The stylized elegance of social rot: “Chinatown” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

Chinatown is one of those movies of the last great period of American pictures that, while not wildly successful at the box office, has since accrued to itself the luster of a pop masterpiece, one that rewards repeated viewings as only the great works do.

The picture’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, based the background of his dark detective thriller on events and characters in early Los Angeles history that was bearing bitter fruit by the late 1930s, the time of Chinatown: The machinations that created the system bringing potable water to a desert city that probably should never have been built. (Although, curiously, Towne’s murder victim, Hollis Mulwray, is a bit of a populist, something his historical progenitor William Mulholland never was.) Towne, one of the era’s most prominent and respected script doctors (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Parallax View, The Missouri Breaks, Heaven Can Wait, Marathon Man, Reds) and sole author writer of striking adaptations (The Last Detail) and originals (Shampoo) used the hard-boiled detective format as a prism through which to refract some of the more sordid details of American public life, and as such Chinatown is very much a product of its post-Nixonian time. The basic, Chadleresque elements are there: The mysterious woman who may or may not be a femme fatale (in fact, the movie has two of them), the shadowy case that reveals itself as more complex and dangerous than the private dick at first surmises, the unexpected peril, and the deadly omnipresence of wealthy, powerful men. The cynical public overlay — the hoodwinking of a city’s citizens by murderous oligarchs — perfectly suited mid-’70s America (and may have limited the picture’s popularity) but should not be considered mere revisionist window-dressing; it’s at the rotten core of Towne’s vision, and that of the movie’s inspired director, Roman Polanski.

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Take, for example, this exchange between the rich and powerful Noah Cross (John Huston) and the detective, J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), whose name Cross repeatedly mispronounces as “Gitts”:

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gitts! The future.

That sort of dialogue is a mainstay in the work of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald, but until the collapse of the Production Code was seldom heard in an American movie. And there is more in that final statement of truth than is contained in a hundred “tough” detective pictures of the alleged “Golden Age.”

Towne and Polanski are also artful and canny in their recurrent motifs: Watches, binoculars, camera lenses and other reflective surfaces (most definitely including water) are continually, although not obtrusively, in evidence throughout Chinatown, and that many of these items are the useful appurtenances of the detective’s trade is not incidental. John A. Alonzo’s lustrous cinematography embraces both the dark and the light; indeed, his evocation of 1937 L.A. is cheerfully sun-drenched, the colors both muted and shiny. The picture is among the most beautifully shot and elegantly edited (by Sam O’Steen) of its time, and its evocative sets by Richard Sylbert and exquisite costumes by his sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert are beyond praise. Whatever may be said of Polanski personally — it was only four years after Chinatown‘s release that he infamously seduced a 13-year old girl (in Nicholson’s home) and fled the country to avoid a potential prison term — his value as a filmmaker has seldom been as strongly in evidence as in this characteristically troubling evocation of moral rot. (Ironic, that.) His control of the material, and his unerring eye for the small details that illuminate life, are total, and make their own strong argument in favor of that screenwriter’s despair, the ludicrously and ignorantly misapplied auteur theory.

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Nicholson, whose hair loss was increasingly obvious during this period (and is accentuated by the center-parted, patent-leather style he sports as Gittes) has nevertheless seldom looked as beautiful on film as he does here, his physical allure interestingly at odds with the cruder aspects of the character. Gittes is a man less of contradictions than of surfaces (that word again): He affects a cool, suave urbanity with his clients and quarries, but it’s mere patina. The (deliberately un-explained) events of his past, and the loss he incurred through his own misguided chivalry, have both hardened and inflamed him; when he explodes in anger, you sense that passion as something he is at great pains to tamp down, and when it erupts, it’s terrifying.

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“My sister… my daughter.”

