Movies of My Yesterdays: The Seven Percent Solution

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I knew when I chose this month that it was going to be a five-week month. And yet, poring over an exhaustive list of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, I found that, once I eliminated the films I’d seen, the works that were not theatrical feature films, the ones that were not part of series I’d already covered, the releases too fresh to approach, and the silent and foreign films that had too little to recommend them, time and again I came up with only four to cover. And then one turned out to be a remake of the same script. While it’s disappointing that so few passed my filter, having a fifth space to fill affords me the opportunity to close my series on the character that has meant so much to me and the culture that I’m partially a product of with a personal reflection that can touch on the whole of my history with Sherlockiana.

Sherlock Holmes was about as ingrained in my childhood as nursery rhymes. Aside from environmental references, and The Great Mouse Detective‘s pastiche, my introduction to the stories themselves may have been with the cassette tape of Jim Weiss performing children’s adaptations of some of the short stories that I recall being my favorite of the Jim Weiss tapes we had, but it’s the earliest I can cast my mind back to now. In particular, his versions of The Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle have stayed with me. Later, as I’ve previously discussed, Wishbone was for a long time the biggest children’s show in my life, and while The Hound of the Baskervilles may have been cut down too much, the most faithful handling of Irene Adler I’ve ever seen was in Wishbone’s take on A Scandal in Bohemia.

I’m just as concerned as readers no doubt are that this is going to become an exhaustive list of every encounter with Holmes I’ve had, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I had a brief fling with Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, but eventually decided that it didn’t translate well to science fiction, and may have been the genesis of my antipathy to the “it’s always Moriarty” trope. Growing up in a reading household, I got my hands on canon Doyle earlier than I had the capacity to properly read it, especially as the most readily available copy was heavily annotated, which didn’t mix well with my attention span. Jeremy Brett didn’t have quite the presence at home that David Suchet and Joan Hickson did, or even Ian Carmichael, but he was there.

The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Herbert Ross Productions 1976.

And then Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out on DVD. This may seem like the wildest of digressions, but what happened was that in the bonus features, I learned that the writer/director Nicholas Meyer had gotten noticed for writing a book called The Seven Per-Cent Solution. A book which had for all my life sat on the bookshelf right next to the television that I’d never paid much attention to. I suddenly paid it quite a lot of attention. In short succession, I read it and his two other Holmes pastiches and then somewhere in there learned that Solution had been adapted into a film, which is why Meyer had been able to get into the movie business.

While I enjoyed the novel immensely, I left the movie with the sense that something had been off about the story, including the novel. Eventually I realized that what had rubbed me the wrong way was that it seemed to treat the characters like toys from the toybox to play with. “Let’s have Sherlock Holmes meet Sigmund Freud! A grand adventure with the World’s Greatest Detective and the World’s Greatest Psychologist!” In short, it felt like some of the more grating kinds of fanfiction.

That feeling puzzled me. Fanfiction as I knew it was published by authors online. Write, post, move on. But this was a dead-tree novel. It had, at least as I understand it, a kind of blessing from the Doyle estate that a lot of apocryphal Holmes stories never got. It was as close to new canon as one could get. Eventually, through working out this crisis of Holmesian faith, I came to realize that the difference between fanfiction and official works is much more fluid than I thought. Indeed, franchised works have been known to solicit fanfiction as writing auditions. I’ve seen fanfic writers go on to publish their own original works and I’ve seen others get hired to write official derivative works. I’m sure I’ve encountered fanfiction authors that go on to write mainline official works, but I can’t think of one right now.

Returning to this film now, I think the chief reason the movie failed me where the book did not is that by necessity, it dumps the pastiched prose, which goes a long way toward removing the feeling of “A Sherlock Holmes Story”. Collapsing the story into two hours also brought to light how little the plot concerns itself with unspooling a mystery. The first full half or more is about Holmes reaching rock bottom, the plan to help him, and the recovery process. By the time the mystery presents itself, it seems an accidental intrusion to the study of a side of the character Watson would have been reluctant to bring to light.

Additionally, the movie’s need for blustery action sequences exposed two further problems: the red herring chase into the stable finding them in danger at a moment where Holmes is in a theraputic trance was the clanging moment when I realized back then how much more in love the story is with Sigmund Freud than with Holmes. So much of the movie is a Freud and Watson adventure enabled by Holmes’s addiction and then his intellect. I don’t recall if the stable scene is in the book, but I do know the final chase and battle was, and I regret to say it seems rather low stakes for such a thunderingly exciting sequence. I don’t mean to denigrate the worth of the abducted lady, but usually in movies a breakneck chase and rooftop swordfight with an evil baron has world-shattering stakes. Indeed, a glance at the book summary reminds me that in the novel, there were political implications that postponed World War I. Ultimately, I feel the movie could have done with either more intrigue or much less. The scandalous character study would have made a fascinating film all on its own.

Such is the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. There are many interpretations of the man. Sherlock Holmes has infinitely many faces. He may be a cold logician, a student of criminal psychology, a master observer, a passionate force for justice, or even a cocaine fiend. All of these qualities are present in different measures across all incarnations. What is constant is that he is, by whatever measure is relevant to the time of the work, the world’s greatest detective, and for whatever reasons we find to latch on to, we love him. There will never be an end to the tales, and so there will never be an end to the character. Perhaps Holmes will return to this blog sometime, through some reevaluation of a work, or through discovery of one not previously considered. But for now, it’s time to give him a rest. Good night, Mr. Holmes.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

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The Hound of the Baskervilles. Hammer Film Productions 1959.
The Hound of the Baskervilles. Hammer Film Productions 1959.

