(1959) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Peter Bryan; Based on the Novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Starring: Peter Cushing, André Morell, Christopher Lee, Marla Landi and Francis De Wolff. Available on DVD.
Rating: *** ½
“I don’t know how he did it, short of being a juggler, but he seemed to be able to have 10 to 18 things in the air at the same time… I used to despair. I used to say to him, ‘Do you really have to do all that?’” – Christopher Lee (on co-star Peter Cushing’s performance, from Actor’s Notebook: Christopher Lee)
When the incomparable Fritzi of Movies Silently announced her Sleuthathon, there was no question I wanted to discuss Hammer Films’ production of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. So, what’s a Sherlock Holmes flick doing smack in the middle of Monster March, you might ask? I might answer, “It’s my own damn blog. I can do whatever I want,” or something similar, but that would be rude, and you’d be justified in looking elsewhere for your movie blog fix. The truth is, the mystery surrounding an old curse and a demon dog that haunts the moors, along with the Hammer pedigree seemed adequate justification. Heck, who am I foolin’? Anytime I get an excuse to review another Hammer film, I’m there! Okay, meandering intros aside, let’s get to the movie…
The Hound of the Baskervilles represents Hammer’s sole Sherlock Holmes outing, with Peter Cushing as the persnickety sleuth and André Morell as his loyal friend/colleague Dr. Watson. Co-star Christopher Lee takes a break from his villainous roles as Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to the Baskerville fortune and next in line to fall victim to the eponymous hound. In the prologue, set in the mid-18th century, we witness the contemptible behavior of wealthy landowner Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), as he tortures a servant and murders his daughter, and ultimately meets his untimely (but not unwarranted) end. This sets the stage for a family curse about a hound of hell that roams the moors, looking to claim the next Baskerville. When the current owner of the Baskerville estate, Sir Charles, is found dead, his friend Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) calls upon Sherlock Holmes for assistance to prevent the death of Sir Charles’ heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee).
Cushing’s mannered, erudite performance suggests a mastermind who is always in control of a situation, meticulously planning each move in advance, like a grand chess match. While his methodology might appear rash to the uninitiated, there is a method to his apparent madness. He values facts and logic above all else (“There’s nothing unusual about using one’s eyes.”), paying heed to the insignificant things that no one else would notice. Morell presents a convincing portrayal as Watson, Holmes’ loyal sidekick, providing an everyman perspective for the audience to relate to. Lee is the antithesis of Holmes as Sir Henry, who’s caught up in the machinations of a plot he’s unable to control. Holmes rational, composed demeanor in the face of adversity is illustrated by Sir Henry’s confrontation with a giant spider.*
* According to Lee, “A lot of people have complimented me on the amazing performance I gave in that scene, and it wasn’t a performance at all. It was totally real. It’s a real spider. It really happened, and I was appalled.” (from Actor’s Notebook: Christopher Lee)
Although this is partially due to the source material, The Hound of the Baskervilles drags in the middle. Holmes is in the introductory sequence, and disappears for most of the first half (a purposeful omission by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). In an unusual turn, Watson is left to begin the investigation. Also, it’s a bit curious that Hammer chose to begin with The Hound of the Baskervilles, since this story was not among the first of the Holmes adventures. On the other hand, it’s not too surprising to surmise why executive producer Michael Carreras chose this to be the first film, considering the subject matter, and banking on the horrific elements to tie in with Hammer’s growing reputation for horror. The excellent performances and impeccable production design, however, offset most of the film’s deficits (including the title canine’s eventual, disappointing appearance).
While Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps not the finest example of Sherlock Holmes committed to celluloid, it’s a respectable effort, which deserved better than the middling reviews and tepid audience response of the time. It’s easy to imagine this film to have been the first of a series of Hammer Sherlock Holmes films, which had the potential of rivaling the production company’s other long-running Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy series. Instead, we have this solitary, albeit flawed example of what could have been. Both Cushing and Lee would go on to portray the famous sleuth in other productions, including one by director Fisher (the German production of Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace), suggesting their natural affinity for their role. More than half a century later, subsequent productions of The Hound of the Baskervilles prove Doyle’s creation lends itself to multiple interpretations.