As the thickly veiled maelstrom at Chinatown‘s center, Faye Dunaway is equally as taut, and as roiled, beneath a chilly exterior. Seldom has this problematic actress’s classical beauty been so pronounced, or so perfectly used. Dunaway uses the character’s reticence as both a shield and a tantalizing clue, such as with her intermittent stutter, most prominent when she says, “my f — my father.” When her manufactured stoicism cracks and her emotionalism breaks through, the effect is devastating. Far more than her award-winning turn in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, in which she is both funny and frightening but is essentially embodying a satirical cartoon, Evelyn Mulwray is Dunaway’s master performance.

John Huston, still very much a working filmmaker at the time of Chinatown‘s release (he was soon to mount his splendid dream project, The Man Who Would Be King) was a marvelous presence in the right role, usually one that called upon both his near-legendary charm and his underlying dangerousness. Orson Welles, so astute in his opinions of actors, got it right I think when he told Peter Bogdanovich that Huston had a certain “loony” quality that was “great in the right part.” Noah Cross is certainly that part. He embodies the languid venality, casual brutality and elegant murderousness that underlies all great fortunes, especially in America, and when he tells Nicholson that, “under the right circumstances, a man is capable of… anything,” you more than believe him. (Towne also gives him a line I suspect Billy Wilder would have been happy to have written: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”)

The supporting cast is an exceptionally rich one, with a clutch of superb character actors embodying the many “types” on which the detective story traditionally depends but making them vital, intrinsic to the enterprise: Perry Lopez as Gittes’ police force nemesis and uneasy informant; John Hillerman as a notably oily bureaucrat; Diane Ladd as a paid imposter; Roy Jenson as a thug with a badge; Dick Bakalyan as another of Gittes’ police rivals; Joe Mantell and Bruce Glover as his detective agency confederates; James Hong as the Mulwray’s poker-faced butler; Burt Young as an over-emotional client (“You can’t eat the blinds, Curly. I just had them installed on Wednesday.”) who is not above a little wife-beating; and, especially, Polanski himself as the terrifying little hood who cuts Gittes’ nose at the city reservoir in the movie’s most intense and unsettling sequence.

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Polanski commissioned the interesting Phillip Lambro, who composed an eerie, disturbing score, but ended up being less than enamored with the results after Bronislau Kaper, who had attended a preview, convinced him it hurt the picture. Jerry Goldsmith was then hired to compose a new one. It’s fascinating to compare the two scores, which thanks to a release on the now-defunct Perseverance label (which at the insistence of Paramount Pictures was titled Los Angeles, 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski) we now can. Lambro captures the picture’s pervasive sense of underlying dis-ease, elegant social rot and increasing menace, and if his approach was less rapturous than Goldsmith’s, many of the tracks are similar in structure to what Goldsmith delivered. This is not to suggest that Goldsmith was guilty of plagiarism, merely that the two composers used approaches that, while similar, were separated by their respective artistic palettes. That Goldsmith’s was the greater talent, and that his gifts for both creating excitement and applying a lush romanticism were superior to Lambro’s, is evident, and proof that he was, ultimately, the right choice for the movie. His sultry saxophone-driven main theme became something of an instant classic, familiar even to those who had never seen the picture. (Although you can hear a sample of Lambro’s compositions on the movie’s official trailer.)

Oddly, Chinatown is misunderstood even by its champions, many of whom slap it with the ludicrous (and vastly ignorant) imprimatur of film noir when it is no such thing. Noirs, so-called, were a product purely of their time — roughly the 1940s and early 1950s — and of the exigencies imposed on the people who made what were often, and with the exception of such possible early examples as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity (or even, at a stretch, Citizen Kane), low budget quickies whose makers devised ingenious lighting patterns to disguise cheap sets and threadbare amenities. That the shadowy look of these pictures enhanced their dark contours was merely a happy by-product, now seized on by ignoramuses as proof of genius. Explaining this to people who don’t get it is not unlike trying to convince them that the sexual slang term “gunsel” does not mean a cheap hood, and is just as tiring.

