Friday, March 25, 2016

“You evidently don’t know me” (FINA): The Many On-Screen Incarnations of Moriarty

I started thinking about this topic when everyone was a little preoccupied discussing other things. I found that I didn’t want to talk about those things, but I wanted to talk about Moriarty. Again. I’ve written about the character before, but now seems like a good time to revisit the conversation. Let’s talk about Professor Moriarty and Mr. Moriarty, James Moriarty and Jim Moriarty and No-First-Name-Given Moriarty, Moriarty in the 19th century and in the 21st, a Moriarty colluding with Nazis and one who wears a crown. Let’s talk about the author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid and a treatise on the binomial theorem. Let’s talk about the spider and his web, the virus in the hard drive. Let’s talk about the many faces of the Napoleon of Crime.

And there have been so many faces, and so many words written about a character that appears in comparatively little source material. Moriarty is only directly mentioned in two of the original stories: “The Final Problem,” and “The Valley of Fear,” and is mentioned reminiscently in five others: "The Empty House,”  “The Norwood Builder," "The Missing Three-Quarter," "The Illustrious Client," and "His Last Bow." When thinking in terms of words allotted in the Canon, Moriarty is a minor character – but a minor character in the way of Inspector Lestrade, Irene Adler (ick) or Mycroft Holmes. He looms large and casts a long shadow. That is to say, he is not minor at all.

The breadth and variety of on-screen Moriartys speak to the complexities of the character. No truly minor character would invite such panoply of interpretation. While many adaptations have characteristics that overlap – threads that are common throughout the web – each has a unique distinction that sets it apart.

Granada Television’s Sherlock Holmes: Professor Moriarty (Eric Porter)
Eric Porter was a Moriarty straight of the Canon if there ever was one. Such was the case with so many things in the Granada series, of course. In appearance, he was very nearly the epitome of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s description:

He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. He peered at me with great curiosity in his puckered eyes.

Where Porter deviates from the original, of course, is in terms of screen time. According to Granada’s producer, Michael Cox: “…[Moriarty’s] one good scene and fight to the death gives him only four minutes and funeral.” To expand Porter’s role beyond that “four minutes and funeral,” Moriarty was included in the plot of Granada’s version of “The Red-headed League,” even though the Professor plays no role in the original story. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Professor Moriarty was the mastermind behind John Clay’s attempted bank robbery, and the Professor is obviously less than pleased to discover that he has been foiled by Sherlock Holmes. In addition, Granada’s version of “The Final Problem” included a subplot in which Moriarty has stolen the Mona Lisa, and is endeavoring to execute a complicated conspiracy of art forgery and extortion – only to be thwarted by Sherlock Holmes. Again. Footage featuring Porter from “The Final Problem” is also used in “The Empty House” (1986) and “The Devil’s Foot” (1988), which creates the reminiscent sense of the Professor that is present in the Canon.

The Rathbone-Bruce Films: Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill, Henry Daniell, George Zucco)
Over the course of their fourteen Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would work with three different Moriartys – and the actors would all appear in other roles in the franchise. The first was George Zucco in the 1939 film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. According to Alan Barnes, author of Sherlock Holmes on Screen, “The most measured of crazies, [George] Zucco’s Moriarty makes a significant impression, enjoying another standout scene in which he dares the bullied Dawes to let slip a razor while shaving him: ‘You’re a coward, Dawes. If you weren’t a coward you’d have cut my throat long ago…’” (21). Zucco would return to the franchise in the 1943 film, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, not as Moriarty, but as the less memorable villain, Heinrich Hinkel, a Nazi spy. He left his indelible mark on the character, however, in that many future Moriartys either returned to or borrowed from Zucco’s performance in some way.

Lionel Atwill first appeared in the Rathbone-Bruce films as Dr. James Mortimer in the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He would go on to play Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942). According to Atwill in a 1933 interview with Motion Picture magazine, "See, one side of my face is gentle and kind, incapable of anything but love of my fellow man. The other side, the other profile, is cruel and predatory and evil, incapable of anything but the lusts and dark passions. It all depends on which side of my face is turned toward you—or the camera. It all depends on which side faces the moon at the ebb of the tide.” With such personal awareness, perhaps Atwill was the most equipped to capture the dual nature of Moriarty – the academic and the criminal, the genius and the madman.

