by Alexandre Paquin
If one were to select one important event in the history of crime fiction for the month of October 1976, it would probably be the British release, covered by a rather hideous magenta dust jacket, of "Sleeping Murder", the last novel of Agatha Christie, who had died less than a fortnight into the year. And, to be sure, a far less memorable occurrence would be the premiere, this time on the other side of the Atlantic, in a country gripped by electioneering, in a city trying to recover from the World Series defeat of its beloved Yankees just three days before, of the Sherlock Holmes film "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution", directed by Herbert Ross.In 1976, as with the estate of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes canon was in the hands of the writer's daughter; unlike Rosalind Hicks, however, Dame Jean Conan Doyle was lording over a literary franchise that, for decades, had more or less fallen into self-parody. Jeremy Brett was eight years away from taking up quarters at 221B Baker Street, and if pastiches and homages of all sorts to the great sleuth abounded, the original canon, though still captivating legions of readers, had all but vanished from the screen. Had not Raymond Chandler, as early as 1950, advanced that Holmes was "mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue"? What good was it to film umpteenth versions of such old chestnuts as The Hound of the Baskervilles when you could just retain the fog-and-gaslight atmosphere, Holmes' aphorisms, and a few of the detective's household items, and coat everything with a heavy veneer of parody? If, before the mid-1980's, one wanted a Sherlock Holmes which still acknowledged its creator, he was to be found in, of all places, the Soviet Union, under the traits of Vasily Livanov; the West, in comparison, had seemed to have outgrown any desire to attempt a serious adaptation of the character in his original context.
"An example of how casting can ruin a film"
Billy Wilder's 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, took the opportunity to poke fun at the strange reality of two bachelors living together as well as at Holmes' deerstalker hat, which readers of his faithful chronicler, Doctor Watson, were now expecting him to wear, before returning to a more genteel pastiche (even successfully eliciting sentiment by the end); in 1988, Without a Clue would make Watson the intellectual genius of the pair and "Holmes" a third-rate actor hired to portray Holmes because nobody, Watson's editor had told him, wanted to read the narcissistic adventures of a crime-solving physician.
Even serious Holmes films made before the Brett television series chose to eschew the canon, such as 1979's Murder by Decree, which had Holmes investigating the case of Jack the Ripper. There was nothing new in such a premise: The British film A Study in Terror, subsequently novelized, had done the same fourteen years before, and in W.S. Baring-Gould's "biography" Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, published in 1962, it was not only Watson, rather than Holmes, who solved the case, but the Ripper, in the absence of a satisfactory historical dénouement, turned out to be another Doyle character -- Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones. Yet if blending history and fiction can work in some circumstances, and indeed, has been exploited to a great degree, there is something quite foetid about characters of fiction committing historical acts, especially if history has to be bent to accommodate the insertion. In this regard, then, far more acceptable was Baring-Gould's even more revolutionary -- and, given the evidence, equally ludicrous -- notion that Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe was Holmes' illegitimate son by Irene Adler, which Stout neither confirmed nor denied; but then, why would Stout, whose literary legacy might have hinged on this ambiguity, not act coyly about it?
Letting fiction affect fiction is an old, and perfectly fine, writer's gimmick, and if fiction affecting history is second only to historical characters going through fictional adventures in terms of wretchedness (yielding novels with protagonists such as Jane Austen or Ambrose Bierce, or, indeed, Howard Engel's Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell, starring the Holmes creator in his student days and the real-life inspiration for the character in a case, barely rewritten, culled from British criminal history, which became famous precisely because Doyle actually investigated it, but long after his medical-school days, and sans Bell; so why not tell that story instead, or did Bell absolutely have to be in there?), letting the history affect existing works of fiction is quite acceptable. It is worth noting that Dame Jean used to express concern over people thinking that Holmes had existed, a perception she believed was being encouraged by the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street.
