The Hound of the Baskervilles
Terence Fisher’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) smells of fine liquor, wooden pipes, old cologne, and wet. It’s a Sherlock Holmes movie that feels like a Sherlock Holmes movie, that feels like the novels Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote with such consideration to atmospheric detail. Witty and intrepid, the film captures the jaunty spirit of its source and brings an involving adventure to the screen. A rollicking good time it is, and we have Fisher, his screenwriter (the dramatically able Peter Bryan), and their perfectly cast team of actors to thank.
This time around, Holmes and his loyal Watson are respectively played by Peter Cushing and André Morell, whose chemistry prospers simply because both actors understand the people they’re playing with immaculate specificity. In the film, the deadly duo is hired by Dr. Richard Mortimer (Francis De Wolff) to investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville, an aristocrat whose demise could very easily be linked to the infamous “curse” of Baskerville hall.
As the legend goes, a bloodthirsty supernatural hound stalks the moors of the property and is willing to kill anyone with a reason to be outside the manor’s walls during the darkest hours of the night. History has proven that nearly all heirs to the Baskerville fortune have met an end greeted by a murderous growl, a ruthless lunge, and a lightning quick sinking of fangs into the neck.
So Mortimer, in addition to being suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his friend’s fate, also wants Holmes and Watson to serve as protectors of sorts to Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee, in a rare heroic turn), who plans to move into Baskerville hall promptly. Certain that the capacity for foul play is lurking about the premises, Holmes and Watson probe the case and eventually comes to the conclusion that much more than history repeating itself is in place. But who’s involved, and why they’re involved, is the ever elusive question.
And the snooping is gripping — The Hound of the Baskervilles is a dusty treasure chest we’re eager to break the shiny gold locks off. The story itself is over a century old and yet feels fresh in Fisher and co’s hands. They link the novel’s old-fashioned appeal to the artistic flourishes consistently found in the films made by the movie’s production company, Hammer Films. Which means that its colors are expressive, its ambience is baroque, and its tone, while strictly imitating that of an analytical whodunit, transitions beautifully between the clinicality that comes with dignified chatter and the creaky horrors that stay in sync with Hammer’s stylistic tendencies.
Much of The Hound of the Baskervilles’s effectiveness, too, relies colossally on its inspired casting. Cushing, brilliant, relishes his every line — every word that comes out of his mouth slices, and every movement he makes intimidates (despite being delivered by a rather skinny frame). Whereas Morell (also superb) quietly observes, making smart quips or smirking accusations when need be, Cushing goes for the throat, unafraid of proving that his Holmes is inarguably the smartest person in the room.
Even Lee, Count Dracula himself, shines in a role with the potential to be rote. His being cast against type is a bold move that pays off. Because we’re so accustomed to fearing him, his dark eyes and foreboding presence enough to threaten with even the quickest of a glance, it only makes sense that he play a would-be hero that we still find ourselves not completely trusting. He fits Holmes’s firm belief that everyone, no matter their standing in the investigation, is a suspect perfectly, grooming the notion to its full effect.
Its spotlessly conceived components working together efficiently, the film makes the Sherlock Holmes movie into a tuneful symphony. The Hound of the Baskervilles, dank, mysterious, and, most importantly, exciting, is a force that reminds us why its ageless central figure has continued to capture the attention of the public in the decades following his original conception so strongly. A must. A-