Finally, Henry Daniell (who had previously appeared in the franchise in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) as Sir Alfred Lloyd, and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) as William Easter), starred as Professor Moriarty in The Woman in Green (1945). Daniell’s take on the infamous Napoleon of Crime was Basil Rathbone’s favorite of the fourteen films. “There were other Moriartys,” Rathbone wrote in his autobiography In and Out of Character, “but none so delectably dangerous.” It is, of course, Daniell’s iconic scene in The Woman in Green, where Moriarty ominously ascends the staircase to meet Sherlock Holmes, which was borrowed for the 2012 episode of BBC’s Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall.”

Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows: Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris)
The Moriarty of the Guy Ritchie films began – appropriately enough – in shadow, never actually appearing on screen in the first film, Sherlock Holmes (2009). The Professor kept to dark corners, with only a glove or hat brim visible. Voiced by Ed Tolputt, the shadowy figure wasn’t even explicitly identified as Moriarty until the end of the movie.

However for the 2011 film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Jared Harris was cast as Moriarty (ultimately going on to dub over Tolputt’s dialogue in the first film) and a new adaptation came into full form. Harris’s Moriarty is shades of George Zucco’s interpretation in terms of malevolence and single-minded ruthlessness. And he is, without question, Holmes’s equal in terms of intelligence. “Come now,” he says to Sherlock Holmes. “You really think you're the only one who can play this game?” Contrary to other interpretations, Harris’s Moriarty is set on a global domination that previous incarnations had not been – at least not to the scale seen in the film. World war – that’s his goal – and he’s not all that particular about how it comes to pass. As he says, “You see, hidden within the unconscious, there is an insatiable desire for conflict. So, you're not fighting me, so much as you are the human condition. All I want to do is own the bullets and the bandages.”

In his approach to the character of Professor Moriarty, Harris said: “I didn’t want to do the bad-guy monologue, and I didn’t want to say anything unless there was a really good reason for it...I think that [Moriarty] doesn’t have that morality chip that other people have. He just looks at things and says, ‘If I can do it and it can be done, then why not?’”

BBC’s Sherlock: Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott)
The BBC’s recent Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride,” inspired a lot of conversation, but it also inspired this post. I’ve always had an affinity for Andrew Scott’s interpretation of Moriarty, as it is fascinating to watch the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between an actor playing a James Moriarty and not a Jim Moriarty – which is what Andrew Scott is doing. Scott’s Moriarty is malevolent and villainous, which are features that should be considered fairly standard for the character. He’s also intelligent in the same way that a boiling pot is considered hot. He’s intelligent until something upsets the balance and tips him over into frenetic insanity. After all, he once famously proclaimed that he would turn a contact into shoes if they disappointed him. And therein is the difference between a James Moriarty and a Jim Moriarty, between a Professor Moriarty and a Mr. Moriarty.

Transplanting Andrew Scott’s Moriarty into the 19th century no more transforms him into Professor Moriarty than putting him a waistcoat. Nevertheless, there are still some similarities. After all, Scott’s Moriarty says to Holmes, “Shall we go over together? It has to be together, doesn't it? At the end it's always just you and me!” The bit of dialogue is somewhat reminiscent of George Zucco’s Moriarty, who once commented, “Always Holmes until the end.” It’s a sentiment that is perhaps the thesis statement for the pair’s entire relationship.

Elementary: Jamie Moriarty (Natalie Dormer)
Says Joan Watson, "There is no Irene. There is only Moriarty, and Moriarty is never going to change.” Jamie Moriarty began on CBS’s Elementary as Irene Adler, a former lover of Sherlock Holmes’s thought brutally murdered. She reappears – very much alive – in the first season episode, “Risk Management,” and Holmes believes that she has been Moriarty’s prisoner.

