Every generation has their Sherlock Holmes; some have three, with Robert Downey Jr’ two successful films, Benedict Cumberbatch’s run on the BBC’s Sherlock and his former associate in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein Jonny Lee Miller’s run on CBS’ Elementary, all relatively contemporaneous. For the previous generation it was Jeremy Brett’s portrayal across forty one stories from 1984 to 1994 which for many remains the definitive, adhering to the tone, narrative and period setting of the original texts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Yet scarcely two decades before that, Peter Cushing had been taken as the true reading of the master detective in the fifteen stories adapted by the BBC for their second season of Sherlock Holmes in 1968, taking over the role from Douglas Wilmer, a natural inheritance as Cushing had already played the title role in the 1959 Hammer film adaptation of perhaps the most famous of all the detective’s adventures, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Now remastered and released by Arrow Films with a host of supporting features, that film united two of the major stars of the Hammer roster, Cushing and Christopher Lee who had appeared together in both The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Cushing as the Baron and Lee as the Creature, and Dracula (1958), Lee as the Count and Cushing as Van Helsing.
Alongside them as Doctor John Watson, Holmes long suffering companion and chronicler, was noted actor André Morell who had appeared for Hammer in The Camp on Blood Island (1957) and would later take the lead in The Plague of the Zombies (1965). Crucially, he had worked alongside Cushing before, in 1954’s Rudolph Cartier directed/Nigel Kneale scripted adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four where he played the torturer O’Brien to Cushing’s Winston Smith.
Morell had been offered the lead role in another Cartier/Kneale production, 1955’s The Quatermass Experiment, but had declined, though three years later he would accept a second invitation to play in 1958’s Quatermass and the Pit, and it is for this role that he is best remembered, with many regarding his as the best interpretation of another fictional character portrayed by many actors. In the words of his son Jason Morell, he himself regarded as Professor Bernard Quatermass as “one of the highlights of his career.”
Hammer have always loved their parlour dramas, and there is no parlour more elegant or renowned than that of 221B Baker Street, and in that setting Cushing and Morell are absolutely at home. An authority on the work of Conan Doyle, in the accompanying commentary Hammer experts Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby praise Cushing’s inclusions of unscripted Holmes details he knew from the original stories.
Discussing the shooting of the film, Christopher Lee recalls the skill and ease with which Cushing deftly handled the numerous props he requested to complete his character, pinning notes to the mantelpiece with a penknife and scribbling notes on his shirt cuff, lighting his pipe with coals from the open fire: “He must have been a juggler.”
A superficially faithful adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novel serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902, from the opening scene it plays up the supernatural elements as befit the Hammer template. The legend of Hugo Baskerville, a wild, profane man, is show in full, how he abused his servants, how he pursued the daughter of one servant across the moors to Dartmoor Abbey and threw her down to have his way with her when a monstrous hound appeared, savagely killing him.
Centuries later, his descendant Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead near the ruins of the Abbey; his physician and friend, Doctor Richard Mortimer (Francis de Wolff of The Curse of the Werewolf and From Russia with Love) comes to London to seek the aid of the famed consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
With the heir to the title Sir Henry Baskerville (Lee) flying in from Johannesburg to meet Doctor Mortimer in London then travel to the estate, he tries to express to Holmes his fears that the curse will strike again, but his vague answers only frustrate the detective. “Facts are only of value when they’re clear, concise and relevant.”
Asking Doctor Watson to accompany Mortimer and Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall, Holmes advises he will join them a few days henceforth, but no sooner have the trio arrived than danger presents itself, a convict escaped from Dartmoor Prison, a light seen at night, apparently signalling, and the treacherous moor itself, Watson pulled from the quicksand on Grimpen Mire by the sinister Stapleton (Ewen Solon) after he fell in trying to speak to Stapleton’s daughter Cecille (Marla Landi).
Coming from a strong narrative, the film is less meandering than many of Hammer’s other films of the period. While there is location shooting on Surrey’s Chobham Common and Frensham Ponds, the day-for-night and studio scenes fairly announce themselves in the flawless restored print.
It was the first colour production to feature the character and it was also unusual in that the period setting was retained, the long running back and white Universal adventures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson having been updated to the contemporary setting of the thirties and forties.
In their commentary, a fascinating insight into the minutiae of the production and the background and unlikely connection of the performers, Hearn and Rigby discuss Hammer’s budget conscious aversion to multiple takes, yet each beautifully and often boldly lit scene proceeds flawlessly until the eventual appearance of the titular hound who was reticent to attack his quarry on cue regardless of what the script said. “It was a young Great Dane called Colonel,” Lee explains. “He didn’t do it because we liked each other.”
A Sherlock Holmes film where the leading man vanishes for the longest time, when Holmes does arrive at Baskerville Hall, one of his observations, that of a missing portrait by the grand staircase, foreshadows not only the conclusion of The Hound of the Baskervilles but also Cushing and Lee’s final collaboration, 1983’s House of the Long Shadows where a conspicuously absent family portrait also plays a part.
Despite this apparent adherence to the spirit of the source material, Holmes aficianados may be in for a surprise, as the narrative deviates substantially in detail, even going so far as to change the identity of the villain of the piece. Another concession to the Hammer template is the inclusion of the obligatory comedy relief role, Miles Malleson’s Bishop Frankland a hallmark of the era the film were created in.
A prolific actor, screenwriter and playwright who included prominent roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the White Suit on his resume as well as The Brides of Dracula and First Men in the Moon, he had previously appeared in The Sign of Four (1932) with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, but his presence here is heavy handed.
The extensive supporting material includes The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes, a mid eighties television special hosted by Christopher Lee tied to the release of Young Sherlock Holmes which is heavily promoted. With his stilted delivery, Lee is clearly uncomfortable with the lines he has been given, and it is more honest to call it a schedule filler than a documentary, aimed at an American audience who don’t know any better.
With a focus on the filmed adventures of Holmes and a soundtrack bizarrely comprising Holst and Mussorgsky, it boasts a roster of obscure clips but little attempt is made to put them in any context of their sources, their dates, their leading men or their relation to Conan Doyle’s source material.
It is an interesting curiosity to see archive footage of Conan Doyle himself and for acknowledgement to be given to the inspiration for Holmes, the surgeon Joseph Bell of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but conversely in the section on television versions of the character Jeremy Brett receives only a namecheck, and while Cushing’s appearance in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles receives marginally more coverage no attempt is made to link it to the fifteen stories he filmed for the BBC.
Significantly superior are the brief career retrospective of André Morell and An Actors Notebook, a more relaxed and conversational interview with Christopher Lee from 2002 who is engaged with what he is saying rather than despairing because it is beneath him, he describes working with director Terence Fisher as the “easiest thing in the world” and recalls the rare opportunity to be the romantic lead for the “enchanting” Marla Landi.
“My respect and admiration for him has never ceased,” he says of his dear friend Peter Cushing who died in 1994, having seen Lee only weeks before. Close friends for almost forty years, he describes teasing Cushing on set. “There’s nobody around today with whom I have that kind of relationship… He was an extraordinary person and everybody loved him.”