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.

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A Study in Scarlet (1933)

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A Study in Scarlet. K.B.S. Productions 1933.

Before watching the movie:

A Study in Scarlet is, as the first Holmes story, important, but is also very unlike most other stories, in that half the book completely departs from Watson’s narrative and instead lays down motive. From another point of view, Holmes’s investigation sets up a half-novel romance on the American frontier. I’m interested in seeing how adaptations handle this oddity, though in most cases they handle it by ignoring the second part. On the one hand, it doesn’t have Holmes in it, which is the draw, but on the other, it’s the more cinematic part of the story. I have a sneaking suspicion this movie will dip into it more than most.

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Sherlock Holmes (1922) (aka “Moriarty”)

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Sherlock Holmes (/Moriarty). Goldwyn Pictures Corporation 1922.

Before watching the movie:

I was somewhat concerned to see that this movie is also silent and based on the Gillette play, but a glance at the first paragraph of the synopsis tells me this is definitely a different adaptation. Not being familiar with the text of the play I can’t say if the differences were added to this production or subtracted from the other one. This looks hopefully more engaging.

When I first attached a disambiguating year to a title, I never expected to do two movies with the same title back to back. I can’t say it’s just because there were fewer movies to get confused with back then, since even the past decade has seen multiple productions simply titled “Sherlock Holmes”. So it’s worth noting that in Britain it was titled Moriarty.

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Sherlock Holmes (1916)

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Sherlock Holmes. Essanay Studios 1916.
Sherlock Holmes. Essanay Studios 1916.

Before Watching The Movie

Not very long after I started this blog, I realized that I was reviewing so many Sherlock Holmes films that they would probably qualify for their own genre category. It seems like I’ve covered more than is tagged there, but it’s still a healthy sampling.

My fondness for Sherlock Holmes stories far predates Yesterday’s Movies, so I find myself running out of eligible and desirable films to review. The list of adaptations seems endless, but once I apply my criteria for a review selection, they’re just about dried up. As well, I have no intention of leaving recent and future films to age into eligibility before watching them, so I’ve decided to give Sherlock a retirement sendoff with a themed month of some of the most notable films.

It is only right, then, to begin with the silent film adaptation of the very first official adaptation of Doyle’s work. William Gillette was given an attempted stageplay by Doyle and tasked with rewriting it into something serviceable, and also starred as Holmes. Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat, calabash pipe, and “Elementary, dear Watson” all came from Gillette. This is a historic piece of Sherlockiana.

Bonus mini-review: Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) – In his first-ever film appearance, the world’s greatest detective is no match for camera magic.

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The Pearl of Death

The Pearl of Death. Universal Pictures 1944.
The Pearl of Death. Universal Pictures 1944.

Before watching the movie:

Sherlock Holmes pops up so often here that he has his own genre category. So it was fairly inevitable that I’d get to the series starring Basil Rathbone eventually, even though I haven’t been very up on that version in the past. This is mostly by reputation at this point. Rathbone is considered definitive by some, and by others a poor portrayal that damages subsequent attempts. I have seen one installment before, but not much of it held my attention and my own opinions have changed since then.

At the time, I found the idea of setting the stories contemporary to their WWII production was lazy. The BBC’s current hit, Sherlock, however, has since demonstrated to me how much brilliance can be involved in making that kind of leap, and I should be judging it on the quality of the shift, not on the presence of it. Additionally, I was annoyed that they apparently tied Moriarty to everything, but most other adaptations do that too, and I should be judging it on how much they made that make sense, starting from the basis that a Napoleon of Crime would in fact have his fingers in a lot of crime. Finally, at the time I wasn’t aware that this series has been accused of practically lobotomizing Watson next to Doyle’s character, influencing many subsequent takes.

There’s a delicate balance in reviewing an installment from a film series. I try to avoid sequels that build on events from their predecessors, but this is more of the franchise type, with each individual film standing alone. In fact, it’s practically a television series before the popularization of television, due to the sheer number of films, the turnaround time between each, and the length of each (this one is only 69 minutes, and seems fairly typical). So how did I select which one? I have access to the third volume of the collection and this was the most interesting one in it. It’s based somewhat on The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

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The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. 20th Century Fox 1975.
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. 20th Century Fox 1975.

Before watching the movie:

This movie is incidentally legendary in my family. I’m told I saw a few minutes of it at an extremely young age until my mother realized she shouldn’t be playing it in the presence of someone so young. So this is the Ur-example of movies I haven’t seen because of good parenting.

The combination of Gene Wilder and the Holmes mythos is an odd one, but both of them individually are reasons to take an interest, so hopefully they merge successfully. I expect the reason Wilder’s character is “Sigerson Holmes” when Mycroft Holmes is a canonical character who is actually smarter than Sherlock is so they have more room to do what they want with him, but I hope Mycroft at least gets a mention.  I think the Doyle estate still had American copyright over Holmes characters, so this might be a legal loophole as well.

I think somewhere around the house there’s still an off-air recording of this movie (which has most of the title on the label, but always seemed less like a title and more like a placeholding description), but even if we had a working Betamax player, I don’t like to review from off-air recordings since scenes get cut for time and content, and commercials break the flow in an unintended way. I saw this float through the library again and decided it was time.

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