We Investigate Why Playing Sherlock Holmes Turns Heroes into Villains

We Investigate Why Playing Sherlock Holmes Turns Heroes into Villains

May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

It's happened again. Benedict Cumberbatch, who gained great notices from his performance as a modern-day version of famed detective Sherlock Holmes in the British TV show Sherlock, becomes the latest adversary for Captain Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek Into Darkness. But he is not the first Baker Street investigator to become a villainous character in a major motion picture. What is it about the great detective's heroic personality that makes actors who've played him so easily turn to the dark side?

"It's elementary, my dear Watson."

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who created Sherlock Holmes and his trusted assistant Dr. Watson, never used those exact words in any of his stories about the famed fictional detective. The catchphrase was reportedly used at the end of The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1929, and it was definitely used by Peter Cushing in his portrayal of the great investigator in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Before that, Cushing had starred in The Curse of Frankenstein, kicking off a fantastic run of genre productions from Hammer Films. The actor played another genre hero, Doctor Van Helsing, in Hammer's Horror of Dracula, and casting him in a reboot of Sherlock Holmes seemed like a good fit for the rising star. As Holmes, Cushing gave a great performance; he is sure of himself, confident in his deductions, calm under pressure, decisive, quick to action, and not swayed by emotion.

All those good qualities that Cushing personified as Holmes were turned upside down when the actor was cast by George Lucas as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. In service of the dark side of the Force, Tarkin is fully in command of the situation -- only he can calmly make Darth Vader submit to his orders -- and coldly decisive as to the best course of action, ordering the destruction of an entire planet after (apparently) forcing Princess Leia to give up a vital piece of information. When he discovers that she lied to him, he orders her immediate termination. And he haughtily refuses to evacuate the Death Star in the face of a deadly rebel attack.

It's as if Sherlock Holmes himself became a Stormtroopoer.

Christopher Plummer followed a similar path as Peter Cushing, though it didn't take him quite as long to turn from heroic detective to space-based villain. In Bob Clark's 1979 production Murder by Decree, Plummer's approach to the character is a bit softer; he moves easily from Holmes' analytic mode to a more friendly stance, for example, in a scene with his friend Dr. Watson, played by the great James Mason.

Twelve years later, Plummer took on Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise in the Shakespearean-themed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County, helmed by Nicholas Meyer. (As it happens, Meyer's 1974 novel on Sherlock Holmes, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, depicted the detective's recovery from cocaine addiction.) With great elan, Plummer portrayed General Chang, a Klingon who refuses to trust the Federation unto his dying breath. But, like Sherlock Holmes, Chang is also capable of appreciating the finer things in life, and his initial dealings with Captain Kirk are cordial and somewhat soft-spoken, even as he keeps his stronger emotions in check. Like the detective, the general is wicked smart, maybe too clever for his own good -- just like Sherlock Holmes might be if he waged war instead of solving crimes.

Anticipating Benedict Cumberbatch's transformation from little-screen Sherlock Holmes to big-screen villain, Frank Langella first appeared as Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous character in a stage play that was later broadcast on television. Langella portrayed the detective in a 1976 theatrical production of Sherlock Holmes: The Strange Case of Miss Alice Faulkner; the play was filmed for the HBO series Standing Room Only. Langella is electrifying as Holmes, lending the character a menacing edge, while still wringing laughs out of tense situations. (The production also featured Stephen Collins and Susan Clark.)

The actor successfully turned to the dark side as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe. Sure, it's a silly movie, but even under a mask, Langella is completely convincing as "a being of utter evil." Once again, he is electrifying as a menacing creature, and provides genuine moments of excitement whenever he's seen or heard on-screen.

Other actors have made the transition from Sherlock to sinister villain. (For example, like Langella, Jonathan Pryce played the character in a stage play that was broadcast on television in 2007; he made a quick turnaround to evil as a mercenary in disguise as the president of the U.S. in this year's G.I. Joe: Retaliation.) Personality traits that are inherent in Sherlock Holmes' character -- his out-of-the-box thinking, his deductive reasoning, his impeccable logic, his coolness toward humanity -- bring out both the best (i.e. heroic) and the worst (i.e. villainous) in the actors who have played him. How do we know?

"It's elementary, my dear Watson."

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