|Sherlock Holmes - The Hound of the Baskervilles|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 October 1999|
Producer Sy Weintraub hoped to launch a Sherlock Holmes series starring Ian Richardson with this and its sister production of THE SIGN OF FOUR, but the TV movies were poorly marketed in the United States. It wasn't until Jeremy Brett starred as Holmes in the series shown in the U.S. on PBS' "Mystery" that the great detective really caught on again.
Too bad. Although Brett's Holmes is one of the best ever, and the series was mostly outstanding, Ian Richardson was also a great Sherlock, and this production of Doyle's most famous Holmes tale is the best movie adaptation of the novel. Its most significant rival is the 1939 version in which Basil Rathbone played Holmes for the first time, but this 1983 version, directed by Douglas Hickox and written by Charles Edward Pogue, has the advantage of authentic Devonshire locations. Richardson's Holmes might surprise those accustomed to Rathbone's no-nonsense interpretation; Richardson's detective smiles often, but there's no doubt about his brilliance, his skills at disguise, or his sturdy ego. It's an entirely legitimate and intelligent interpretation of the character.
The only soft spot in this well-produced movie is Donald Churchill as Dr. Watson; he's a shade too Nigel Brucian, a bit too much of a fuddy-duddy with a tendency toward comedy relief. But he too has his moments, as when he crosses verbal swords with Inspector Lestrade (Ronald Lacey) with a line that writer Pogue impishly lifts from no less than CASABLANCA.
The changes from the novel are, for once, entirely in keeping with Doyle. Pogue, Weintraub or Hickox obviously felt that more suspects were needed -- Doyle provides so few it's easy to pick out the villain -- and have added a volcanically-tempered painter (Brian Blessed) and his put-upon wife (Connie Booth, from "Fawlty Towers"). They're very Doyle-like characters, and Pogue even lifts a famous moment from "The Speckled Band" to good effect.
The story is the same as always: kindly Dr. Mortimer (Denholm Elliott, very good) approaches Holmes and Watson to help him with the mysterious curse of the Baskervilles, a phantom Hound that drives members of the family to their deaths, then howls at their demise. Sir Charles Baskerville was recently found dead with footprints all around his body. "Mr. Holmes," says Mortimer, "they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" The heir to the estate, Henry Baskerville (Martin Shaw), arrives from America only to be met by an attempt on his life.
Holmes claims important cases keep him in London, but sends Watson on to the misty moors of Devonshire with Sir Henry and Dr. Mortimer. At Baskerville Hall, at the edge of the Great Grimpen Mire, there are more suspects: butler Barrymore (Edward Judd) and his wife (Eleanor Bron), as well as, nearby, the painter, his wife, neighboring butterfly-catcher Stapleton (Nicholas Clay), his beautiful wife Beryl (Glynis Barber). Furthermore, an escaped killer is known to be haunting the moors. And occasionally at night, the glowing shape of a huge hound can be seen, accompanied by its mournful howling.
Naturally, there's more to all this -- including Holmes' absence -- than first meets the eye.
Well-paced, with strong acting and an excellent sense of location, this HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is just about ideal for what it is. It's even better than the rather lackluster Jeremy Brett version, shot on similar locations. Peter Cushing was an even better Holmes in the Hammer HOUND, but that version's budget was too low to do the story full justice. This is also a perfect introduction for newcomers to the character of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most durable and famous ever created. His brilliance at deduction, his habits, his personality -- these are vividly imperishable, and have delighted people the world over for more than a hundred years. New books not by Doyle but featuring Holmes are published every year, and Doyle's own original stories have never gone out of print. The character is immortal.
The acting is of a very high level; the casting of the villain is crucial, because he's required by the plot to play multiple roles -- without revealing it to those who don't know the story. The casting here is excellent, and the actor is outstanding. Everyone is, including Edward Judd as the troubled Barrymore, Eleanor Bron as his sorrowing wife, Martin Shaw as the vigorous but naive Sir Henry, Denholm Elliott as Dr. Mortimer, and Ronald Lacey as Lestrade. Too bad he never played the role again.
This DVD leaves a little to be desired in terms of transfer; the image is very slightly blurry throughout (it may have been shot on 16mm), a worse fault than usual, because Ronnie Taylor's cinematography is especially good. The scenes in London have a crisp, clean open feel, and those on the moors outstanding. The haunting, eerie mood of the Devonshire area is reproduced very well; the chill air, the gleaming patches of still water, the ground-hugging fog -- all are not just realistic, but eerily beautiful.
Now that this has been released, with THE SIGN OF FOUR waiting in the wings, more people will be able to appreciate just how good Richardson was as Holmes. Granted, it's a role that most have played quite well (strangely enough), but Richardson's Holmes is a standout in an admirable group, and deserves to be better known.