Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958)

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" (Terence Fisher, 1958) I'll go see any Sherlock Holmes story (as long as it's not a spoof), not so much because the story's are compelling--they're fascinating for the glimpse of salaciousness in Victorian England, but the story-template is rarely altered--but because the portrayal of Holmes is an actor's showcase. Holmes by Doyle is something of a blank slate, so an actor can infuse him with whatever qualities they choose to emphasize: Basil Rathbone, the heroic; Jeremy Brett, the neurotic; and on down the line to the worst--Stewart Granger who was content to make Holmes merely British (we won't get into Hugh Laurie as "House"). So, it's interesting to see the Hammer Studios' "take" on Holmes. Hammer was the British equivalent of Roger Corman's AIP, but with a distinct advantage. They also purloined classics in the public domain, but they had Terence Fisher, with his flawless eye of direction (and cleavage) and a repertory cast that included Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Here Cushing plays Holmes and he's obviously devoured the Doyle stories for Holmes quirks, stabbing documents into his mantelshelf and writing notes on his cuffs. His Holmes is energetic and flinty, bordering on rude with a relish of the melodramatic. His skull-like face even recalls Sidney Paget's original drawings. Until Brett came along, Cushing, to this Baker Street Irregular, was the best of the Holmes portrayals. Christopher Lee plays the put-upon Henry Baskerville, and as the actor is quick to point out in a "Special Features" interview, it's one of a handful of romantic leads that he's played in his long, long career. What makes this "Baskervilles" different from the countless others? Holmes is absent for less time, a lurid flash-back acquaints us with the origins of the Baskerville curse, there is a romance (of sorts) and the death by quicksand is given to someone entirely different. It is, though, faithful in spirit, if not in detail.

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