She was, of course, no such thing. Irene Adler was merely a cover for Jamie Moriarty – a criminal mastermind. Like other Moriartys before her, she is ruthless, coolly calculating, and possessed of a brilliant intellect. As she tells Sherlock Holmes, “My first instinct was to kill you. Quietly. Discreetly. But then, the more I learned about you, the more curious I became. Here, at last, seemed to be a mind that... that rivaled my own, something too complicated and too beautiful to destroy... at least without further analysis.”

However, as I’ve commented briefly elsewhere, what sets Dormer’s Moriarty apart is not her gender, but her triumphs. Jamie Moriarty succeeded where other Moriartys (and Adlers) had not – in actually, genuinely deceiving Sherlock Holmes. He is so thrown by her deception and the revelation of her true character that Watson is concerned that Holmes may relapse into his old drug habits.

Dormer had hinted at the dual nature of her character in a May 2013 interview: “The cool thing about Irene Adler is you don’t really know who she is or where she comes from… If you look into the novels or the incarnations of her — she’s a bit of a con woman, a bit of a wily one herself, so she has an accent, but you can’t quite place it, so I [thought], if I can do some kind of general American accent that is like, ‘What is that? Where is she from?’”

Moriarty has many faces – young and old, male and female, some a little more intelligent than others, some a little more unhinged than others. Nevertheless, if all roads lead to Baker Street, all incarnations still lead to Moriarty. For Sherlock Holmes, at the end it’s always Moriarty. Always Moriarty, until the end.

  • Barnes, Alan. Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History. London: Titan Books, 2011. Print.
  • Cox, Michael. A Study in Celluloid: A Producer’s Account of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2011. Print.
  • Gettell, Oliver. “‘Sherlock Holmes’: Jared Harris pulls Moriarty out of the shadows.” Los Angeles Times. Dec. 2011. n. pag. Web. 24 January 2013.
  • Lash, Jolie. “Natalie Dormer Talks Irene Adler ‘Elementary’ Guest Arc, Play Margaery in ‘Game of Thrones.” Access Hollywood, 16 May 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Toast to the Woman: If You Can Believe It

[As presented as the February 2016 meeting of Watson's Tin Box in Ellicott City, Maryland.]

I’m probably one of the least likely of people to toast to the Woman. My feelings about Ms. Adler are well known, and well-documented, and there is no love lost between us. Frankly, I think she gets far too much credit.

For starters, she didn’t beat Sherlock Holmes. He knew exactly where that photograph was; she just managed to run away before he could confront her. And if that is the metric by which we are now determining winners – well, I was a much better athlete in high school than I originally believed. If we're being honest, she merely committed the literary equivalent of taking her ball and going home.

As it was, I was both pleased and excited when Elementary premiered on CBS in 2012, primarily because I initially heard that Irene Adler would not be appearing on the show. I was ecstatic to learn that supposedly her character had been brutally, horribly murdered off-screen. I was gleeful. I might not be a nice person.

Anyway, imagine my disappointment at the end of the first season when it was revealed that Irene Adler was alive, and that she would be played by Natalie Dormer. But there was a twist. Elementary’s Irene eventually revealed herself as a female Napoleon of Crime, Jamie Moriarty. For obvious reasons, they had my attention. I guess it doesn’t take much.

Elementary’s Jamie Moriarty was coolly calculating. She inspired both respect and fear. She was both shrewd and fiercely intelligent. She did not suffer fools lightly. 

All right. I'm listening. You have my attention.   

But most importantly, she actually, genuinely deceived Sherlock Holmes. For a time. Which is fine, because no one can get past Sherlock Holmes forever. Nor should they.

Here, finally, was the Irene Adler I had been promised. The one everyone else had seen, but I never had.

Please raise a glass with me and toast to the Woman – may we all find the incarnation of Irene Adler we need, if not the one we deserve.


"There is no Irene. There is only Moriarty, and Moriarty is never going to change." (Joan Watson)