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.
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!“
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.”
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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