And, interestingly, Chinatown‘s deservedly lauded screenplay has been used by others to support their agendas, sometimes in complete opposition, and contradiction. The odious Syd Field for one held it up as a model of the effective scenario even as, in his disastrously influential book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, he urges potential scenarists to eschew all of Chinatown‘s strengths: Its nihilism, its complexity and its avoidance of happy endings. On the other end of the spectrum, Harlan Ellison cited it as a prime example of a director’s meddlesome intrusions ruining(!) a screenwriter’s work, in Polanksi’s revising Towne’s original climax — the very aspect of the picture that everyone remembers, and that gives the movie its overlay of nearly unbearable despair. Towne wrote an ending in which the Huston character is shot by his daughter, who rides off into the night with Gittes. Polanski, whose childhood during the War as a Jewish refugee was said to be the basis of Jerzy Kosinki’s harrowing novel The Painted Bird and whose wife and unborn child were hacked up by maniacs, knew that life is not a movie, and both his ending, and the now-famous (Polanksi-written) words that end the picture (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”) are, I would argue, intrinsic to the movie’s continuing fascination; they’re a large part of what makes it a classic.*

How a man as bright as Ellison could, in his otherwise understandable desire to defend the screenwriter against unwarranted directorial interference, get that one so stunningly wrong is one of one of the great mysteries of modern life.


* Dunaway claims that it was her idea to have the shot that kills Evelyn go through her eye, a metaphor for her own Oedipal state, and that her make-up man designed the gruesome prosthesis used in the scene out of a fake nose once worn by Kim Darby’s double. Knowing Polanski’s sensibilities, that first claim seems highly unlikely.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Chinatown poster

Some kind of a man: “Touch of Evil” (1958)

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By Scott Ross

Whom the gods would destroy they first make wildly successful. For all his astonishing early success in the theatre and on radio — and despite his self-evident greatness as a filmmaker — Orson Welles was never able to create a popular movie, usually through no fault of his own. Touch in Evil is a case in point: What should have been at the very least a minor hit never really had a hope, re-edited (and, to a degree, re-shot) as it was by hacks and unceremoniously dumped onto the “B” market by Universal when the studio apparently lost all faith in the picture. Welles, having returned from self-exile in Europe, and making waves in other people’s pictures (The Long, Hot Summer and Huston’s Moby-Dick) and television shows (he was a memorable guest on I Love Lucy) was primed for a chance at the brass ring, and even in a form both truncated and fattened by others, Touch of Evil should, ideally, have been the carousel horse he needed to reach it. The source, a Whit Masterson* mystery called Badge of Evil, is mildly diverting but not especially resonant, or even particularly memorable. (I had to read a precis to even recall the plot.) But as Welles re-shaped and re-fashioned it, this inconsequential pulp material becomes something dark, disturbing and, yes, even profound.

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It looks unlike any other director’s work, and sounds unlike any other’s. I do not mean the overlapping dialogue or the fealty to ambient sound, although both are hallmarks of Welles, but the shape and flavor of his dialogue, as when Charlton Heston’s “Mike” Vargas says to Welles’ corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” (He should have lived to see how well that has worked out in America.) Far more than things like the somewhat showy opening sequence, the characteristic shadows or the menacing camera angles, what distinguishes this as a Welles picture are its concerns, and the means by which the filmmaker explicates, and expounds on, them. In Badge of Evil, an assistant D.A. ponders a killing and a seemingly false confession, and his Latin wife is kidnapped, drugged and framed by his enemies. There’s also a climax involving a hidden wire recorder and a cop called Quinlan who is at the same time a thug, a dupe and a bit of a dope. The basic elements are there, but arranged conventionally. Welles, by making the suspicious municipal attorney (Heston) a Mexican with a Caucasian wife (Janet Leigh), gets instantly to the heart of American racism, which traditionally has looked with horror on dusky bucks squiring lily-white does; he then further compounds this sense of unease by having Quinlan harass and then arrest a young Mexican suspect (Victor Millan), who is later proven to be guilty. My revealing that is not exactly a spoiler; with Welles, narrative detail is scarcely the point. It is less important that the boy is guilty than that he was framed to begin with, and that in trying to coerce from Quinlan a confession for the frame-up Vargas descends to the worst sort of legal maneuvering, convincing Quinlan’s hero-worshiping partner (Joseph Calleia) to betray the man electronically. And Vargas quite literally descends, hiding under a bridge and sloshing through oily, trash-laden waters as he follows his quarry. Welles’ sympathies as a writer-director are divided: Vargas is right… but so is Quinlan. And each is equally wrong. As Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, “I don’t make those judgments, ever, about people in my pictures.” He didn’t paint Charles Foster Kane with a black-tarred brush either. Much more than “arty” camera angles and creative editing, it’s that very ambiguity, which seems to upset many literal people, that ultimately make Welles’ movies so exhilarating. As Marlene Dietrich’s Tana observes of Quinlan at the end of the picture, “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

