Before watching the movie:
After the obvious Rathbone and Brett (at least, I think Brett is obvious), the historical Gilette, and the modern Cumberbatch and Downey, two of the biggest names I see discussed as great Holmes performances are Peter Cushing and Christopher Plummer, and I was hoping to get to include both in this farewell series. However, in my preparation, I found that Plummer’s most notable outing in the role was Murder by Decree, which I’ve already covered. I don’t want to reprise Holmses, so I’m afraid I won’t be covering Plummer again. However, Cushing is quite acceptable.
I admit my reference is limited, but all I know of Cushing’s career is Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, the forgotten Doctor Who (no, not that one, the other one. The really forgotten one. No, not that forgotten) from the two cinematic films, and that he was in quite a lot of Hammer films, a production company most known for highly regarded 60s and 70s B-horror films (don’t quote me on that summary). This is in fact a Hammer film, and probably considered a horror. So now I’ll have seen a Hammer Horror, probably.
After watching the movie:
Long ago, the cruel Sir Hugo Baskerville, thwarted in his attempted rape of a servant’s daughter by her escape into the moor, set his hunting dogs after her, tracked her down, and stabbed her to death, only to meet his own end from a hellhound immediately thereafter, beginning the legend of a curse upon the Baskerville family. Now, Sir Charles Baskerville has died upon the moor, and his friend Dr. Mortimer fears the curse has risen again, and begs the help of Sherlock Holmes to keep the curse from touching Sir Charles’s nephew Sir Henry, the last Baskerville. Holmes declares he cannot leave for Baskerville Hall as soon as Sir Henry intends to, but sends Watson along to investigate, himself following along shortly. Nearby to Baskerville Hall, Watson encounters Stapleton and his Spanish daughter Cecille, who acts quite oddly with just about everybody. Also, a serial murderer has just escaped from the local prison. By telegram, Holmes impresses upon Watson not to let Sir Henry out on the moor.
I know I’ve read the novel, but my memories of the story come more from the Wishbone adaptation. The main thing I remember from the novel is Holmes recounting taking a day to sit down with a map of Dartmoor in front of him and projecting himself upon it, discovering when he returns to his body that it’s consumed a prodigious amount of tobacco without him. This is not included in the movie, and it’s probably for the best, although I still find the tale amusing. My memories of the Wishbone version are dim, but I seem to recall a break-in at Baskerville Hall that may have concerned the damning portrait of Sir Hugo, which if that’s the case, would be drawing from this movie and not the book, as Wikipedia notes the theft of the portrait was not in the novel.
Cushing’s portrayal of Holmes is fantastic. There’s an energy to him, but moderated by intelligence and logic. He seems rather a small man for the role (if I recall correctly, Holmes is meant to be over six feet tall), and his hair is distinctly of the late 50s, but his face fits the part very nicely. I have the impression that for a long time, if actors playing Watson weren’t aping Nigel Bruce, they were thinking of Andre Morell. His Watson seems archetypal. He benefits from being in a story where Watson has a long stretch in which Holmes excuses himself and leaves Watson to do the investigating on his behalf, and Holmes’s faith in him is well-founded. He doesn’t have the sharp focus on detail Holmes does, but he’s quite an able investigator in his own right, and without Holmes making astounding deductions, he’s free to be impressive by himself.
A lot of adaptations drop many details of the novel, but this keeps quite a complex collection of them in play and still manages to tell the whole story in under 90 minutes. The Barrymores, Selden, and even Dr. Mortimer and Mrs. (here Miss, or perhaps Senorita) Stapleton, could all easily be elided out of the story, but they’re all here. Though Dr. Mortimer seems pretty redundant after Holmes is on the case. The movie even finds time to add in several horror sequences not in the original.
As far as classic Holmes movies go, this has to be ranked near the top. The Rathbone and Bruce series may have had the quantity, but this is nearly all quality. The roles are mostly played by people who understand their characters and Cushing seems delighted to be playing a hero of his. I’m not thrilled by the addition of extra horror elements, but it all fits into a compact, entertaining version of an iconic story.