Following the success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, Hammer Studios decided to turn their attention to the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In keeping with the tone of their recent films, their choice of The Hound of the Baskervilles seemed a solid concept. Certainly it was the most famous of Doyle’s many Sherlock Holmes stories, and it was arguably also the one that was best suited to feature length adaptation. On top of that, it had a macabre component – even if the inevitable intervention of logic would render its supernatural elements easily explained by the master sleuth by the time the film faded to black. The casting of Peter Cushing as Holmes was a given, even if Hammer executive James Carreras’ assertion that he would be the screen’s first “sexy” Holmes remains highly questionable. Had the film been made a few years later, it would not be inconceivable to picture Holmes as being played by Christopher Lee (who would indeed later essay the role several times, beginning with the bizarre West German production Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, 1962, directed by Terence Fisher), with Cushing supporting as Dr. Watson. In 1958, however, Lee was only beginning to establish a name for himself, whereas Cushing was more of a proven quantity.
Sensibly realizing that Lee was too young and too imposing to play Holmes’ right hand man and confidante, Dr. John Watson, he was instead given a chance at playing the romantic lead, a bit of casting which Lee openly relished; he would therefore become one of the few actors to lend much in the way of presence and color to the usually disposable role of Sir Henry Baskerville. To play Dr. Watson, Hammer turned to veteran actor Andre Morell. Morell was known as a prickly sort, given to speaking his mind, and he and Lee apparently did not hit it off at all – but neither ever made much of a commentary on this, leading one to suspect that perhaps they were simply too similar in disposition. Happily, no such conflict would come into play with Morell’s relationship with Cushing – they had already acted together in the controversial, Nigel Kneale-scripted adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1954) for the BBC , and following Hound, they would appear in Cash on Demand (1960), Cone of Silence (1960) and She (1964). Sadly, however, this would mark their one and only outing as Holmes and Watson – while Cushing would go on to play the role many more times (always on TV, it should be noted), Morell’s association with the world of Conan Doyle would begin and end on Hound.
The film itself is a problematic one, and this is down more to the screenplay than anything else. While some Hammer fans have praised scenarist Peter Bryan for structuring the film so that it would have some consistency with the “sins of the fathers” motif that was so common in Hammer horror (and in British horror in general, if truth be told), it seems to this writer that his attempts to “Hammerize” the material results in a film that sits unsteadily between two different styles of filmmaking. The more sensational elements feel rather grafted on, while the mystery angle becomes negligible in the bargain. Viewers unacquainted with Conan Doyle’s story might hope to have some sense of surprise when the killer is finally unmasked, but thanks to the heavy handed approach, there’s never any real doubt as to “who done it.” As such, the film fails as a mystery, and while there are token gestures towards the horror crowd, it’s a little too tame and restrained to really work on that level, either.
Director Terence Fisher does manage a tremendous set piece at the beginning, however, as he details the cruelty of Sir Henry’s infamous ancestor, Sir Hugo (David Oxley). Oxley tears into his role with ferocious abandon, teerting on the verge of camp overstatement yet remaining a credible villain. His presence is sorely missed when the film switches to the present day, with Ewen Solon’s sour-faced Stapleton proving to be a dull and rather listless villain. Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher work hard to create a sense of menace on the moors, but the cramped production values sometimes conspire against their efforts. Hammer’s use of standing sets was beginning to show through at this juncture, though Hammer’s great production designer, Bernard Robinson, certainly does what he can to disguise the subterfuge. With James Bernard’s music booming away, it’s clear that this Hound is meant to be as scary as their previous Dracula and Frankenstein pictures – but it never quite catches fire.
One would be hard pressed to fault Hammer for their casting of Cushing and Morell, however. Cushing’s hawk-like visage and thin frame made him ideal casting, though his average stature is rather unfairly shown up by Fisher on occasion – when playing scenes opposite very tall men like Lee and Francis De Wolff (as the sour-pussed Dr. Mortimer), it would have made better sense to minimize this, but Fisher elects to have the other actors towering over Cushing, who has little choice but to look up at his co-stars when he should be firmly in control of the scene. Cushing’s devotion to the role was absolute, and he added bits of business straight from Conan Doyle, as well as from Sidney Paget’s famed illustrations from the original Strand Magazine publications of the stories. He brings intensity to the role, but he does sometimes rely too much on favored mannerisms. There are moments when his decision to emphasize the character’s theatricality verges on ham acting, but he manages to convey the character’s aloof nature and addiction to cocaine without becoming as over the top as Jeremy Brett would later be in the rightly celebrated Granada TV adaptations of the Conan Doyle canon. It is a performance that compares favorably with Basil Rathbone’s iconic, possibly definitive, portrayal for Fox and Universal in the 1930s and 1940s, but he would arguably grow into the role and play it with greater subtly and effectiveness when he took over the deer stalker from Douglas Wilmer for the BBC television series of the 1960s.
Morell’s challenge was arguably greater, in that the character of Dr. Watson had been reduced to the level of caricature courtesy of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal opposite Basil Rathbone in the afore-mentioned series of films. Make no mistake, Bruce was a charming and engaging performer, and his blustery portrayal had tremendous chemistry opposite Rathbone’s aloof and somewhat acerbic master detective, but it was a portrayal that was far removed from Conan Doyle. In the stories, Watson is really the author’s mouthpiece, and it is he who narrates the action and fills the reader in on the characters and their motivations. Far from being comedy relief, Watson is a solid, dependable medical man with a military background; he may seem “dim” compared to Holmes, but that’s merely because Holmes represents a kind of intellectual ideal. Watson is the everyman, and Morell’s interpretation is faithful to this conception. Morell resists the urge to play up the comedy, though he does have a few moments of subtle humor along the way.
It is, in short, an ideal pairing of two fine actors – and it is this, above anything else, that makes Hammer’s Hound linger in memory. Cushing’s wound up, energetic portrayal contrasts nicely with Morell’s more restrained approach, and the two men clearly have genuine respect and affection for each other. They make a wonderful team, though other vehicles – notably Cash on Demand and 1984 – would play them off as rivals. It’s to be regretted that Hound was something of a flop at the box office, as this killed off a potential series of Cushing/Morell/Hammer Holmes adaptations. Had they had a chance to grow into the roles and establish more audience familiarity, it’s possible that Cushing and Morell would have eclipsed Rathbone and Bruce in the mind of the public. As it stands, however, we only have this one, flawed vehicle to judge them from – and if the film itself has problems, there’s little doubt that the two actors acquitted themselves beautifully and were determined to remain as faithful as possible to Conan Doyle’s original conception. For this reason alone, the Hammer Hound remains an essential entry in the Holmes on film canon.