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The preferred version of Touch of Evil is the one re-edited by Walter Murch in 1998 and based largely on a 58-page memo Welles famously prepared when Universal showed him their edit… although even this edition contains some footage Welles did not shoot but which Murch needed for continuity. Appropriately for a man who first made his mark as a sound editor, Murch’s great contribution to the restoration was his removing Henry Mancini’s conventional (albeit effective) “thriller” scoring from the opening sequence in favor of the more ambient sound Welles imagined, and which also contained snippets of several Mancini rock and jazz pieces, heard as they would be if an automobile was cruising a border-town’s streets and passing its many clip-joints. (Murch also took the distracting credits off the sequence and placed them at the end of the picture.) That opening, so beloved of cineastes, consisting as it does of three and a half unbroken minutes of tracking shot, while admittedly a tour de force, is to me far less impressive than the much longer, more complex, and more beautifully controlled, scene in the apartment of the accused which is also without a cut and twice as long.† Yet because it is less flashy, it goes unnoticed by most image-junkies and Scorsese acolytes. (Or am I being redundant?) Only once does Welles, who hated symbols, opt for an obvious metaphor, when the crippled, ageing, bibulous and nearly played-out Quinlan is glimpsed beneath a mounted bull’s head decorated with picadors’ lances. As Welles noted to Bogdanovich of a moment in his Othello involving Iago, “It’s instant metaphor, like instant coffee.” And we all know what instant coffee is good for.

Touch of Evil - Tamiroff and Leigh

Those who like to pretend, for their own perverse reasons, that Welles was no writer (by which accusation I presume they mean Herman Mankiewiciz didn’t just write Citizen Kane but everything else) never get what an original dramatic voice he had. There is nothing, but nothing, in the Masterson book that corresponds to Vargas’ American wife or to the two-bit gangster Grandi who menaces her, and certainly no dialogue that rivals theirs. Although frightened of this absurd little toupée-sporting hoodlum, she tells him he’s seen too many gangster movies, and he has. Welles said he got that notion from having encountered gangsters, whom he found both menacing and funny, as Grandi is. And perhaps no one could have embodied those seeming contradictions better than the splendid Akim Tamiroff, whose scenes in Touch of Evil lift the picture into a realm it wouldn’t achieve without him, just as he lifted Welles’ Mr. Arkadin and as Dennis Weaver raises the role of the terrified motel night manager here into another form of reality. Leigh somehow managed to appear in a trio of indelible roles in important pictures during this period, and to enrich all three beyond the telling. (The others are The Manchurian Candidate and Psycho.) Her armor includes sex, wit, understanding, a sharpness that camouflages but does not obscure her vulnerability, and the ability to move the viewer unexpectedly. She’d have been the ideal leading lady for Howard Hawks, and I’ve often wondered why he never cast her in anything.

Heston is rather good, although he more or less eschews any sort of accent. I remember being infuriated by the scene in Tim Burton’s appallingly overrated Ed Wood in which Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles (although voiced by Maurice LeMarche) complains bitterly of having to use the actor in his picture, which struck me then and strikes me now as a bit of ignorant snark by the screenwriters,‡ trendily directed toward an admittedly vulnerable target. Whether the story Welles later told of Heston’s inadvertently getting him the job of directing Touch of Evil is true or not — he was allegedly engaged to write and appear in it, until the actor, misunderstanding, said he would be honored to be in anything Orson Welles directed — Welles had nothing but praise for Heston subsequently. Well, what can one expect of people who deify a sub-nonentity like Ed Wood for being utterly without talent and trying anyway?