This discussion also applies to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, as the film, neither satirical nor particularly faithful to the canon (it is based on a 1974 novel by Nicholas Meyer, who also wrote the screenplay), settled on one of Holmes' traits -- his addiction to cocaine -- to set the stage for a visit to Sigmund Freud in Vienna, using as bait the elderly Professor Moriarty, here by no means the "Napoleon of Crime" that Holmes imagines him to be but merely the detective's former mathematics tutor. Yet the revisionism involved only affects the fictional part of the narrative -- Freud does not come up with psychoanalysis as a result of his meeting with Holmes (even though his daughter Anna threatened litigation if she were portrayed in the film) -- and manages to insert itself within the gaps of Doyle's canon with a fair amount of ease. For instance, the introduction of Moriarty in The Adventure of the Final Problem, this master criminal who demonstrates his importance by successfully dissimulating his existence from everyone except Holmes, is a little too eager, a little too pat, to be entirely convincing, as was his insertion into the plot of The Valley of Fear, and Meyer's theory is certainly not more outlandish than one of Baring-Gould's gap-bridging concoctions. In other words, the suspension of disbelief, as far as the plot is concerned, is successful, except perhaps in the eyes of Sherlockian purists.
Perhaps this explains why the book remains a minor classic among Holmes pastiches, and that Meyer went on to write two more works of this nature, including one in the spring of 1976. The reviews of the film, however, were devastating. In Holmes' native land, Sight and Sound sniffed that the film was a "sorrily botched all-star extravaganza" with much of the blame being pinned on Holmes' Nicol Williamson, who, down to his blond hair (never mind the etymology of sherlock), proved a terrible casting decision (and his second for 1976: see him as Little John in Robin and Marian). The appearance of the Holmes character has been iconic since the illustrations of Sidney Paget (the deerstalker cap was his addition), and the actors who came before and, from our point of view, after Williamson, set a very high standard for what is to be expected of the character: not just his physical features -- a lanky frame, a prominent chin and an aquiline nose are de rigueur -- but also but also the necessary spark in his eyes to demonstrate his vivacious and strong-willed character.
Although little has survived of William Gillette's work as Holmes (including a film in 1916, now lost), his stage appearances set a standard that would be maintained for decades thereafter, as can immediately be inferred from the photographs of the actor in costume. On film, Basil Rathbone, despite the subpar pictures in which he appeared, cast a shadow over the part, so much so that, fearing being typecast and having come to despise the character, he refused to renew his contract; and Jeremy Brett, who played in little else during the last decade of his life, was the only one who successfully rivalled him in the English-speaking world. Even others like Peter Cushing and Robert Stephens were mildly successful; if Williamson, however, is to be a reference in anything, it is in how not to cast Holmes. Physically, his presence is never striking (and never suggests that it would be so at the peak of his powers), and his line delivery borders on the atrocious, managing neither the sonorous elocution of Rathbone nor the brooding undertones of Brett. Nearly every line instead comes out in the form of a snappy snarl.
Even with a miscast Holmes, the film could have held together quite nicely had the other principal actors turned in memorable performances. Alan Arkin is passable as Sigmund Freud, and the best thing that can be said of Robert Duvall's Watson is that he does not appear, behind his mustache, to be Robert Duvall -- a compliment if, like me, you can't shake off a mental image of Tom Hagen. Yet The Seven-Per-Cent Solution needed, and failed to obtain, a strong performance from Vanessa Redgrave, cast as one of Freud's former patients, a demimondaine once cured of a similar drug addiction but who appeared to have gone through a relapse, whose failed abduction Holmes finds himself investigating once in Vienna. The minor roles end up being the most memorable of the film (Charles Gray as Mycroft Holmes, a role he would play again in the Brett series, comes to mind).
In the end, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution has all the earmarks of a wasted opportunity: done on what was obviously a large budget, shot partly on location and including a spectacular train-chase climax (the highlight of the film) as well as a musical number penned by Stephen Sondheim for the occasion, but emotionally stale and, until the last twenty minutes, without impetus. The exemplary art direction -- the most successful at recreating the late Victorian era in a Holmes film until the Brett television series -- and John Addison's memorable score, which would never have been composed without the death of Bernard Herrmann, cannot, by themselves, carry a film with an unbelievable Holmes surrounded by instantly forgettable leading actors, under Ross' merely serviceable direction.A major disappointment, but with a few noteworthy touches along the way.
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originally posted: 12/15/09 15:26:20