Andre MorellFrancis De WolffSherlock Holmes - Peter CushingMarla Landi
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Medium: film
Year: 1959
Originally published in: 1902
Set in: 1889
Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Peter Bryan
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, detective
Country: UK
Actor: Peter Cushing, Andre Morell, Christopher Lee, Marla Landi, David Oxley, Francis De Wolff, Miles Malleson, Ewen Solon, John Le Mesurier, Helen Goss, Sam Kydd, Michael Hawkins, Judi Moyens, Michael Mulcaster, David Birks
Format: 87 minutes
Series: Sherlock Holmes - Peter Cushing >>, << Hound of the Baskervilles >>
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 5 November 2008
That was fantastic! Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles is quite a free adaptation, as you'd expect from a movie rather than a TV episode, and bears little resemblance even to the BBC version nine years later that also starred Peter Cushing.
You see, it's not primarily a detective story. Hammer didn't only make horror. Their busy output also included films like The Pirates of Blood River, The Terror of the Tongs, The Stranglers of Bombay and The Devil-Ship Pirates. Like them, this is pulp adventure. Agatha Christie-like pottering? Only if it doesn't slow down the plot. It's rather wonderful and makes for a stirring, dynamic film. Unfortunately this didn't go down well with audiences at the time and Hammer abandoned their plans for a series of Sherlock Holmes films with Cushing in the lead role, but it's still a fascinating experiment.
Incidentally it was also the first Sherlock Holmes movie in colour and for a decade or two pushed the Rathbone version out of circulation.
We begin with a ten-minute dramatisation of the 17th century Sir Hugo Baskerville. You know, as you do. That's a big chunk of the film with nothing to do with anything but setting up the family legend, although in fairness the script's also interested in heredity and we'll see echoes of Hugo in his modern descendants. Shame about the sunny day-for-night filming, but that's Hammer for you. More importantly it's a powerful beginning and visceral by any standards, let alone a Sherlock Holmes film. Hugo's a vicious bastard who deserves every last drop of what's coming to him. Wow. Just when I'd thought he couldn't get any more evil... Now that's what I call a curse.
Even once we're theoretically on to the main story, they're still free and breezy about what to keep. Sherlock doesn't trail Sir Henry and spot Stapledon! In fact he doesn't go outside into London's streets at all. No, on the contrary it's straight back to Dartmoor and on with the plot. Detective work? Not too much, mind. That would be boring. We want murder attempts by tarantula and bringing down the roof of an old tin mine. As you can probably tell, they've turned the book inside-out and stripped away every last scrap of fat. I'm impressed. Most detective stories are languidly based, but this goes like a bullet.
The result, oddly, is a film that's startlingly cinematic and modern in how much it demands of its audience. They don't underline and they don't make things obvious. Conan Doyle's clues aren't laid out clearly in the open, but instead might be sneaked in as a two-second image with no dialogue at all. Just one shot. We have to seize on the smallest thing... and it often is the smallest thing. They know we'll remember. The result is that both we and the characters have to work much harder for our information. Even today I don't think many Sherlock Holmes adaptations would go this far and it's rather extraordinary to see it in a British film from the fifties. Compare it with the 1968 BBC version and faint in disbelief.
As another example of this film's preference for action over dialogue, look at Grimpton Mire. Most adaptations merely have Stapledon tell us it's dangerous. Not this film. Here they show us by nearly drowning Watson in the quicksand and only being rescued by a couple of people who happen to be near enough to hear his cries. Awesome. After that we take Grimpton Mire seriously.
Unusually they have a nasty-looking Stapledon. Most adaptations make him charming, with the original novel calling him "a small, slim, clean-shaven, prim-faced man" with a butterfly net. However this one is a surly middle-aged farmer and the father rather than so-called brother of Miss Stapledon, possibly because a mild-mannered chap would have been eaten alive in this film.
His daughter is even more remarkable, though. She's like an animal! At first we only see her run away a lot, but eventually she becomes compelling. She has a Spanish background, one hell of an attitude and far more involvement in the story than you normally see. She's a fiery customer and a worthy foil for Christopher Lee, who'd have probably overwhelmed most actresses in their scenes together. This one flares up like a rocket and dominates both the scene and the relationship. She's mysterious and one of the best things about this film, fixing a problematic area in the original story and incidentally giving us the only genuinely good take on the book's central romance I've seen to date.
