Thursday, 28 May 2015

Hammerama: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

There have been over twenty screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles made since 1914. Of all these, Hammer's 1959 version remains one of the most popular and well-regarded. It marks several firsts for Holmes on film: it is the first of the many Baskervilles adaptations to be made in colour, and also marks the first time that the great Peter Cushing played the sleuth. He would go on to play Holmes for the BBC nine years later, in which time he would get another attempt to adapt the story. Cushing's love of the source material is well known, and he brought much of his knowledge of Sherlock Holmes to the production, from his performance to advice on the set dressing. Famously, he suggested Holmes should affix his correspondence to the mantlepiece with a jackknife, as in the original stories.

As a gothic mystery, The Hound of the Baskervilles was eminently suited to the Hammer treatment. It's a perfect marriage of studio, director and material, Terence Fisher's gothic horror stylings bringing out the spookier aspects of the story, while the rationalist nature of the story keeps him from indulging too much in his excesses. That said, plenty of Hammer's excesses are on display here, right from the extended prologue, taking a macabre glee in Hugo Baskerville's (David Oxley) deplorable actions. What little blood we see is glowing crimson, there's a ritual sacrifice, an underground mine sequence, and a gratuitous tarantula thrown in for good measure. For all this, and sundry little tweaks to the story, it remains mostly faithful to the plot. The strangest change is to Miss Stapleton, Mr. Stapleton's vicitmised wife in the novel, transformed into his vengeful lunatic daughter (Marla Landi) for the Hammer translation.

The real draw, though, is the cast. As well as Cushing giving perhaps a career great performance as Sherlock Holmes, his great friend as co-star Christopher Lee plays Sir Henry Baskerville with brooding class. The chemistry between Lee and Cushing is as strong as ever, even if this does have the consequence of making it appear that Holmes and Sir Henry are more familiar than they should be (excepting the classic scene of their misunderstood first encounter). Then there is Andre Morell, in my opinion, one of the great Watsons, erudite and resourceful, exactly what is needed for a story in which he shoulders so much of the action. It's a fantastic central trio, raising the production above its challengers. Plus, Cushing and Morell together make it almost like the Doctor and Quatermass working as consulting detectives. There are some excellent turns by other cast members, particularly mighty Francis de Wolff as Dr. Mortimer and John le Mesurier as the servant Barrymore. Still, they're just support for that classy core group.

The only thing that lets this film down is the rushed and anticlimactic ending, but that's true of every version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. A classic.

Happy birthday to Mssrs. Cushing and Lee!

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