Welles, who gave a funny mock-Method performance for Martin Ritt in The Long, Hot Summer, blustering in mumbles, if I may be permitted an oxymoron, does something similar here, but to better effect because the character of Quinlan is such a human wreck, and so used to getting his way, he no longer needs to speak distinctly. Viewers of the movie today probably assume that Quinlan’s massive body was simply Welles’ usual heft, but he was well padded in face and physique. (He later told Bogdanovich a very funny anecdote about showing up at a Hollywood party before taking off his makeup and being greeted by old friends with, “Hi, Orson, you’re lookin’ great!”) Despite its obviousness, the metaphor of the bull is not inapt; although hobbled by a limp and too much candy-induced fat, there is still power in Hank Quinlan that goes well beyond the official badge of his office. You can imagine the force he’d been, just as you occasionally catch a glimpse of the rogue who once captured Tana’s heart — or who shared her bed, in any case.

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Although they had relaxed considerably between Welles’ exit to Europe in the late ’40s and his return a decade later, things were hardly free and open in America yet. The Catholic-controlled Production Code was still fully in place, if slightly more flexible than it had been, and it’s rather astonishing how much Welles got away with here, from Janet Leigh’s firmly pointed slip to the butch Lesbian played by a disguised Mercedes McCambridge (“I want to watch…”) to the implications of gang-rape by Grandi’s young hoods at the motel, even if what transpires is an only slightly less traumatizing introduction of narcotics. When Hank visits Tana’s establishment across the Mexican border, the only assumption we can make is that it’s a house of prostitution, lending a frisson of the forbidden to this exchange between the two:

Quinlan: Well, when this case is over, I’ll come around some night and sample some
of 
your chili.
Tana: Better be careful. May be too hot for you.

That Dietrich delivers that line with such bland nonchalance I suppose mitigates the salaciousness of it, but any reasonably intelligent adolescent can read between those lines.

It goes without saying that Tana does not exist in Badge of Evil, and, Welles maintained, not in the original script he adapted. “I only thought up the character,” he told Bogdanovich, “if I could get Marlene. Otherwise, no such character, no such scenes.” Bogdanovich feels Dietrich brings a quality to the picture that is “absolutely cosmic,” that “she becomes a kind of mythic figure in the film,” and it’s hard to disagree. The presence of Tana reminds us that Quinlan, so easily pegged as a villain and (as she later notes) “a lousy cop,” is human, and once mattered to someone. But beyond that, Dietrich almost seems to be summing up everything she’s ever done or been on the screen, from Morocco to Witness for the Prosecution: The cool sultriness, the misterioso, the Continental wisdom, and the sexiness that emanates from her seemingly without effort. When she looks at Quinlan’s floating body at the end, Dietrich’s eyes are both expressive and unreadable, rendering those final lines of hers as more than an epitaph for a movie corpse: They become seeds of wisdom from the earth mother.

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Touch of Evil also benefits from Welles’ appreciation of old actors and old friends, and from his ability to spot something untouched in younger performers. His use of Joseph Calleia, for example, and of Ray Collins (as the D.A.) and Joseph Cotten (as the coroner, although at least one of his lines — “Now you could strain him through a sieve” — was dubbed by Welles) but most especially in his casting of Weaver as the motel night manager who is not merely nervous but psychotic. It’s the sort of role, at that time, perhaps only Welles could have envisioned, and he lets Weaver run with it.

There’s probably a great deal more I might say, about Russell Metty’s striking black-and-white cinematography and Mancini’s effective score, which reaches a kind of glory with his pianola theme for Dietrich. But ultimately it’s Orson’s show, and that either sells it for you, or sends you packing. I will, however, say this: Welles’ last studio picture as a writer-director looks better with every passing year.

