The Curious Case of the Kingdom of Shadows: The Transmogrification of Sherlock Holmes in the Cinematic Imagination



When the Lumière cinematographe made its debut in 1895, Sherlock Holmes was on hiatus.1 By the time he returned in print, he had already made at least one cinematic appearance. In Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900),2 Holmes is frustrated by a burglar who is able to appear and disappear at will. It is a straightforward trick film, using stop-motion to make the burglar disappear. This gimmick was popular in early cinema, forming part of the link between the theatre of the nineteenth century and the development of a continuity system of cinematic narration.3 The ‘shock’ of the trick made people laugh, but it showed them what the cinema could do. There is something significant in the inclusion of Sherlock Holmes as the ‘dupe’, though. Holmes is evoked only in the title of the film and in the fact that the unknown actor portraying him is tall and wears a three-quarter length smoking jacket. Yet we are invited to recognise ‘Sherlock Holmes’ as an icon of late nineteenth-century popular culture: a symbol of empiricism and rationality, and a fictive detective who had been able to unravel every forensic detail of the world of his time. The collision between Holmes’s steadfast rationality and the capacity of the cinema to make magical things happen made clear to audiences that the impossible is no longer something that must be ruled out.


Private Life Moral Rightness Early Cinema Fictive Detective Holmes Story 
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© Harvey O’Brien 2013

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