In the popular imagination, Professor Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis the way Lex Luthor, the Joker and Blofeld are the enemies of Superman, Batman and Bond. Somehow, we think of a career-long struggle – with many draws, near-misses and return engagements, leading up to a final face-off from which only the hero will walk away.
Indeed, that’s how it’s been with many characters created in avowed imitation of Moriarty, like Bulldog Drummond’s arch-enemy Carl Peterson, the insidious Dr Fu-Manchu (opposed by the Holmesian copper Nayland Smith) or Dr Who’s fellow renegade Time Lord the Master.
However, Arthur Conan Doyle only uses Moriarty the once, in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893) – where a pre-existing rivalry is established, and resolved in that titanic struggle atop the Reichenbach Falls – though the Prof’s shadow falls on the novel The Valley of Fear and he scores a couple of mentions in later stories.
Doyle, of course, was making it up as he went along – whereas authors now take a lesson from TV series and comic books and tend to have a long-term plan when they start writing a series with a continuing protagonist. The makers of the Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch TV series, for instance, build up to bringing on their versions of Moriarty by establishing that the Napoleon of Crime takes a behind-the-scenes role in several of Holmes’s earlier cases.
This is actually so effective that it’s a shame Doyle didn’t think of it too. Other Victorians who did that thing of assembling magazine-published short stories into books which sit somewhere between novel and short story collection (Grant Allen’s An African Millionaire) did use conventions like story arcs, foreshadowing and season-closing payoffs that resemble exactly current TV formats.
It’s possible that Moriarty might not have attained his current prominence as Holmes’s arch-nemesis if it weren’t for American actor-author William Gillette – whose 1899 play Sherlock Holmes, designed as a vehicle for himself, became the first huge spinoff hit associated with the Holmes franchise. Gillette coined the catch-phrase ‘elementary, my dear Watson’, added a love interest for the detective which had him marry at the end of the play and used Moriarty as the villain.
Though a German serial of the 1910s made Stapleton, the trainer of the Hound of the Bakservilles, into a continuing villain, most early Holmes films derived from the play, so there were a run of silent and early talkie Moriarty performances. The screen’s first Moriarty seems to have been Gustave Lund in the 1908 Danish Sherlock Holmes – which is one of several silents to play with the crossover notion of the gentleman thief Raffles (created by Doyle’s brother-in-law E.W. Hornung) as Holmes’ regular sparring partner.
Other silent Moriartys include Booth Conway (The Valley of Fear, 1916), Ernest Maupain (Sherlock Holmes, 1916) and Percy Darrell Standing - the movies’ second Frankenstein Monster, from Life Without Soul, 1915 – (The Final Problem, 1923).
In Sherlock Holmes (1922), the first Holmesian superproduction, the Great Profile, John Barrymore, played Holmes and cast his frequent co-star Gustav von Seyffertitz – who looks a little like Barrymore in his famous role as Mr Hyde, suggesting the star might have liked to play a dual role – as the Professor.
Von Seyffertitz has a splendidly sinister long nose and hawk eyes, and plays up the spider-in-his-web aspect of the part. Harry T. Morey (The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1929) and Norman McKinnel (The Sleeping Cardinal, 1931), the first talkie Moriartys, were upstaged by Ernest Torrance (Sherlock Holmes, 1922), who plays the Professor as a leering, educated brute, importing American gangster rackets to London, and relishing high-tech weaponry like grenades and machine-guns.
Lyn Harding is Moriarty opposite Arthur Wontner’s Holmes in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) and Silver Blaze (aka Murder at the Baskervilles, 1937) but the actor was associated with another Doyle baddie, Dr Grimesby Roylott of ‘The Speckled Band’ – a role he’d played many times on stage and in a brisk 1932 film – and essentially reprised his evil medico act as the master crook.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) redefined the screen image of the sleuth – it introduced Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson and was (odd as it may now seem) the first Holmes movie not to have a contemporary setting. All earlier films had the sage of Baker St keep up with the times, travel in motor-cars, use the telephone and keep up to date – The Adventures brought back hansom cabs, fog and gaslight, the ulster and deerstalker and the Victorian clutter of 221B.
Doyle, who wrote Holmes stories well into the 1920s but established that they mostly took place in the 1890s, saw early on that Holmes’s period was part of his charm, but the movies took a while to catch up. George Zucco, neon-eyed and verminously civil, makes for a wonderful Moriarty, and is given one of his most satisfying schemes – tempting Holmes with a bizarre case involving a club-footed gaucho killer to keep the detective distracted while he steals the crown jewels from the Tower of London.
In later Rathbone films, which reverted to a contemporary setting, practiced screen fiends Lionel Atwill (Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943) and Henry Daniell (The Woman in Green, 1945) took over – but, though Atwill’s Moriarty works with the Nazis, the schemes they are given by the screenwriters don’t match the luminous evil of the performances.
Subsequent Moriartys have been legion – the worst must be Richard Roxburgh in the feeble League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), though Anthony Andrews was off his game in Hands of a Murderer (1990).
Far better have been Leo McKern (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, 1975), John Huston (Sherlock Holmes in New York, 1976) and Andrew Scott (Sherlock, 2010), who all (logically, given the name) play the Professor as a sinister Irishman (will Jared Harris go that route in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows?), Eric Porter (perhaps closest to Doyle’s version) and Viktor Yevgrafov (a bearlike brute with luminous eyes) in the UK and Russian Holmes series of the 1980s, ratty Colin Jeavons (The Baker Street Boys, 1983), Anthony Higgins as Young Professor Moriarty (though you had to sit through the end credits to find this out) in Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), Paul Freeman (very good and straight as a sociopathic Moriarty in the weak spoof Without a Clue, 1988) and Vincent d’Onofrio (doing a perfect James Mason accent and credited with inventing heroin in Sherlock, 2002).
Heroes tend to need a ‘best enemy’ – note how recent TV shows like House, The Mentalist, Monk and Law and Order: Criminal Intent come up with Moriarty-like nemeses for their deduction-spouting leads, and the way that Hannibal Lecter takes on Napoleonic genius levels in Thomas Harris’s books and the films based on them. If too successful, there’s a plot problem down the line – why don’t either of these antagonists succeed in killing or permanently defeating their doppelgangers (seriously, Batman, just drop the green-haired freak off a skyscraper and say it was an accident) and thus ending the series?
Most of Holmes’s enemies – including Moriarty – are brought to book at the end of the story, and even those who aren’t (like Irene Adler) are never heard from again. But, as the stories are told and retold, the great detectives need a great challenge.
With more Holmes around on screen (and the page) than ever before, it seems likely that the Napoleon of Crime will never be out of work.
Kim Newman’s Moriarty - The Hound of the D’Urbervilles is now available! In the book, the reader is asked to imagine the twisted evil twins of Holmes and Watson and you have the dangerous duo of Prof. James Moriarty – wily, snake-like, fiercely intelligent, unpredictable – and Colonel Sebastian ‘Basher’ Moran – violent, politically incorrect, debauched. Together they run London crime, owning police and criminals alike. Unravelling mysteries – all for their own gain.
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