Ah, I see I've mentioned Lee. Time to get to the actors, then.
Christopher Lee is great as Sir Henry. It's all very well seeing him as an unspeakable creature of the night, but it's also good to see him interacting with people more naturally. I particularly enjoyed his scenes in London where he's playing opposite Cushing. Another good thing is that he's not being asked to do an American accent, which tends to be something of a weak point for British adaptations of this novel. Incidentally Christopher Lee would go on to play both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes in a variety of film and TV productions, although I haven't seen any of them.
Sad to say, Peter Cushing might be the reason the film under-performed. This film left me thinking he wasn't a natural Holmes, whereas his 1968 BBC take on the role is a million kinds of awesome. Admittedly one could argue that here he's more successfully transforming himself. He talks like a machine-gun and impressed me in the early London scenes. Unfortunately he's not particularly commanding, especially for an audience who were used to Basil Rathbone. Mind you, it's possible that part of the problem is the script. This isn't a dialogue-based film, instead having more focus than usual on action and murder attempts. For the most part I loved that, but it's not the best showcase for its lead. Cushing's good at dialogue. Incidentally this is also the rudest Holmes I've seen, deliberately snubbing Sir Henry left, right and centre. However all that said, he's still Peter Cushing. I enjoyed his performance and had there been other films in the series, I'd have happily watched them too. It was only when mulling it over afterwards that I decided he perhaps wasn't up to his usual standards.
Andre Morell's Watson is awesome, though. He's not a caricature like Nigel Bruce, but neither is he a cipher. In fact he surprised me. Unusually he's not dog-like. Most Watsons are defined by their loyalty and subservience to Holmes, placing themselves second in the chain of command and keen to await orders, but Morell is playing a thoughtful, practical man who happens to be Holmes's friend rather than his sheepdog. He's relaxed and in control. He can take command of a situation if necessary, at one point even taking directing Holmes. He's sharp as knives, too. Much of that's the script, but I'd recommend Morell as worth watching.
The other characters include one of my favourite Dr Mortimers in Francis De Wolff, who's also in Carry On Cleo and From Russia With Love. He's middle-aged, bearded and imposing. He's also bloody-minded enough for Holmes's to have got a laugh from me with, "I need your help, unfortunately." Frankland isn't lawsuit-crazed in this version, but instead a delightful absent-minded old Bishop and lepidopterist who gets one hilarious moment. They've found a terrific Seldon, needless to say. Then for Barrymore we have John Le Mesurier!
Need I go on? It's saying something when the nearest thing to a weak link is Peter "God Upon This Earth" Cushing. As for the changes to the story, there's some satanism thrown in for no reason I can see, but the script's focus on heredity is clever. It's built into the plot with the facial resemblance in the painting, but here they take it even further. Sir Hugo and his descendants all liked the pleasures of the flesh, such as wine and women. This film's Stapledon is an illegitimate descendant rather than just an undiscovered one, which seems such an obvious thing to do that you'd think all adaptations would have done it. The family's also scary. Christopher Lee's the least reprehensible of them and he's not a man you'd want to cross. Oh, and they have a hereditary heart condition.
However I was particularly impressed by the ending. Believe it or not, this film keeps you wondering about who's behind it all. Yes, even if you've read the novel and watched three previous adaptations. Given all the other changes we've seen so far, who's to say they won't change the identity of the plotters? Will it really be Stapledon? Is he in league with anyone? This film had me changing my mind more than once, although on the downside so many seeds of suspicion were sown that even as the credits rolled I was wondering if Sherlock might have returned to London with a conspirator as yet uncovered. I presume that wasn't the intention.
Oh, and at the climax, the frustrated Hound attacks its owner! Awesome. Lots of death.
This is a blood-and-thunder adaptation that never slows down to show off its period detail. There's not a single clip-clopping London carriage in sight. It's barely using Conan Doyle's plot construction at all, but fortunately it's still telling the same basic story rather than a completely different one. This ain't no Bond movie. I know I'm a fan of Hammer's films, but even today this remains a surprisingly strong, distinctive adaptation.