Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Andre Morell
Director: Terence Fisher
Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) has long been regarded as one of the very best Sherlock Holmes movies, and with good reason. Despite taking some liberties with the plot and having a few problems delivering on the promised four-legged threat, it effortlessly evokes the cosy charm and spooky chills of Conan Doyle’s most famous story. There’s the satisfying Victorian clutter of Bernard Robinson’s sets, the lushness of Jack Asher’s cinematography and James Bernard’s pungent orchestral score, and an exotically ripe, misty, treacherous Dartmoor created with a cunning combination of studio work and location shooting at Frensham Ponds, Surrey.
And then there’s the cast. Yes, Miles Malleson is arguably over-indulged by director Terence Fisher in his cameo as a beetle-fancying bishop, and John Le Mesurier fades disappointingly into the wood panelling as Barrymore, the Baskerville butler, but it’s nice to have them there all the same. Peter Cushing plays Holmes as a waspish, tightly wound martinet, and he has his best moments when he’s exploring the great detective’s nastier side and goading the other characters with barbed questions. With a Holmes like that, what you need is a genial, steady Watson, and that’s exactly what you get from Andre Morell, a smooth, affable, supremely watchable actor who’s perfectly able to shoulder the film when Holmes takes a back seat during the middle act.
Okay, the climactic scene involving the hound is a bit rough around the edges, but otherwise this is a fine example of Hammer studios in its early golden period, taut, beautifully shot and oozing Victorian Gothic atmosphere. 8/10
Some of the more evenly lit scenes – the ones on the moors by day or in 221B Baker Street – still look a little soft and grainy, but all of the shadowy nocturnal sequences come up very nicely indeed. The prologue looks especially lovely – the shot of the girl cowering from Sir Hugo in the abbey ruins is positively Bavaesque with its subtle silvery tones and strong sense of perspective. Similarly, the sequences of Watson creeping around in his dressing gown in Baskerville Hall have a deliciously moody quality. 8/10
The film comes with a two or even three-pipe bundle of extras. ~ A well-crafted, informative 30-min “making of”, with Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss both talking knowledgeably about the film’s place in the Hammer canon and the history of screen Holmeses. We learn, among other things, that Cushing loved to use props and would make a list of the ones he wanted; that the hound – a Great Dane called The Colonel – was trained by Barbara Wooodhouse; and that a midget was used to double Christopher Lee to make it look bigger. ~ 20 min featurette on Andre Morell, with contributions from his son, tracing his career from early days at the Old Vic, to serving in Burma in WWII, to his triumph at the BBC as Quatermass. Apparently he smoked sixty Gauloises a day, with unfortunate consequences for his health, but what an actor. ~ 46-min piece from 1985 about the various stage and screen interpretations of Holmes, fronted by Christopher Lee with a huge, fluffy moustache. It’s a bit dated, but has some good stuff on early theatre, silent era and TV Holmses. ~ Christopher Lee reading from The Hound of the Baskervilles – those words, that voice! ~ A 13-min interview with Christopher Lee, which, although brief, is very interesting: Lee goes from speaking teasingly about Cushing’s addition to using multiple props (“I don’t know how he did it, short of being a juggler”) to talking in the most heartfelt and moving terms about their extremely close friendship. ~ A top-notch audio commentary with film historians Jonathan Rigby and Marcus Hearn – between them, there’s nothing these two don’t know about Hammer, and they pore over the movie in minute detail, supplying actor bios, pointing out various changes demanded by the censors, and trying to trump each other with their mastery of Hammer trivia. (There’s an awkward moment when Rigby corrects Hearn on the pronunciation of “Le Mesurier”. Ouch!) 10/10