Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Director: Herbert Ross                                  Writer: Nicholas Meyer
Film Score: John Addison                             Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Starring: Nicol Williamson, Alan Arkin, Robert Duvall and Laurence Olivier

In 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle, tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, killed off the character much to the dismay of his vast audience. But the negative response was overwhelming and, reluctantly, he resurrected his famous detective a decade later. In the chronology of the stories themselves, however, the great sleuth had only been presumed dead for three years. Fast forward seventy years later, and author Nicholas Meyer decided to write an account of those missing three years in the style of Conan Doyle. The novel was called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a reference to the cocaine dosage that Holmes was injecting himself with, and was so popular that it spawned a film of the same name two years later. And while the filmed version of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was a success in critical circles, neither of Meyer’s two follow-ups made the transition to the screen. It’s not difficult to see why.

This something of a precursor to the now clichéd idea of putting fictional and/or real characters from history together in the same story, the most extreme example being The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Back then, however, this was still a novel idea. The story begins with Nicol Williamson as Holmes, paranoid and obsessed over the idea that Professor Moriarty, played by Laurence Olivier, is really a master criminal destroying the world with undetectable crimes. Robert Duvall as Doctor Watson, sees his rantings as the result of his addiction to cocaine, and sets about tricking Holmes into chasing Moriarty to Vienna in order to put him in the care of Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud. After his cure, one of Arkin’s patients becomes the center of a mystery on the continent that Williamson is initially reluctant to pursue. Eventually, however, the three of them pick up the trail that eventually leads to a battle on the top of moving railroad cars.

Seen today, the film seems pretty dated. The print itself has that dull, washed-out seventies color that makes everything seem like a TV movie. And while normally I’m a huge fan of Nicol Williamson, his interpretation of Holmes is somehow lacking. Even conceding the manic nature of the cocaine addiction at the beginning of the film, the vulnerability that this imbues his character with seems to leach all of the vitality from him. Arkin, on the other hand, seems to be the unlikely hero of the piece, but then that was probably the intention of the author who wrote the screenplay himself. From the outset the most bothersome character has to be that of Robert Duvall. His British accent is terrible and is really the Achilles heel of the production. The producers wanted someone to work against the affable, Nigel Bruce type, and they certainly did that, creating a more forceful partner that would influence the new series of films with Jude Law in the role, or even something like Ripper Street. But here, the role cries out for a British actor and becomes the weakest point of the film.

Though not weak, per se, by far the most disappointing role--or perhaps it would be better to use the word tease--is that of Laurence Olivier. He is onscreen for no more than a few minutes and then ceases to be relevant at all. This time the flaw is with the story. While there is an implied menace still lurking about the mastermind, it never materializes and makes the use of that great actor seem rather pointless. The highlight of the film, on the other hand, is the final battle on the moving trains. While I’m sure this was done as early as the silent era, it has also been a staple of the screen ever since, in films as diverse as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the end, the film seems only interesting to fans of the character of Sherlock Holmes rather than the stories by Conan Doyle. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution wasn’t bad enough to turn off, but I would definitely adjust my expectations accordingly before watching.

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