The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Peter Bryan, from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Christopher Lee
A very nicely appointed Hammer adaptation of perhaps the most famous Sherlock Holmes story ever, this is perhaps more mystery than horror, though Hammer valiantly endeavors to massage it into one. Despite their reputation as England’s premier horror studio, they’d always dabbled in other genres --from thrillers to comedies-- so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that this isn’t strictly horror. But just to be clear, it’s mostly not. The title font would sure beg to differ, though; check this out:
The script sticks relatively close to the original Arthur Conan Doyle story, although it does invent a few harrowing incidents to add a little horror kick, and (pleasingly!) changes the motive of a key villain in a way that I feel is pure Hammer. But it’s all to good effect: the story is as tonally faithful to Holmes as they come, a gripping mystery with tons of that Hammer atmosphere and a great cast bringing the legendary (and, these days, ubiquitous*) detective to life.
A few minor tweaks to the story (Tarantula attack! Murderous ritual!) and the scary title font notwithstanding, this is mostly the same old Baskervilles mystery that has been adapted for the big and small screens nearly 30 times since 1914 (wikipedia lists 29 entries, I imagine many others exist) in English, German, Russian, and, what the hell, Bengali and probably Klington too before too long. What makes this version in particular shine is its immensely appealing cast and its rock-solid production. Directed by the great Terence Fisher (Hammer’s original DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN and many of the best subsequent sequels, among innumerable others) and filmed in color for the first time in the story’s history, it splendidly captures the novel’s evocative world of fog-choked isolation and murky paranoia. But a good Holmes story is going to live or die on its title character (well, the one named “Holmes,” not the one named “Baskerville” or “Hound”) and I’m just as pleased as punch to report that Cushing is a delight as the great sleuth of Baker street.
Cushing often got cast as coldly intellectual villains (see: his turn as Victor Frankenstein), so of course it makes sense that playing history’s greatest coldly intellectual hero would suit him just fine. But Cushing seems not just capable, but positively electrified to be playing the part, instilling Holmes with an energy and vigor bordering on the manic. Holmes may be a calculating intellectual, but Cushing reminds us of the fierce love Holmes has for this line of work, the only thing that seems to really rouse him from the doldrums of daily routine. He seems barely able to contain his impish excitement at the prospect of a new clue, and the energy is monstrously infectious. It’s a good thing, too, since the story has an unusual structure which sidelines Holmes for much of the second act, meaning he has his work cut out for him to reestablish his dominance and momentum when he returns later on. Cushing makes it look easy. The actor was apparently an enormous fan of the character, and brought his own expertise to the production. Wikipedia notes that it was Cushing’s idea, for example, to add the detail of Holmes’s correspondence affixed to the mantle with a jackknife, as described by Doyle. I would venture a guess that it was also his idea to include a clever detail about the character’s iconic deerstalker cap. The cap has become so iconic and emblematic of the character that no production would dare leave it out (in an interview, Cushing quipped “...you might as well play Nelson without a patch over his eye!”), but ironically the cap is never explicitly described by Doyle in his stories. What to do, what to do? Well, this production finds the detective donning the famed headwear later on in the story, but there’s a very subtle blink-and-you-missed-it twist:it’s not his own, he’s borrowing it after arriving on the scene without any luggage.
Besides Cushing, the film also boasts Andre Morell (so delightful in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and a handful of other Hammer productions) as Holmes’s perennial companion and biographer Dr. Watson. Morell, like Cushing, seems so obvious for the part that it almost seems like typecasting, but also fucking nails the subtly difficult task of instilling Watson with dignity and grit even while still playing a sidekick character constantly befuddled by his companion’s inhuman cleverness. As luck would have it, this particular story gives Watson a rare opportunity to take over as the lead for a brief period during the second act (while Holmes is absent) and Morell handily carries the film here with an earnest, stout hearted charm. Nigel Bruce’s bumbling take on the character would make Holmes look dangerously neglectful leaving him in charge; Morell comes across as competent and bulldogish, reminding you that while he has neither the imagination nor the inclination to be the world’s greatest detective, he was an ex-military man who no doubt knows a thing or two about keeping cool under pressure.
Lee, reportedly happy to be playing the role of victim rather than villain in this go-round, fares slightly less well than his two co-stars. No stranger to the character himself, Lee is the only actor in history to have played all three intellectual heavyweights of the Holmes stories, including the detective himself, his legendary nemesis professor Moriarty, and Holmes’ equally brilliant brother Mycroft (too bad he never took a swing at Watson, but I guess there’s still time). Unfortunately as the aristocratic heir to the famously cursed Baskerville Hall, Lee’s part seems a little underwritten. He comes off as as imperious and cold, which doesn’t necessarily suit his role as victim very well, and feels even weirder when he gets a romantic subplot which seems a bit out of character. It’s always nice to see him in there, but the role doesn’t really play to his strengths or give him a terrible lot to do. He can be good as a hero (see: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT) but I’m not sure he’s cut out to play a character this passive. This minor shortfall is made up for by the rest of the cast, though. In something of a rarity for Hammer pictures, the supporting cast is made up of fine performances, from the villains and potential suspects down to the local priest (Miles Malleson, Sultan in THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD and a total hoot here) with a weak spot for fine wine and insect menageries.
Towards the end, the story does veer towards the realm of genuine horror, ratcheting up the necessary tension for a suitable climax and even pleasingly changing the motivation of a key villain to make it more interesting. We get the titular hound, a great Hammer set of megalithic ruins, a commendably crazy performance from the villain, and even enough blood to satisfy genres expectations (at least in 1959) quite handily. Not often you’ll hear me actually congratulating a movie for deliberately changing some important story details, but I gotta admit, I think the Hammer ending is actually more compelling than Doyle's is. It maintains pretty much everything great about the original, while going on to add one additional little wrinkle which for my money makes it even darker and more twisted. Good one, Hammer and screenwriter Peter Bryan (screenplays for PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and BLOOD BEAST TERROR, his second career after racking up 19 films as a camera operator from 1947-1952). But as much as this production does a commendable job with the story, it’s still a story that we’ve all heard enough times by now (and even by 1959, I’d imagine). So the real meat here isn’t the plot, it’s the production, the cast, the detail work, those unique little notes that set it apart from the pack. Happily, that’s where this production succeeds most, and probably why it’s remembered as one of the best-loved Holmes adaptation and as one of the most acclaimed Hammer productions. Considering how gung-ho Hammer was at the time to launch (sometimes ill-advised) franchise series, it’s kind of amazing they never did any further Holmes films (though Cushing would go on to play the character in a BBC series nine years later). But at least we got this one. For a character so ludicrously over-adapted that he barely has any independent meaning anymore, sometimes just standing out of the pack is the best you can hope for.
*”Hey everyone, it’s an intellectual property that virtually everyone has some name recognition of, it’s genre-friendly, and --get this!-- it’s in the public domain!” OUR PRAYERS HAVE BEEN ANSWERED! Same thing with Bible stories. Who says Hollywood isn’t down with the idea that information wants to be free?