If the elegant hacks whose offerings currently hold sway at the multiplexes had the capacity for embarrassment, Touch of Evil would thoroughly shame them.



“Whit Masterson” was the pen-name of Robert Allison “Bob” Wade and H. Bill Miller and H. Bill Miller. Their second best-remembered title? Kitten with a Whip.

† There are actually two long sequences done in single takes, divided by a cutaway to another set of necessary scenes.

‡ Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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Pastiche génial: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

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By Scott Ross

A number of years ago Andre Previn told of overhearing a disgruntled patron at Tom Stoppard’s Travesties say to his wife as they were walking out, “I don’t see what’s so great about that play — it’s just a pistache!”

Ever since, I’ve thought that anonymous theatregoer’s malapropism has an even more charming quality than the word he meant, and “pistache” has become my preferred private term for something that goes beyond pastiche to create a unique work evoking the art of others, invoking a mix of historical figures to rub shoulders with fictitious ones, and fashioning from the mix a creation which goes far beyond mere cleverness or canny imitation; E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime perhaps represents the apogee of this ideal. And while Nicholas Meyer did not invent the Sherlock Holmes pastiche (there had been others: The Holmes/Jack-the-Ripper picture A Study in Terror in 1965, and some Nero Wolfe stories as far back as the 1940s) his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was surely the most successful to then, a movie adaptation virtually guaranteed by that success.

Holmes is, in a way, a natural for such enterprises; the Victorian era is so stuffed with remarkable personages, from the Queen herself, who makes a memorable appearance in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, to “Saucy Jacky.” (See also a later entry in the cinematic canon, the 1979 Murder by Decree, with Christopher Plummer a surprisingly outraged and passionate Holmes.) Indeed, after so cunningly yoking Holmes to Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyer conjured up an entire raft of contemporaneous figures of the Victorian theatre (G.B. Shaw, Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, W.S. Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Oscar Wilde) for The West End Horror, his somber 1976 follow-up. And if they are rather more peripheral to that narrative than Freud is to its predecessor, they add immeasurably to the author’s conjuring of the milieu into which Holmes and Watson immerse themselves.

Other writers’ Holmesian pastiches have embraced such historical personae as Alfred Dreyfus (The Prisoner of the Devil by Michael Hardwick), Jack again (Michael Dibdin’s brief and disturbing The Last Sherlock Holmes Story), the young Bertrand Russell (The Case of the Philosopher’s Ring by Randall Collins) and Charles Dickens (Stephen Fry’s “The Adventure of the Laughing Jarvey” — and yes, both Fry and I are keenly aware that Dickens represents an anachronism; you’ll just have to trust us both on this one) as well as fictional counterparts like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll (in Loren D. Estelman’s two short and not wholly satisfying Sherlock Holmes vs. novels), Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu Manchu (in the much finer Ten Years Beyond Baker Street by Cay Van Ash) and even several entries revolving around Professor Moriarty. And in the early Aughts, two Holmes pastiches by important writers arrived within a year of each other: Michael Chabon’s portentously titled The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. The Cullins (later filmed under the insipid title Mr. Holmes) is completely satisfying while the Chabon is oblique and, as seems increasingly and depressingly true of this writer, all too satisfied with itself.

Author Nicholas Meyer

Only Meyer — whose Holmes grappled with the Phantom of the Opera in 1993 and is about to embark on an adventure concerning the spurious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in October — really delivers the goods. He is pretty obviously steeped in what is somewhat stuffily and rather over-protectively referred to as “the Canon,” and his evocation of Conan Doyle’s style has the ring of perfect mimesis.* Not only does Meyer get Conan Doyle’s style down, in his descriptive prose, his dialogue and his wit, but in his thoughtfulness as well: In Meyer, Watson’s ruminations have depth and philosophical gravitas. They are the furthest thing from the hackery of mere connective literary tissue.

