All right, Clubbers, gather round and let's do this thing. There's a lot to cover today, so in the words of Arthur Sherlock Holmes, "Hand me the crossword puzzle, will you, Watson? There are several moments to lose."
Sit back in a comfortable armchair, gather a cup of steaming tea (or, if you prefer, a snifter of brandy), fill your calabash pipe with your favorite shag tobacco, and prepare to enjoy the remainder of my review of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
The Adventure: In Which The Presentation Of Our Tale Is Set Forth And Evaluated
October 24, 1891: Dr. Watson, married for some months and no longer a resident of No. 221B Baker Street, is summoned to his former lodgings by an urgent telegram from Mrs. Hudson. Since Watson's departure, Sherlock Holmes has been acting in a most disturbing manner: barricaded in his rooms, neither sleeping nor eating, and raving about a deadly figure called Moriarty—a name that Watson has only known him to mutter while in the thrall of cocaine. Once in Baker Street, Watson's worst fears prove true: cocaine has transformed the world's greatest detective into a ranting, paranoid shell of his former self, gripped by terrors of the man he calls "my Nemesis.... my Evil Genius."
Not long after, Watson receives a visit from Professor James Moriarty himself. An elderly, meek mathematics teacher, the former boyhood tutor of both Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, he is as far from a depraved criminal mastermind as could be imagined…and yet, there is some secret tragedy in his shared past with the Holmes brothers, a tragedy the Professor refuses to discuss. Now being hounded, stalked and persecuted by his former student, Moriarty has turned to Watson for help as a last resort before seeking legal action. Holmes is courting ruin; his addiction threatens to derail his brilliant career and, inevitably, end his life. Something must be done... and the only man in a position to help is an obscure Viennese doctor who has recently reported success in freeing cocaine addicts from their narcotic shackles, the brilliant Sigmund Freud.
With the aid of Mycroft Holmes and the hapless professor, Watson establishes a false trail to convince Holmes that his prey has fled to Vienna—a trail he will surely follow with his faithful biographer at his side, one that actually leads to Dr. Freud's door. Can Watson get Holmes to help before his friend’s brilliant deductive mind spots the deception? And can he be saved?
As if this weren’t enough to contend with, our heroes must deal with the confounding abduction of a former patient of Dr. Freud’s, the beautiful flame-haired singer Lola Deveraux, toast of four continents, and her association with a villainous Viennese baron. The adventure propels us from Baker Street to Vienna, through the labyrinthian corridors of the mind of the Great Detective himself, to the most astounding duel Dr. Watson has ever witnessed, to the opulent chambers of a Viennese house of questionable repute, and finally into a thrilling high-speed locomotive chase, as two trains race toward the Danube to decide the fate of an innocent woman.
Sumptuously filmed on location in Great Britain and Vienna and at the venerable Pinewood Studios, The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution is a feast for Sherlock Holmes fans. The clever script by Nicholas Meyer, author of the 1974 novel of the same name, expertly combines perplexing mystery, high melodrama, historical detail, rip-roaring adventure and sly comedy. It’s a movie unerringly aimed at a segment of the audience that was never very large and is nearly extinct today: the discerning viewer who can appreciate a thoughtful, literate, sophisticated adventure where wit and style are as important as thrills and chills, all commodities supplied here in abundance.
Most filmmakers live in mortal terror of losing their audience: not so Meyer and director Herbert Ross, who present a film dripping with baroque, elaborate dialogue that perfectly replicates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian phrasing, and who give their cast, and us, ample time to relish it. Rarely has there been an adventure film so confident as to let its characters simply sit in a room and discuss something, at length, in the authentic grammar and syntax of Victorian literature. And yet, Solution is so well paced that our attention never flags: we’re perfectly content to listen to Drs. Watson and Freud discuss the finer points of cocaine addiction in a comfortable drawing room, or watch Mr. Holmes deliver a lengthy, bravura series of deductions, for we know it will be followed in due course by a heart-pounding chase or a confounding clue.
The first thing a discerning Holmes fan notices about this film is how obviously it was made for us: the screenplay is full of nods and winks to delight the Holmesian heart. Take this snippet of voice-over narration, delivered by Robert Duvall’s Dr. Watson to introduce an old friend from the Canon (alert Diogenes Club members are invited to identify the non-Doylean reference made therein):
Readers may recall Toby’s remarkable powers from my account of them in The Sign of the Four, in which his superior olfactory sense was materially responsible for the capture of Jonathan Small and his Horrible Companion. More recently, Holmes had employed Toby to trace an orangutan through the sewers of Marseilles; it was a case which, though I omitted to set down, was not without features of interest.
The movie’s premise itself is, of course, a recasting of The Final Problem, lifting dialogue directly from the original tale in a way Doyle never considered. There are also playful (and, in some instances, terrifying) nods to the classic adventures of The Greek Interpreter, The Red-Headed League, The Speckled Band and The Hound of the Baskervilles.
This attention to detail extends to the film’s marvelous period atmosphere, in which every set, every location, every costume and prop transports us effortlessly into the bygone age of the gaslight. It’s a tribute to the talents of production designer Ken Adam, art director Peter Lamont and costume designer Alan Barrett, and we get to see it all in the gorgeous, sweeping vistas (and close, intimate conversations) captured by cinematographer Oswald Morris’ cameras. The cherry on the cake is composer John Addison’s wonderful, witty score, which carefully skirts the line between parody and romance while giving full measure to both.
So much for the play; let us now consider the players:
The Stalwart Companions: In Which The Impersonators Of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John H. Watson, Mr. Mycroft Holmes, Professor James Moriarty and Dr. Sigmund Freud Are Presented And Fulsomely Praised
There’s no escaping it: for Holmes fans, each new production rides chiefly (if not exclusively) on a single question: who’s been chosen to follow in the footsteps of such giants as Wonter, Rathbone, Cushing and Brett; of Morell, Stock, Burke and Hardwick; of Robert Morley and Christopher Lee; and of George Zucco, Henry Daniell and Eric Porter?
Doctor Freud, you see but you do not observe; a faculty you must cultivate.
Nicol Williamson has perhaps the most difficult task of incarnation, for the Holmes he’s called upon to play is most atypical. As we first see him, his Holmes is manic and maniacal: sweaty, shivery, pop-eyed, rattling his words off like a demented locomotive hell-bent on reaching the ragged end of a broken track. This may prove unexpected and more than a little unsettling to many fans, as indeed it’s meant to.
And yet, even the mad are not mad all the time: drug addicts have their moments of stability and peace, at least outwardly; and when called upon to play Holmes at the height of his powers, Williamson is more than equal to the task: alternately cool and intense, dryly humorous and snappishly impatient, looking perfectly at home in the deerstalker and long hooded overcoat inspired by Sidney Paget’s illustrations; and he reads off Meyer’s Victorian dialogue as if born speaking it. If he’s perhaps a bit blonder of hair and softer of face than we expect from Holmes, his bravura performance more than makes up for it.
I know how Holmes thinks, you see. I’ve sorted it all out.
Of course you have.
Which brings us to Watson. If this movie had never been made and I was asked to make a list of the ten 1970s actors best suited to play Dr. John H. Watson, M.D., I can guarantee you that Robert Duvall would not have been on it. Duvall is a magnificent actor who's been in the top rank of his field for better than three decades, but when you picture the perfect middle-class gentleman of the Victorian Era (essentially the definition of Dr. Watson), Apocalypse Now's Wild Bill Kilgore, The Godfather's Tom Hagen, or To Kill A Mockingbird's Boo Radley, are not the images that leap to mind.
Which just goes to show the folly of judging actors only by what you've seen them do, because Duvall is marvelous. Damn near unrecognizable in hairpiece and mustache, affecting a heavy, entirely credible accent, his Watson is brave, dependable, earnest, perhaps the tiniest bit stodgy, and no more than a quarter-step behind everyone else, all without sacrificing a scrap of intelligence or falling into the trap of comic relief. Watson is not only the prime mover of the plot, conceiving and seeing through the deception that lures Holmes to Vienna, he gets a number of important Watsony things to do: from holding off an army of pursuing brothel employees with his cane, to sticking a pistol in the face of a recalcitrant train conductor to commandeer his engine for a nighttime pursuit, to supplying the final bit of information at the very last second to enable Holmes to triumph in a swordfight to the death. He’s absolutely the man you want at your side and at your back. Moreover—as Meyer knows that the tale is being told by Watson, who must therefore be present as a witness to events—he’s the only character in the film who’s in every scene, save for the final twist (which wild Lippizaner stallions cannot compel me to reveal here).
I’ve no great desire to rake up the past, Professor. But I’m perfectly capable of it.
Of Charles Gray’s Mycroft, the most illustrative fact is this: he’s the only actor to date who’s played the part on film more than once, thanks to the producers of the Granada TV series, who hired him to repeat the role in four episodes. A growling, impassive bear of a man, in utter control of any situation he’s in, Gray lays permanent claim to Mycroft in just two scenes.
Doctor, Mr. Holmes is convinced that I am some sort of, well, criminal mastermind of the most depraved order. Oh, I know he’s a great and a good man… all England resounds with his praise. But in my case, he fosters a ghastly illusion.
And now we come to Sir Laurence Olivier as Professor Moriarty. Tell me that sentence by itself doesn’t send a frisson down your spine, eh? One of the greatest actors in the history of the art, playing the most despicable villain in English letters? The great joke of the movie, though, is that this Moriarty, as noted, is nothing like the man we’ve come to expect. He’s a timid, slightly doddering old pedant, dithering and fretting, and very funny in his brief appearance. He’s in no way a criminal, and there’s no eleventh-hour reveal that this is all a masterful deception, that he was always the evil mastermind Holmes believed him to be.
And yet… one of Watson’s most notable lines, late in the film, is this:
“The Napoleon Of Crime.” Holmes was right about him from the very beginning.
How is this possible? I fear it is not for me to reveal.
Knowing what I do about drugs and drug addiction, I do not believe a man succumbs to their negative appeal out of mere boredom.
Last but far from least is Sigmund Freud, whose fame certainly rivals that of Sherlock Holmes and his supporting players but who doesn’t have the cachet of a legion of actors who’ve portrayed him in multiple films. (The only one that comes to mind is Montgomery Clift in John Huston’s 1962 biopic Freud: The Secret Passion.) Then too, we must also remember that Freud, unlike Holmes, was an actual living human being. (Sorry, Baker Street Irregulars; you’re just going to have to face the truth sometime.) Be that as it may, the Sigmund Freud of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is several years away from his worldwide notoriety, having just begun his investigations into the unconscious mind. Here we see him as a sincere young physician, deeply committed to his profession, fascinated by the workings of the human psyche, and courageously willing to risk life and limb to join Holmes and Watson in the rescue of Lola Deveraux. Alan Arkin invests Freud with compassion, humor, and a thoroughly charming twinkle; and is a perfect complement to Williamson’s manic energy and Duvall’s solid decency.
The Conclusion: In Which Regrets And Celebration Are Provided In Appropriate Measure
If there is any complaint to make about this film, it’s twofold: first, it has become difficult to see in some quarters. Diogenes members in the United Kingdom can be assured that the film is still very much in print on DVD, but our American friends may lament the fact that the DVD and VHS releases (disappointingly issued in pan-and-scan, badly hurting the beautiful widescreen compositions) have been unavailable for years, as has the 1976 Citadel Records release of Addison’s score.
The second disappointment is that plans for a sequel never materialized. There exists a literary sequel to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Nicholas Meyer’s 1976 The West End Horror, which sees Holmes and Watson investigating a ghastly murder in the theatrical community of Victorian London, with guest appearances by such worthies as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Bram Stoker. The novel is great fun, and a somewhat more conventional adventure, with Holmes and Watson back to full powers. One can only sigh at the thought of Ross, Meyer, Williamson and Duvall reteaming for such a project.
However, it doesn’t do to be too disappointed. In the canon of Holmes films, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is enough of a treasure to make us grateful that such talented men and women gathered—and will continue to gather—to celebrate the adventures of the world’s greatest detective and his faithful biographer.
But my readers… your readers! What shall I tell them?
Anything you like. Tell them I was murdered by my mathematics tutor. They’ll never believe you in any case.