing to the text in the script.) It’s not a great play by any means. They struggled with how to pull off the “happy ending” with the Sherlock romance. I think they opted to alter it a bit so that he did not get married, because it just seemed emotionally preposterous. And Moriarty is probably more interesting as a character than Sherlock in the play as well. It’s strange that some adaptations have a hard time making Sherlock or even Watson interesting – they both are great characters in the original novels and stories.
    Anyways, great post on a hugely important villain to the history of fiction.

    • I got to see a production of the Gillette play starring Frank Langella as Holmes. They really played up the melodramatic aspect of the script and it was quite a hoot, with the audience cheering at appropriate points. They gave Moriarty more lines and made him even more interesting. But then: we judge our heroes by the caliber of their enemies.

      They kept the wedding ending, and that hit the only false note of the evening. The script also come from an era where folks thought nothing of re-writing “Romeo & Juliet” to give it a happy ending.

      I most definitely recommend Without A Clue. Sheer entertainment.

  2. Fantastic! I’ve never read such an organized, detailed and entertaining breakdown of Professor Moriarty. This is great!

    I agree that Basil Rathbone is a fab Sherlock, and Nigel Bruce’s Watson is of the grin-and-bear-it kind. But, like you said, it’s worth it to see Rathbone’s performance.

    You’ve prompted me to see Without a Clue. It looks like such much fun! Can’t believe I haven’t seen it already.

    Thanks so much for joining the Villain Blogathon, and for sharing all this hard work with us. This post has been a real treat.

    • Thank you very much!

    • I can’t believe you haven’t seen Without a Clue already, either…

  3. That is quite the opus. I’m also moved to fill in some holes in my cinema awareness, but unlike the others mine are all Rathbone-shaped; I heard about the bumbling before I ever saw them, and could never quite bring myself to indulge. I do look forward to the restoration of the GIllette, too.

    My impression of “Game of Shadows” is that it would have been a little easier to take if it hadn’t had the Holmes name hung on it. On a recent watch of the first Ritchie film, my wife pointed out that Strong looked almost exactly like the Paget illustrations of Holmes. Cognitive dissonance to say the least….

    • I can definitely recommend the first two Rathbone movies, Hound and Adventures – they’re both proper period pieces. And in Hound, Rathbone is given one of the best closing lines a screen Holmes ever got.

  4. […] Yes, I Know examines The Cinematic Life and Times of Professor James Moriarty. […]

  5. How did I not know that was Richard Harris’s kid? It’s so obvious now, sure. Wow. Anyhoo, the version I saw of THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS on TCM did have the supermarket fight so the version still does exist somewhere.

    • THANK GOD.

      I have seen three different versions of this movie. The one I do NOT own a copy of has additional Watson footage – nothing that impacts the story but good character beats – and worst of all, one entire, beautiful speech by Jack Gilford about the power of dreams. I think they were put into a version without the supermarket battle to up the running time.

      This is why I’ve been whining to Criterion for YEARS for a director’s cut.

      • I clearly remember an extended scene of Watson in her apartment is that what you’re talking about?

      • Exactly. There were two, actually; one where she started to clean her apartment and got distracted by an open book, and started jotting down notes. The other was more footage as she got ready for her dinner with Holmes. I really miss a bit where she tries to get the box with the white dress down and there’s a Fibber McGee avalanche of all the boxes she stacked on top of it over the years.

        Do you remember the Gilford speech where he tells Holmes “It’s harder than you think to tell a dream”?

      • Oh, yes. I remember the avalanche, too. Truly a delightful movie.

  6. It was an absolute joy reading your article on Moriarty and the films you selected to highlight.

    In excerpts from an unpublished memoir by Nigel Bruce I read online years ago, he was less than pleased when the studio kept insisting that he make Watson more and more of a bumbler. However, he loved the job and working with Rathbone and Roy William Neil.

    PS: I recently introduced some folks to “Without a Clue”. They had not heard of the film before and were very grateful. You may be serving the same worthy purpose here.

  7. After reading this I wonder what your opinion was of John Huston’s Moriarty. (Sherlock Holmes in New York with Moore. Roger Moore. as Holmes.) I too find Without A Clue to be a fun take on the Holmes canon.

    • I haven’t seen that one yet – though I can’t imagine Huston not taking full advantage of the opportunity.

  8. Really enjoyed reading your excellent piece on an iconic villain!Seen most of these and now really want to see Without a Clue, and They Might be Giants. Agree with you about how great the Brett series is. Sherlock done well becomes a kind of comfort food. Thanks so much not only for contributing this great post to the blogathon but also for all your tweets. Cheers!

    • True story: My absolute comfort food is the Grenada version of “The Six Napoleons”, which I watch whenever I’m sick or down. Beautifully expanded version of the story with so many rich character moments.

      • Good one! It’s high time I went through some of those again.

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