Meyer’s facility served him well when it came to re-imagining The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as a screenplay. Although there is nothing in the slightest wrong with the book, it does lack a certain glamour, and there is very little in it that feels light — two essentials for successful escapist fare at the movies, then as now. The two central plot strands of the novel (Holmes being tricked to Vienna for treatment by Freud of his cocaine addiction, and the abduction, escape and re-abduction of a blameless young woman) remain. The more ominous aspect — the fraudulent acquisition of an enormous supply of armaments with which the Kaiser may start a world war, 20 years in advance of that eventual conflagration — the filmmakers jettisoned, perhaps wisely; it’s more a literary conceit than a cinematic one, both darker and, because more abstract, less felicitous to the production of mass entertainment. For color, Meyer and his director, the highly variable Herbert Ross, made the abductee a noted theatrical figure, and added an unscrupulous Pasha and a mysterious, nasty little accomplice who nearly lures Holmes, Freud and Watson to their violent deaths. They also revised the book’s ending, embroidering an intriguingly romantic note to the close, and enriched, in an ingenious fashion, the chief reasons for Holmes’ sense of justice, his addiction and his obsession with Moriarty. Indeed, when you re-read the novel after seeing the picture you may,  during Homes’ final hypnotic state, think, “God, Meyer — you couldn’t see it, but you were so close!

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One of the great pleasures of revisiting The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in its Shout! Factory Blu-Ray edition is relishing the beauty of Oswald Morris’ deep, somewhat muted cinematography, its atmosphere enriched immeasurably by Ken Adam’s opulent production design. The picture was (wisely, I think) shot in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio rather than in 2:35:1 widescreen; the higher frame allows for a fullness of image denied the wider screen, and Morris’ are exceptionally rich even when he shoots through gauze, as he does rather noticeably whenever Vanessa Redgrave is on-screen. Another is the sheer wit and intelligence of a movie intended solely as light popular escapist fare, something American culture has lost, seemingly without hope of retrieval: Imagine even a modestly budgeted studio movie today, outside of science fiction, containing a casual use of the word “ratiocination.”

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As in 1976, the first glimpse of Nicol Williamson as Holmes is startling, used as we were then to seeing actors like Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Peter Cushing, John Neville and Robert Stephens — or even Douglas Wilmer, in Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother — with the requisite cragginess to evoke Sidney Paget’s Strand Magazine illustrations (themselves cannily reproduced in the opening titles); we were greeted instead by a tall Scot with resolutely regular features. The moment he begins to speak, however, babbling at Robert Duvall’s Watson about the pervading evil of Moriarty with sweaty, cocaine-induced mania, all doubts are cheerfully cast aside. We can relax; we’re in good hands. A few similar doubts lingered about Duvall who, although he looks splendidly Wastonian, intones his initial lines in a somewhat studied, self-consciously Oxfordian accent. Yet this too becomes, like Williamson’s famously glottal vocal timbre, merely a matter of difference: This is not going to be a repetition of that famous double-act of clipped Rathbone and bumbling Nigel Bruce. Only once does this Watson make an observation, concerning a trail of long-stemmed lilies (“Perhaps she was wearing them in her hair”) of the type that has so often made the good doctor a figure of ridicule. I’ve always thought the concept of the blundering Watson a brazenly false one; if the doctor was as asinine a fuddlehead as Bruce portrayed him, would a man as bright and acerbic as Holmes have bothered with him for a minute?

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duvall, Arkin, Williamson watch

No uncertainty, however brief, attached itself to Alan Arkin’s extraordinary performance as Freud then, or does so now. Whether Freud was as warm as Arkin’s portrayal renders him is less important than the intelligence and honor with which this treasurable actor embodies him. And with his black beard and stylish wig, Arkin has never cut so attractive a figure as he does here. The picture’s most cunning bit of casting, however, is that of Laurence Olivier as a disheveled, timorous and inconsequential Moriarty. Olivier had lived so long with the mantle “Greatest Actor in the World” attached to him that it was easy to forget in those days what a splendid comedian he could be, perhaps especially since his most recent screen appearance at the time was as the quietly terrifying old Nazi of Marathon Man.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Oliver, Duvall

