Considering that I like the character of Sherlock Holmes so much, it may come as some surprise that I’ve never read a word of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. My first, and most extensive, contact with Sherlock Holmes comes from the films starring Basil Rathbone as the world’s greatest detective and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. I’m aware that the performances these two gave, and the stories they were involved in, varied (sometimes greatly) from the source material, but I like them all the same.
Because I’m so familiar with the Basil Rathbone versions, it’s always interesting when I get to see another actor’s take on Holmes and another set of filmmakers’ approach to the same basic material. Consequently, when the Hammer Films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles aired on MGM HD — an almost, but not quite, variation on Turner Classic Movies — I jumped at the chance. I happen to have a fondness for Hammer productions, so this was a two-fer.
Hammer is known primarily for its horror output (all those Dracula movies foremost among them), so The Hound of the Baskervilles is something different. It still has a quasi-Gothic feel to it — it takes place primarily in a manor house on a moor, after all — so it’s not as divergent from Hammer’s usual product as all that, but it lacks any supernatural elements and is, basically, a straight-up Sherlock Holmes movie with a few Hammer touches.
The Hound of the Baskervilles has been made into a movie 24 times, so I’m going to lay odds you’ve seen at least one version at some time in your life. Accuracy to the source material varies, I’m sure, so arguments can be made about which is more faithful, but for me these kinds of things boil down to who’s playing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I’ve already told you that I favor Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but in this film we have Peter Cushing and André Morell.
First a quick word about Peter Cushing. I have seen him in other things, most notably as various Van Helsings and Frankensteins in Hammer Films’ other type of movies. Despite all this, the very first thing I think of when I see Peter Cushing is Star Wars. I know it’s unfair to boil an actor down to a single role like that, and it’s equally unfair to Alec Guinness, who likewise had a long and varied career, but Peter Cushing equals Grand Moff Tarkin in my mind. As a result, he had a tough row to hoe when it came to winning me over as Holmes. It may surprise you that it didn’t take long.
Peter Cushing makes a really excellent Sherlock Holmes, and he went on to play the character many times afterward, so I’m not the only one who thought so. He has the almost sneering air of superiority about him that Basil Rathbone did so well, while remaining just likable enough in his brilliance that we can still root for him as the hero. Equally important, André Morell acquits himself quite well as Dr. Watson, something that’s absolutely essential in The Hound of the Baskervilles because Holmes is offscreen for fully one half of the picture.
Morell’s depiction of Watson is completely absent the lovable buffoonery that marks Nigel Bruce’s portrayals of the character and is more in line with (as I understand) his literary roots. Let us not forget that Watson is a decorated war veteran and, while he may not be as gifted intellectually as Holmes, is a medical doctor and partner to the detective. In the whole of this The Hound of the Baskervilles he does precisely one silly thing, which serves as foreshadowing for the demise of one of the other characters.
Story-wise there are differences between this film and the other with which I’m familiar. I consider these the Hammer touches. For example: the Baskerville family apparently suffers under a curse brought upon them by the excesses of an ancestor. In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), this information in shared with the audience via good, old-fashioned exposition. In this The Hound of the Baskervilles, we get a prologue set well into the past, where Sir Hugo Baskerville holds a wild party in which murder and rape are on the menu. This is the kind of thing that set Hammer Films apart from, say, Universal’s horror output: the willingness to push the envelope and even feature some (brilliantly colored) blood.
This Hound turns a supporting character into a sultry Spanish temptress, the better to feature her exposed legs and bare feet and bosom to the audience for their titillation, no pun intended. Another supporting character has a grotesque webbed hand. I’m not saying the old Rathbone pictures didn’t have good-looking women in them, or characters with weird traits, but they weren’t quite so in-your-face as these examples are. The difference between making movies in the ’30s versus the ’50s, I expect.
There’s a nice bit of cultural shorthand in The Hound of the Baskervilles that is likewise appropriate to a Hammer film. Christopher Lee — looking tanned, handsome and very aristocratic — plays Sir Henry Baskerville, the latest heir to the Baskerville manor and fortune. While he’s unfailingly polite and gentlemanly, he finds himself nearly out of control with sexual desire when it comes to the aforementioned Spanish temptress, the daughter of one of his neighbors. He presses his sexual attraction on her without an ounce of shame, calling back to a time when the aristocracy were essentially masters of all they surveyed, including the “little people.”
With some exceptions, the mystery plays out pretty much the same as it does in the Rathbone version. I won’t spoil you with the solution to the curse, even though you’ve had over 100 years to read it (I still haven’t), but I will say that the Hammer Films approach to the climax is more violent and, in its way, mean-spirited than the way they handled things in 1939. I’m not saying this is necessarily worse, only that it’s different.
You should check out The Hound of the Baskervilles for a few reasons, including a rare chance to see Christopher Lee playing a good-guy role, and Peter Cushing essaying Sherlock Holmes. The stage-bound, colorful images are an added treat, being as much a Hammer signature as the heaving breasts and blood.
Maybe I’ll actually read the novel now.
REVIEW: Sam Hawken
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks
COMING SOON: HEAR FROM THE WOMAN WHO MADE THE HOUNDS MASK ...MARGARET ROBINSON, WIFE OF HAMMER FILMS PRODUCTION DESIGNER, BERNARD ROBINSON, IN A 1980 INTERVIEW ON THE BLACKBOXCLUB.COM PODCAST SOON!