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As Fraulein Deveraux, the victim of the kidnap plot, Redgrave is a dream of beauty, even when ravaged by captivity and the effects of forced addiction. Long before her actual appearance we glimpse her, in a Mucha-like poster reminiscent of that Art Nouveau master’s depictions of Sara Bernhardt, and the comparison suits her perfectly, as do those lilies the character adores. I have long thought Redgrave the most ethereal of all actresses, and she floats through The Seven-Per-Cent Solution like a goddess of unearthly pulchritude. I don’t know how so serious an actor is able to speak a line like, “A woman as beautiful as I, has seen everything fearful by age seventeen” without blushing in embarrassment, much less making us believe she believes it, and the small cry Redgrave gives when she realizes she has been made an addict again contains within it whole worlds of despairing disbelief.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution - Duval, Williamson, Redgrave and Arkin

The supporting roles are almost too well cast, leaving us wanting far more of such radiant figures as Samantha Eggar (Mrs. Watson), Georgia Brown (Mrs. Freud), Anna Quayle (as the maid Frida) and, although he is both warmer and less corpulent than Conan Doyle’s description, Charles Gray as Mycroft. Joel Grey, who has only a handful of brief lines, makes a marvelously off-center figure of mystery as the homicidal little brigand, Jeremy Kemp is an appropriately haughty and sneering villain, and Régine gets to sing a tantalizing bit of the Stephen Sondheim “Madame’s Song,” known after its more fulsome appearance in Side by Side by Sondheim as “I Never Do Anything Twice.” (Kemp, interestingly, later played the despicable Dr. Roylott in the “Speckled Band” episode of the Jeremy Brett Holmes series, and the name “Roylott” is invoked here as well, although in a far less sinister context.) And if Watson was at pains to tell us that the redoubtable Toby was not, as he is depicted here, a bloodhound, the magnificent beast who portrays him in the picture performs the role so well he may surely be excused the fact of his breed.

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The great Richard Amsel’s initial pass on the Muchaesque poster art. He would later place Redgrave above Williamson and Arkin, remove Olivier’s face in favor of just his inscrutable hooded eyes, and take away the tempter’s cup.

Ross, who could be terribly good when he wasn’t indulging in (highly suspicious) gay-baiting, or cranking out bad Neil Simon adaptations, proves wholly up to the task here, and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution looks as good as any American movie of its time. The picture’s art director (Peter Lamont) and costume designer (Alan Barrett) surely share in that credit, and while I don’t know who designed the cocaine-withdrawal nightmares Williamson’s Holmes endures, I suspect Ken Adam had something to do with it. In any case, Meyer’s conception is both disturbing and witty, calling forth as it does surrealist images from not only The Hound of the Baskervilles but “The Red-Headed League” and “The Speckled Band,” Roylott’s Indian swamp adder turning into Moriarty, an effect accomplished by Chris Barnes with rapid “subliminal” cutting. (Although no especial fan of c.g.i. myself, I imagine this might be more satisfyingly done today with computer animation.) Equally effective is the marvelous score by John Addison, anchored to an appropriate —  and appropriately melancholy — violin theme, a secondary Viennese waltz which can when necessary mutate into a more menacing state, and a tertiary Ottoman theme played on what I assume is a qanun or something very like. Astonishingly, this delightful score was only released at the time on vinyl in a composer’s LP, which was later transferred to CD along with Addison’s delicious score for Sleuth, but has never been given an official release.

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Holmes in the extremis of withdrawal.

In an otherwise curiously apologetic interview on the Shout! release, Nicholas Meyer claims credit for casting Duvall, certain the actor would provide to the picture an anti-Nigel Bruce Watson. But I am not sure for what, given the splendor both of this movie and his own contributions to it, Meyer could possibly feel the need to apologize; this almost profligately entertaining pistache owes him everything.


*Fry’s effort is the only one I’ve encountered that can truly challenge Meyer, leaving one to wish he would consider a full-length Holmesian adventure. But I strongly suspect that, for Fry, “The Laughing Jarvey” was the literary equivalent of a schoolboy jape, never to be repeated.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross